Fall College Visits for Seniors (Hint: Bring Mom or Dad!)

For most parents and their high school seniors, having a happy memory from the college search is about as rare as getting into Harvard these days. But it doesn't have to be.
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For most parents and their high school seniors, having a happy memory from the college search is about as rare as getting into Harvard these days. But it doesn't have to be.

Case in point. One of my happiest high school memories is touring potential colleges with my father the fall of my senior year. I remember feeling inspired by the colleges dotting the road, the beautiful leaves on the autumnal trees, and the thought that my life was about to get really interesting. The irony has not been lost on me as that trip became a defining moment in my life and served as inspiration for my career choice after college.

Sara Harberson and her father

While plenty of students begin college visits in their junior year or the summer before senior year, kids and their parents who visit colleges together in the fall of senior year have a unique perspective. And, they have the opportunity to share an adventure guaranteed to leave them with lifelong memories.

No matter what experiences kids have that summer before senior year, they begin the school year with a newfound maturity and an appreciation for who they are and what they truly want out of this college search. But, despite their independence, they're still kids. And, beyond the bonding and memory making, here are some reasons Mom and/or Dad should be along for the ride.

Comparing Notes
Every college should look spectacular and inspiring in the fall. Those that don't are simply not the right fit. By the fall of senior year, students are looking at things differently. Their hearts and minds are actually taking notes on every tour they take, every information session they sit through, and every interview they navigate. Parents are doing the same thing. Those internal notes that never end up in a notebook become instincts that speak to kids when they need to make a difficult decision. And, they won't know it until it happens.

Offering Love and Support
As much as they may try to push their parents aside, high school seniors are still kids and college is a big deal. Even if they don't say it, kids know their parents want them to succeed. Parents want for their kids what they couldn't have for themselves. Let's face it, parents also make splendid chauffeurs and the best confidantes. No one is more protective of a student's dreams and plans than Mom and Dad. No matter what does or doesn't happen on this college odyssey, students know their parents love and support them.

Acknowledging a Doozy
It is worth mentioning that not every college visit this fall will be awe-inspiring. There will be some doozy visits along the way, times when the high schooler doesn't even want to get out of the car. Those doozies are just as important as the spectacularly magical visits. And, it's the doozy visit that will solidify exactly what students don't want in a college.

I remember my own doozy visit 23 years ago during that memorable road trip with my dad. It was a crystalizing moment when I realized that my potential and my own limits were colliding right in front of me. The college I visited that day was incredibly impressive, but I knew I wasn't ready for it. That didn't mean I couldn't handle it; it meant I needed a different type of college to help me grow into the person I wanted to be. I needed more time to learn my own strengths as a person and student, and I recognized that even if it was hard to admit it to others.

That trip wouldn't have been the same without the doozy visit. As we drove out of town, my dad spontaneously stopped at a local Friendly's. My head was down since the tour after shedding a few tears. But when we took a seat across from each other in the booth and ordered two sundaes, everything seemed to make better sense. My dad knew just what I needed in that moment: a sundae and some laughs. To this day, I still remember sitting in the booth at Friendly's, eating sundaes, and laughing so hard at one point that my sad tears gave way to genuinely happy tears. I remember that moment much more than the tour that day.

Giving Space
In the end, I feel like I was able to pick the right college because of that college tour with my dad. Not because he told me what to do, but because he didn't. He was next to me every step of the way, but I had all the space I needed. My dad never talked about his own college search nor did he ever share his experiences in college. Somehow I knew he wanted my journey to be different than his. Now that I'm a parent, I realize how much he must have had to bite his tongue so that I could start making my own decisions.

If the four years of college is a transformative journey, then the college trip is a microcosm of this. Visiting a college in the fall of senior year is more than a visit; it is part of a journey that kids will share with their parents. These trips are an intersection of excitement, potential, angst, and change. For teens, not everything will make perfect sense while in the moment, but the memories will guide them longer than they ever could have imagined. And, they will ultimately treasure those moments with their parents where they should be--right by their side.

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