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Why College Tours May Teach Your Child The Wrong Thing

Flexibility is key, and becoming emotionally invested in potential paths that may not even be possibilities for you is not useful or healthy in the long run. These are essential life lessons for today's overly stressed teenagers, and for parents as well.
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Many parents stress about the time and money for college tours. In addition to having demanding jobs, helping kids navigate a ridiculous and punishing courseload, and trying to save money for retirement and college tuition, parents now feel that multiple trips, many involving plane fare and hotel rooms, are necessary to allow their kids to make the "best" or "right" decision about colleges (which are increasingly thought to be not worth the money in the first place, but that's an aside). Some highschool kids tour upwards of a dozen colleges before even deciding where to apply. In my mind, a lot of this is unnecessary and even potentially damaging.

The whole idea of college tours is predicated on the idea that there are only a few schools that are going to supply the exact experience that your child wants to get out of college. Most of the practical information that a teenager needs, like whether a college has a particular major, whether they are big on Greek life, or whether they have an LGBTQ alliance, can be easily found in a couple of minutes with an online search. The college tour idea gives a kid the idea that just stepping onto a campus will allow them to make a choice from the gut, that a certain college will just speak to them on an emotional level, and this is not a very good life lesson for your son or daughter.

Here are variables that are likeliest to affect college choice, according to
as well as my experience working with teenagers and young adults:
  1. The attractiveness of the student giving the college tour as well as the one your kid is randomly assigned to room with for the night
  2. Whether anyone cute of the opposite (or same) gender chats your kid up during the day/night that you're there
  3. Whether the music blasting out of the windows strikes a particular emotional resonant chord in the heart of your emotionally and hormonally charged teenager during the tour
  4. Whether your child has a cold or had a bad night's sleep, making them irritable and tired
  5. Whether you and your child are arguing about the school (if you dislike it, you can imagine this will only stoke the flames of desire for many kids)
  6. Whether your kid is having a text message fight with their significant other for the duration of the visit
  7. Whether it is rainy or sunny that day, particularly if your child is impacted by weather
  8. Whether some cool kid at your kid's highschool has a sibling to goes to that school who waves at your kid during the campus tour
You see my point. In actuality, these are the same sorts of random variables that impact who we fall in love with, and what job we take. The difference is that we do not enlist our parents to take off work and pay out the nose to accompany us to pseudo-trial-runs of relationships and jobs. Another essential point is that when kids have toured a college and deciding to apply there, they often feel like they have somehow done the "work" that increases their chances to actually be accepted. This makes an eventual rejection from that school even more devastating, and I have worked with young clients who experience significant levels of depression and self-loathing when they receive rejection letters from schools that they fell in love with during a campus visit.

This isn't to say that college tours are all bad. If you have the time and money to spend on them, then they can be a nice bonding experience for you and your child. But if you don't have the time and money and/or you would like to minimize your child's heartache when they get rejected from a "dream" school, there is another, much more expedient, way to approach the college tour experience. It is just pushing the process later in the year, such that your child only tours schools where they have already been accepted.

I believe that the discussion about colleges with teenagers needs to move away from the romantic love model, where you fall in love with a "soulmate" institution. People can be happy and fulfilled at, likely, HUNDREDS of colleges. This is an important lesson to stress with kids when talking about partners as well. The idea of one soulmate in the universe, whether it's a college or a partner, makes kids feel like they only have one chance in life, and increases the odds that they feel catastrophically depressed when this one person or institution doesn't want them.

I believe that parents need to encourage kids to apply to college based on criteria like majors, dorm options, cost, and distance from home. If they want, they can obtain loads of information on YouTube and social media about the general feel of the college, and even watch individual students' vlogs about school. This information is all free, and the fact that you and your child are watching it all from home sitting in your chair versus in a whirlwind college tour can allow you to be more objective when comparing schools. Then, if your child is accepted by multiple schools, you can do college tours at that point. But even then, it is key to continue to stress the fact that people can likely do equally well (or equally poorly) at a wide range of colleges. The strengths and weaknesses that your child brings to the table will be there at any college. As Jon Kabat-Zinn titled his mindfulness book, "Wherever you go, there you are."

A more objective, mindful, and low-stress way of approaching at least this one issue of college tours can help you and your child slow down, and recognize that college, and life, is more about what is internal to you than what situation you're in. Flexibility is key, and becoming emotionally invested in potential paths that may not even be possibilities for you is not useful or healthy in the long run. These are essential life lessons for today's overly stressed teenagers, and for parents as well. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, People Have Many 'Soulmates.'

This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Learn about Dr. Rodman's private practice, including therapy, coaching, and consultation, here. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.

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