UCLA library

Photos and text by Gabrielle.

While it’s still fresh in my mind, I wanted to report on our College Tour Spring Break Trip. I should tell you that as we drove to our first campus, I read every single comment on this post aloud to the whole family, and we put much of the awesome advice to use. So if you’re planning a campus visit, I highly recommend that comment gold mine. And I whole-heartedly thank you for the advice!

Here are my notes about our trip:

– We started by plotting out a schedule of which schools we would visit on which days. This was all based on geography and driving, and we booked hotels accordingly. But we built in lots of flexibility too, because having never done a trip like this, we knew we might want change our minds as we went. And we also know that traffic in California, especially in Southern California, can upset even the best laid schedule.

Our plan was to visit Stanford, UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, UC Irvine, USC, and UCLA. In that order. One to two campuses per day. But we didn’t end up sticking to that schedule. Here’s what we did instead:

Day 1: We skipped Stanford (they felt like they were already familiar with it) and went straight to UC Santa Cruz. This campus surprised me the most of any campus we visited. As you approach, the first thing you see is vast fields and grand old barns. Then you continue on into the redwoods where the campus buildings are practically hidden among the trees. At one point, the trees opened up and there was an amazing view of the ocean down the hill. The campus was gorgeous and relatively quiet. It felt like a place that would be easy to get alone time if you needed it. We spent about 3 hours on campus.

Day 2: We went to UC Santa Barbara. The kids were in love instantly. The campus is literally on the beach and the dorms have surfboard racks. Hah! Of all the campuses we visited, we spent the most time here — 4 or 5 hours, and that included a visit to Isla Vista which is the little college-town-neighborhood next to campus. After the beach, the thing I remember the most about our visit is the bikes. UC Santa Barbara is a flat campus, so it’s really easy to bike, and bikes are everywhere! It reminded me of Amsterdam. We also learned there are 9 Nobel Laureates on campus.

Day 3: We started with a visit to UC Irvine. I lived down the street from UC Irvine the summer after my freshman year. I would go running there and fell in love with the campus, so I was excited for my kids to see it. But neither Ralph nor Maude have any interest in attending, so we kept it short. We checked out the campus quickly, and then headed down to UC San Diego. Another gorgeous campus! Not quite on the beach, but close — we were told it’s a 5 minute walk. The most distinctive thing to me about UC San Diego’s campus was the architecture. I took so many pictures of buildings!

Day 4: We really packed it in with 3 schools. It wasn’t on our original list, but we were nearby, so we toured at Cal State Long Beach. I hadn’t really even heard of it, so I made an assumption that it must be a small school. But I was dead wrong. It has a gorgeous, vast, pristine campus near the beach. 30,000 students and half the tuition cost of UC schools. It’s about the same price as BYU (which is where I went, so it’s my main reference point when I’m considering size and cost). And we were told that Stephen Spielberg and Steve Martin both attended.

Then we went to USC. This was a school I’ve heard of, but knew nothing about. It’s easy to love USC. There’s a feeling of abundance on campus, and Ralph commented that the students seemed to have the most school pride of any place we visited. It reminded me of a traditional East Coast campus, but with the weather and trees and plants of California. USC was the only private school we visited. It’s much more expensive than public universities, but they can also offer many more scholarships than public universities. They have a big rivalry with UCLA and made sure we knew it.

We ended our tours at UCLA. My grandfather earned all 3 of his degrees at UCLA and I feel a connection to the school. It’s yet another gorgeous campus! They also made sure we knew about the rivalry with USC. At both UCLA and USC we made a point of checking out their celebrated film schools. And we also spent time hanging out in their sculpture garden. We were told that UCLA is the smallest campus of all the UC schools, but it has the biggest student population — 40,000. UCLA also felt the most urban. The campus is set apart and serene, and the city starts right at the edges.

USC flags

– By day 3 we could see that after you’ve gone to 2 or 3 campus tours, they all feel essentially identical. They start with a seated presentation indoors. There are slides, Q&A — it’s basically a sales pitch about the university and includes prices, stats about the studentbody, and interesting trivia or notable alumni. Then it’s time for the student-led tour — enthusiastic students, a memorized script with personal anecdotes added in. The same questions get brought up each time. You can visit a sample dorm. You hear about funny campus traditions. The blue lighted security phones are pointed out. We would pick up a student newspaper as we walked.

We would split up. While Ralph & Maude toured with one parent, the younger ones would explore campus with the other parent, get a frozen yogurt, hang out at the pond, etc.. But there were families with younger siblings on every tour. It wasn’t unusual, so if you need to bring the younger kids, it’s doable.

– You can reserve a tour spot with the school. Or you can show up and be on the wait list. We did both. And I can tell you, that we never saw anyone denied a tour spot, no matter how long the wait list was. So if you find yourself near a campus and want to take a tour at the last minute, that’s probably workable. Additionally, every campus we visited offered a map with a self-guided tour as well. I went on one of them with the little kids and it was great. So if you want to tour, but there are no official tours available, the self-guided tour is still an excellent option.

On our last stop, at UCLA, we parked, started walking, and spotted three different tours happening before we even found the Visitor Check-in. We felt like tour pros by that time, so Ralph and Maude and I just joined in with the nearest group. You can try that too.

– After the visit, when we were back in the car, we would make notes about what was distinctive about that school. Any fun facts or trivia or things we wanted to remember. For example, at UC Santa Cruz, the student tour guide pointed out the greenhouses on top of one of the buildings, and said they were her favorite quiet spot to study. We wanted to remember that little detail.

– Now that we’ve taken some tours, and after reading all of your advice, it’s clear to me that there are distinctly different goals for campus visits depending on the student and the family. Most tour attendees we encountered seemed to be like us, casually checking out the school. The kids were sophomores or juniors and the families were just trying to get a basic handle, an overview of what to expect. None of the kids on our tours had already been accepted to schools.

If you have a student who knows exactly where she wants to go or what he wants to study, then it would be a different sort of visit. You would ask very specific questions and spend more time on the campus.

And then there’s another type of visit altogether. The kind of campus visit that happens after you’ve been accepted, and you’re trying to decide between two choices. I think that’s when talking with professors would make the most sense to me.

– It was also clear to me that campus visits are not a necessity. It’s possible to choose your college successfully without stepping foot on campus. As I looked around at the tour groups, it definitely felt like a lot of privilege — taking off work for a week to travel around looking at schools is just not a reality for most Americans. Spending a lot of time “choosing” your college is a fairly new concept. For many communities, attending whatever college is closest is still the norm. Happily, that works out well for many people.

So if you’re wanting to explore schools, but can’t take your kids on a multi-campus trip, don’t stress! What I would recommend as a substitute: if you live near any university, even one you’re not interested in, take their tour. See what people are asking. Ask your own questions. Then, assume every tour at every university is basically just like that. Which means, from there, you can get online and do as much research as you’d like. Look at the photos, and picture that same college tour you just went on. We found that pretty much everything you hear in the tour can be found online.

– Another thing we learned, or maybe we were just reminded of, even with all the research and prep in the world, the “dream school” can end up being a wrong fit. The tour was great. The price is right. Your child was accepted. But they still end up having a rough time of it because of a crummy roommate or crummy professor, or something else entirely — like an illness, or being a little fish in a big pond. But that’s okay. Attending one college for 4 years is not a moral commitment. People switch colleges all. the. time. If it turns out not to be the right fit, you can move on. Yes, there’s some paperwork, but it’s not uncommon to transfer.

Speaking of which, every school we visited had specific programs, dorms and communities for transfer students. We asked because Ralph will be a transfer student. In fact, Ralph will finish community college the same month Maude finishes high school, and they’ll both head off to university at the same time. So if you think a transfer will be in your child’s future, you are not alone, and it will all work out.

– Something else we kept repeating: There are so many colleges! Maybe it’s just that we’re in California, but we hit 7 schools, and in the same geographic areas, we could have hit like 20 more. It’s overwhelming!

There are so many different reasons why people choose schools. Maybe the school is near a job or a girlfriend. Maybe it’s the school where Dad went. Maybe there’s a particular program of study that’s a draw. Maybe it’s just the default school where all the locals go. Maybe it has reputation for being a party school and that sounds appealing. Maybe it’s the only school you got into. Maybe it’s the only school you can afford. Maybe you’ve never heard of the school, but your counselor had you apply on a whim, and you end up there.

It’s easy to see why some families send all their kids to one school. Decision made. No research needed. One application.

We mostly focused on the UC schools because that’s what we’ve heard most about. But the well-known schools are not the only options. There are plenty of colleges to go around. There’s no scarcity. There’s a spot for everyone who wants a degree, and there are lots of paths that lead to universities.

– In separate conversations with Ralph and Maude, weeks before the trip, I asked them, “If you had to pick a school right this minute, where would you want to go?” They both said, “UC Santa Barbara”. Keep in mind, neither had seen the campus, or looked up anything about the school. I’m not sure where their choice was coming from — maybe just that they love the city of Santa Barbara, or perhaps casual mentions of the school from friends.

Interestingly, after all the tours, I asked them the same question again, and both said, “UC Santa Barbara”.

What I took from that? Instincts are strong, and college visits are fun and informative, but not necessarily essential.

– Our next step will be college applications. For UC schools, they open in August, and it’s one application for all UC schools (convenient!). We’re still looking into application dates for their out-of-state choices. Once acceptances are in, if either Ralph or Maude are having a hard time deciding between schools, then perhaps we’ll make another campus visit. And this time, we’ll know we have a pending decision to make, so maybe we’ll spend more time and attend a class or talk with a professor. But till then, I think the rest of our research — as far as deciding which colleges to apply to, both in-state and out — will come from getting online, and talking to friends and family who attended the schools in question.

Maybe it’s just the nerd in us, but at the end of trip, Ben Blair and I both concluded that visiting campuses is really enjoyable, and that we should make a point of visiting schools when we travel. We could explore the campus and do a self-guided tour. We love the architecture, the gardens, the museums. We like visiting the libraries. A university campus can be a lovely place to rest and eat, an oasis in a big city or during a touristy trip. All that to say: it was a great trip! And even if our kids don’t end up at any of these schools, we sure had a good time. : )

Okay. That turned into a really long post. I suppose that just happens anytime schools or education come up. Hah! I’d love your thoughts. Where are your kids in the college-choosing process? Do any of you know a Rory Gilmore — a child who has been dreaming of a particular college since they were 5? Or were you that kid? Do you get stressed out when you look ahead and think about college applications for your child? Do you think it will be hard for your kids to narrow down where they want to apply? Or maybe you have a family tradition of going to a specific university so the decision is already made? Anything else college related you want to talk about?