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Two Decades of Kids and Counting

By Sally Torbey

About this blog: About this blog: I have enjoyed parenting five children in Palo Alto for the past two decades and have opinions about everything to do with parenting kids (and dogs). The goal of my blog is to share the good times and discuss the ...  (More)

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The campus tour

Uploaded: Nov 3, 2013
Our family is in the throes of our third child applying to college. My husband and I are trying to talk our youngest children into alternative educational opportunities, as we are not certain we have the stamina to support two more kids through this process. They have not yet agreed, but since they are still in elementary and middle school, we have a few years to convince them!

Applying to college is an all consuming task for students, requiring many hours of test prepping, standardized test taking, school vacations traveling for college visits and interviews, and the writing of dozens of essays for applications. It also dominates the dinner conversation for about a year, so the whole family can be involved.

From the time students start high school, they are inundated with colorful brochures and glossy postcards advertising colleges and urging them to apply. Having watched his older siblings go through this process, our senior is skeptical about all the mail. "Look, another college that wants me to apply so they can reject me and increase their selectivity ratings!" There are also college guides, college fairs, college representatives visiting the high school and college websites as sources of information. The most important ritual, though, in finalizing the list of where to apply is the college visit. The most important part of the college visit is the campus tour.

In fact, where students decide to apply to college really comes down to just one factor, the student tour guide. As far as my kids are concerned, the tour guide is representative of every student who has ever attended, currently attends, or will ever attend that college or university. The appeal of the tour guide is directly related to how well he or she has mastered simultaneously talking, gesturing towards buildings, and drinking a chai latte, all while walking backwards. We had one tour guide who wore four inch wedged platform flip- flops in April, in Minnesota. There was still snow on the ground. I spent the hour anxiously watching her slip on the ice and stumble off curbs, while I googled first aid for sprained ankles and concussions. The tour guide's lack of poise doomed that college for my daughter, who refused to apply. Another college's tour guide was wearing a red Coca- Cola T-shirt with " Enjoy Cocaine" written on it. I refused to let our son apply to that one. Of course, there are the tour guides whose presentations are so polished, I was tempted to ask to see their college ID, as it seemed more likely they were professional actors hired to impersonate student tour guides.

There is one very significant upside to college visits. Our teens have been so busy with homework, sports, or writing into the wee hours of the night for the school newsmagazine, that we have not actually seen them since they started high school. We know they still live with us because laundry appears, groceries disappear and we receive the occasional text. College visits give us the opportunity to spend many uninterrupted hours in planes, rental cars, hotels and restaurants with our senior. Driving through Iowa with spotty cell phone and Internet access is especially good for bonding. And in between college visits in southern California, my daughter and I spent a delightful afternoon at Disneyland. I had no idea that Disneyland is much more fun without small children along.

Through supporting our teens in the application process, we get reacquainted with them, just in time to send them off to college. The downside is that having had the opportunity to enjoy their company again, we miss them even more!

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Pete, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Nov 3, 2013 at 7:04 pm

This is so true. Great blog

Posted by Paly Student, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Nov 3, 2013 at 7:08 pm

I can relate to your stories about getting closer to my parents on the college tours. Thank you for your insight.

Posted by Mom of 3, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Nov 3, 2013 at 7:19 pm

Once again Sally, you provide wonderful perspective for me, as a mom a few chapters behind you. My eldest is a 6th grader and I always enjoy hearing what you have to say about the road ahead for me! Keep it coming sister!

Posted by Karen, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Nov 3, 2013 at 7:46 pm

Great piece! We had a weird tour guide at a campus that had been one of my daughter's top choices. We actually went back the next morning and took another tour with a different tour guide.
I prefer it when colleges allow prospective students to choose which tour guide to follow-it does make a big difference!

Posted by Parent, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Nov 3, 2013 at 8:30 pm

Thank you for the reminder about the fun parts of the process.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 3, 2013 at 8:58 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Pete-Thanks for reading and commenting!

Hi Paly Student- I am sure your parents would be happy to hear that!

Hi Mom of 3- Thanks for reading! I am hoping by the time your 6th grader (and my younger kids) are applying the process is simplified. As much fun as college touring is, I'd rather be spending time with my kids hiking or visiting museums!

Hi Karen- Thanks for the comment! The tour guide with the Coca-Cola shirt was the most normal of the choices that morning. The other guide looked like he had just rolled out of bed (9 am Saturday tour) The offensive slogan was on the back of the shirt, which of course we didn't see until half way through the tour when he turned around to navigate a stair case.

Hi Parent- Yes, fortunately, there are fun parts. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Posted by Another parent, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Nov 3, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Thanks for another great perspective Sally, and just in time for our year-long application adventure!

Posted by Laura, a resident of another community,
on Nov 3, 2013 at 9:21 pm

Been there, done that! Some of our fondest memories of high school happened on those college tours. A great opportunity to bond, experience firsthand the gut reactions of your child ("I could never go here -- it's too windy"), and witness other parents mortifying their children with obnoxious questions. We still laugh about some of our experiences and completely agree that a good tour guide can make or break the entire visit. Thanks for your humor and insight, Sally!

Posted by LJ, a resident of another community,
on Nov 4, 2013 at 6:00 am

Intense compared to the old days!

Posted by TulsaNative, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Nov 4, 2013 at 7:24 am

So true about the tour guide!

Posted by MemberMomOfThree, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Nov 4, 2013 at 12:10 pm

Although it's a stressful time, I agree that the college visits are a great way to reconnect and spend quality time with your Senior. Tour guides can in fact make or break the school. Our guide at a large midwest school continued to point out the "bad" things about the school (missing statute of mascot at entry, many dorms with no a/c, wi/fi, not much to do in the town, etc. I am quite sure my son will not be attending there even if accepted. On the other hand, they can be overly exhuberant, as in the boy with the double major in biochem and econ who was also editor of the school paper and member of the school's famed a capella son just decided that school was going to require way too much from him.
Thanks for another great column!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 4, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Another Parent,
I wish you all the best on your college application adventure. Keep us posted, particularly with any good tour guide stories!

Hi Laura,
Thanks for reading and commenting! No question, a windy day could be the deal breaker!
Good blog idea, "Parents behaving badly on spring break campus tours".

Hi LJ,
Yes, it's an experience like no other.

Hi TulsaNative,
Thanks for reading and commenting!

Dear MemberMomOfThree,
Thanks for reading and commenting. College visits are a great way to spend time with our seniors, although I wish we could convince them to go someplace else with us instead! Like maybe Paris? Yes, some of the super human over- achiever tour guides set the bar a bit high!

Posted by Maria, a resident of University South,
on Nov 5, 2013 at 4:05 pm

I love to read your blog, some like me will remember similar situations, others will be prepared for the future!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 5, 2013 at 8:11 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, Maria, for reading, and for your nice comment!

Posted by Teresa, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Nov 6, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Very true and entertaining! I agree with all of it Sally. This is a challenging time for the entire family. Maybe the high school could add a one semester course to help seniors get through the college app process? I know they do as much as possible in advisory, but I think they would benefit from more time set aside for this.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 6, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Teresa,
Thanks for reading and commenting. My preference would be for the application process to change so it is not so time consuming. Are all the supplementary essays really necessary? In the mean time, though, it would be great to have time integrated into their school day where they can work on the essays and get assistance with the process.

Posted by Mother of 4, a resident of Palo Verde School,
on Nov 7, 2013 at 10:28 am

Couple of things that we have learnt over the years.

If you can find some real information from former students that older siblings may know (over Facebook perhaps) about where the student hangouts in town are and can talk to real students rather than tour guides that is a great help.

Ask specific questions of real students along the lines of the quality and variation of food in the dining rooms and laundry (I know sounds strange) but some schools have lines of laundry hampers by the machines, others have white boards with signups beside the washers and some have online signup systems. A dorm room beside the girls bathroom can be noisy all night long, not so much the boys room, so getting a dorm room far away is actually a plus for some students. By looking at some of the nitty gritty facts about college life, you can learn a lot about the exact way the students live.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 7, 2013 at 11:54 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Mother of 4,

Thanks for reading and the great suggestions. I like the idea of visiting a local student hang out to observe and interact with "real" students in their "natural habitat", although I think my kids might be hesitant to approach students they don't know and ask questions. We also found that meeting up with students who were alums of my students' high school very helpful, as they had that shared high school experience with my kids as a basis of comparison to that particular college environment.

I totally get the laundry issue. I attended a men's college that had recently gone co-ed but it didn't occur to the college that women might do laundry more often than men, so the facilities were totally inadequate. The only time I could find a free machine was after 2am!

Food is a big part of college life, and has gotten fresher and healthier, but it seems there is still the lack of variety over the course of the year that gets complaints from the students.

Posted by savvy shrink, a resident of Midtown,
on Nov 7, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Awesome blog Sally. Very funny too. As a psychologist who works with college age students, I completely agree that the college selection process is a crap shoot!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 7, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi savvy shrink,
Thanks for reading and commenting. I agree, how much time/energy a student puts into the college search does not seem to determine whether or not they are happy in college!

Posted by Ann, a resident of another community,
on Nov 7, 2013 at 8:17 pm

Sally: My twin boys are in their junior year, so here we go. They are still thrilled to get anything in the mail from a college and deem it "love" from the particular college. I really enjoyed your post and look forward to sizing up the college tour scene. Thanks! Ann

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 7, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Ann,
Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I wish you (and your sons) well on your college search, with twins it should be twice the fun. If you find yourself in the neighborhood of Disneyland or other such diversions, make the detour!

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 9, 2013 at 8:19 am

We had one tour guide at a University in Cambridge who never took us into any buildings on a 95 degree summer day.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 9, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Anonymous,
That sound miserable! I would have been googling first aid for heat stroke on that tour. Hopefully no one succumbed!

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