by Jane Parent
College visits — they’re the best, aren’t they? Road trip with your kid, pondering so many potentials (both exciting and terrifying), seeing beautiful campuses, new cities, and people. But c’mon — we all know the very best thing about the college tour. It’s the other parents. After three kids and at least two dozen college visits with tours and orientations, my husband and I started to look forward simply to observing the other parents. If we have learned nothing else, it is this: whatever clueless, annoying, un-self-aware thing you do to embarrass your kid, someone else is doing it far better than you.
I’d like to think that I’m unique and not just like every other middle-aged mom out there. The college tour, however, reveals that nope, we parents are pretty much interchangeable and can be reduced to a handful of stereotypes.
I have identified at least six. I myself have been a few of them, depending on the kid with whom we were touring. And yes, someone really did ask each of the following questions.
Both mom and dad are with their precious child, whom they love so fiercely that they’ve never let him out of their sight. They are visibly agitated that the day is approaching when their firstborn will leave home. All their questions will betray intense anxiety that the school won’t sufficiently appreciate their child’s genius or accommodate his needs.
You feel sorry for this kid, standing there mute and dispirited, while his father takes detailed notes on his iPad about the dorm laundry facilities. “Will I have the email address for my son’s academic advisor, in case I have questions about his course selections?” “Does the cafeteria have healthy gluten-free options for those with dietary constraints?” “Are there quiet hours? My son likes to go to bed early.” You don’t want this kid to be your son’s roommate because he is going to absolutely go wild as soon as he escapes his parents.
2. Alumni Dad
He loved every minute of college when he was here twenty years ago, and he’s so excited that it’s finally time for Junior to enroll, too. He’s full of nostalgic stories about “when I was here” and all the campus traditions that he fondly remembers. He desperately wants his son to enjoy every minute and to LOVE his alma mater, so he points out everything along the way. “See that fountain? It’s tradition to jump into it after a home game. It’s AWESOME.” “Do you guys still have Chicken Patty Wednesdays? We used to LIVE for Wednesdays!” He would give anything to be in college again.
3. Million Question Mom
At the question and answer session, she is the first to raise her hand. Her questions are all very specific and intensely personalized, and pertain to absolutely no one else. No thought that wanders through her mind is too trivial to ask.
“Should I buy my son’s winter coat in Florida and send it, or wait until he gets to Boston and buy it then?” “My daughter wants to major in biomedical engineering and speech pathology. Will she get credit for her language AP score?” “Where can my son go to buy salsa and chips late at night?” Her questions always have follow-ups, and she doesn’t seem to notice the high school students around her (you know, the ones who might actually be applying to college here) with their hands raised.
4. Hardcore Parents
They’re only here in case Harvard doesn’t work out. They are the reality TV character who says, “This is a competition. I’m not here to make friends.” Their son is applying to lots more prestigious schools than this one, and he is much more qualified than yours. “My son will have 24 AP credit hours. He won’t receive his AP BC Calc and Physics scores until next week, but how many classes will he be able to place out of?” “These introductory courses will be too easy for our daughter. Can she place out of all of them?” They will body check you to get ahead of you at the check-in table.
5. Cool Mom
She’s dressed just like her 17-year-old daughter, and they whisper and giggle through the entire tour. She doesn’t have any questions about academics or job placement rates at graduation. She just wants to know which dorm is closest to the bars and what kind of social life there is on campus.
6. Almost Empty Nesters
These parents are so close to freedom they can taste it. They don’t have any questions, don’t read any of the informational handouts, and don’t really listen to the presentations because they’ve been there, done that. They have the practical, valuable information you really need — like don’t spring for the unlimited meal plan because your kid will never use all those swipes, and make sure you get your housing request in ASAP so your kid doesn’t get stuck in the dorm with no air conditioning.
Me? I was a hoverer the first time, and definitely an almost empty-nester the last time. I honestly can’t think of a single question that I ever asked during any of these tours. What I’ve really learned from all these tours is this: (1) don’t let a really good or bad student tour guide unduly influence your impressions of a college; and (2) people, all the answers to your questions about meal plans, financial aid, and campus health service are on the college’s website. Just enjoy your day with your kid and let them tell you what they learned.
Jane Parent is a freelance writer in Northeast Ohio and frequent contributor to Your Teen.