Last week, my high school junior and I ventured onto two campuses for his very first college tours.
It was eye-opening on many levels. For my son, it took college from some theoretical idea to reality. That is a good thing.
So my main tip for touring colleges is this: Just do it. I'm surprised, when talking with friends, at how many have kids who are applying to colleges without touring any schools.
I think that's a mistake. As my son and I learned, there is so much information you can get from taking a tour. More important, you can gauge how comfortable you feel on a campus.
We live in Florida and so our first tours were at Florida State University in Tallahassee and the University of Florida in Gainesville. Both tours were led by (very eager and excited!!) students, who shared information about class size, dorm rooms, meal plans, extra-curricular activities (get involved, all agree) and semesters abroad.
At FSU, we got to go inside a large classroom to see what a survey class would be like and walked through a dining hall that smelled like, well, a college dining hall. We toured a high-tech building with smart boards everywhere and hung out in Landis Green, an expanse of space in the center of campus where kids were enjoying a beautiful day.
At Westcott Hall, we learned about school traditions. We checked out a dorm room ("Boy, this is really small," was my son's observation), and our guide gave everyone a pretty cool tip for meeting people in the dorm. When she first moved in, she went to the community kitchen and started baking cookies. That brought other students out of their rooms and into the kitchen, where she shared her treats. (Sure, my son said he wouldn't be doing that ... but I thought it was a fun idea, anyway!)
The UF tour was more straight-forward. The first 30 minutes offered lots of details on how to apply, deadlines, the chances of getting in (More than 30,000 students apply and UF typically only accepts 11,000).
The best tip from UF: Send in your deposit for a dorm room the same day you apply, because there are not enough dorms for all the students. That will raise your chance of being able to live in a dorm your first year. (Which, most agree, is a good idea.)
The UF tour did not take us into classrooms or any buildings, but we stopped in front of several buildings while the guides talked about transportation, meal plans and security. We ended the tour at The Swamp (the football stadium) with information on how to obtain football tickets.
It pains my Gator heart to say this, but my son's first impressions were more favorable toward FSU. Part of the reason is that although FSU has more than 40,000 students, its campus is under 500 acres. UF, with about 50,000 students, has a sprawling campus of more than 2,000 acres -- which can be a bit intimidating.
My son also liked the opportunity on the FSU tour to go into classrooms and other buildings.
But this is the very beginning of his journey to pick a college, and much will depend on what he decides he wants to major in (right now, he has no clue) and, of course, what colleges accept him.
Next month, we will be touring New York University. I'm sure that will be an experience!
And coming Tuesday: The best part of the college tours was the conversation during the road trip.
Follow me on Twitter: @321college
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun