Many of us suburban parents look back on our own college decisions as something that just sort of happened. We took one of those required fill-in-the-circle tests and applied to our "dream" college and a "safety" school close to home. There was no Internet to scour in pursuit of the perfect college, no website enabling our parents to obsess about our chances of acceptance, and our parents didn't use all their vacation time carting us off for campus visits.
"I didn't see my school until orientation, and I told my parents I didn't want to go there," remembers Carol Krashen, who now runs the Career and College Center at Naperville North High School. Krashen says she applied to two colleges in high school, didn't go to either one, and eventually found her "great fit" at Albion College, a small liberal arts school in south-central Michigan.
"It's a whole different market now. There are so many choices, and the procedures have gotten more difficult," explains Krashen, who notes that Naperville North sent out 3,339 transcripts last year for fewer than 800 members of the senior class applying to colleges.
"Make a list of five to seven colleges that interest you and schedule a visit," begins the junior year checklist at Naperville North's "College Planning Guide" website. A similar college-planning website at Lincolnshire's Stevenson High School explains how a little planning can boost a student's productivity, including a tip about how "you might be able to plan to visit two colleges in one day" during the summer. Schaumburg High School's college preparation website includes a personality test designed to help students figure out what universities might be best for them. Websites such as Naviance.com allow students to fine-tune their college search by inputting far more information than grade points and test scores.
Our last two family vacations have included visits to colleges, a first step before we know what colleges our kids want, and what colleges want our kids. We visited my sisters and New York University on the East Coast for spring break, and last week's trip to Los Angeles included visits to several campuses. In addition to a scheduled tour at UCLA and a nice morning spent at The Claremont Colleges, we got an inside look at the University of Southern California from the just-graduated son of my wife's former classmate at Buffalo Grove High School.
But I'm guessing that our next family trips won't just include college visits; college visits will be the sole purpose for those trips. One of our friends who has triplets essentially set up base camps within a day's drive of a number of campuses during the kids' junior year spring break. The parents and kids split up to cover more ground. The triplets. who are beginning their college careers this fall, all seem happy and excited about the schools (one East, one South and one Midwest) they chose.
"It's like a shoe they are going to wear for four years. It has to be comfortable," Krashen says of the colleges kids choose and vice versa.
Our boys, who have heard repeatedly from many sources that junior year of high school will determine their college options, must endure endless pressures to make grades, take the appropriates tests and do all they can to prepare themselves for finding the best college for them.
Whatever colleges students end up attending, a bigger question still faces the parents: How to pay for those educations?
On a lighter note, one fun aspect of looking at colleges in Los Angeles was the possibility of running into celebrities. Whether we were walking the sets during our Paramount Pictures studio tour or simply getting a bite to eat at the In-N-Out Burger near Venice Beach, we kept one eye peeled for famous folks.
While getting her iPhone repaired at the Apple store in Santa Monica, my wife thought she saw a mom she should know from our kids' schools. Then she concluded that the woman was the actress who plays the divorced mom on TV's "Two And A Half Men." We also spotted a guy shopping at a Ralphs grocery near Venice Beach who we are certain is a character actor, but we still can't remember where we've seen him.
The only celebrity-sightings we could confirm were Anthony Acker, the actor perhaps best known for playing Norman the doorman on Disney's "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody," and Crystal, the monkey from "The Hangover Part II."
I wonder where, or if, either went to college.