College Touring: Finding The Right Fit

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“Too much flannel.” This was the text message our high school senior sent to our second child, a junior in high school, as she drove into Burlington, in the Green Mountain State. Emily and my husband were on the first of what promise to be many college tours. They have been across the back roads of New England, looking at some of the finest institutions a young person might attend: Williams, Amherst, Middlebury, Dartmouth, and University of Vermont. My sarcastic reaction to the flannel observation? “Well, it’s good to know that she’s evaluating the University on its merits!” 

It is hard to know what the real purpose of the college touring process is. Of course, we want our kids to see campuses, to get a sense of the college life. And to distinguish among the many different experiences they might have: urban, suburban or rural; large, medium or small; liberal arts or specifically oriented to a certain discipline, like math or engineering.  We want them to “demonstrate interest”, as the colleges put it.  We want them to get their foot in the door.  But there is a finer, truer purpose, as well. 

One of the things we have observed as our daughter engages in this fantastic step of growing up is that choosing a college, and the culture that comes with it, is really about choosing who she wants to be. So, when she glows about the range of courses offered or the kinds of entrepreneur programs one or the other school has, she is really learning, and telling us, that these elements are a reflection of her future self. She is choosing a match for the person she wants to become.

What a gift we offer our children. Unlike so many places around the world where the options are limited, we have, for better or worse, created and supported a system of education where the sky is the limit. There are so many different kinds of colleges and universities, and our children really have the chance to “match” with a place—to connect in a hopeful, growth-filled way. So, while my first reaction to Emily’s text message was along the lines of an eye-rolling “Oh God,” my considered reflection is that her text message may be a fair observation about the fabric of the place, and one that did not feel right for her. And that is good enough for me. 

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  1. Is it possible that “too much flannel” was as much a commentary on the social feel she detected about the campus as it was about the sartorial flavor?

  2. ABSOLUTELY! Emily likes a good ice cream cone as much as the next guy, but I think she pictures herself in a burg with a little more going on than a scoop shop. I guess my point is exactly that – finding what they want in a college has a lot to do with the academic program, but just as much to do with what surrounds it, socially, culturally, geographically. Her assessment could not have been more honest, or frankly, more useful, if she had known I’d be writing about it later… Burlington, and the University of Vermont, just didn’t have the right “feel” for her.

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