Touring colleges in the heart of college country – Boston

On tour at Tufts University near Boston

By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services

Secretly, I’m congratulating myself. The night view of Boston was spectacular from 52 floors up at the Prudential Center. The food at the city’s renowned Top of the Hub (www.topofthehub.net) was superb, especially the lobster soup and warm chocolate cake.

But it wasn’t the choice of restaurant that was making me so happy this particular Saturday night. It was that we’d survived a day of college touring in Boston without a melt down, without stalking off a campus, without tears and with everyone still speaking-and even more surprising, smiling.

Anyone who has ever toured colleges with a high school student – and I’m on my third round – knows that’s no small feat. I’ve driven four hours to have my son refuse to get out of the car because he didn’t like the look of the campus; I’ve flown halfway across the country to have my daughter bail out before the tour because she didn’t like the looks of the other prospective students (“too intense”) and because the campus was “too flat.” (What did she expect in Chicago anyway?) I’ve gotten the evil eye from a child when I’ve asked a question on a tour. (Parents are supposed to be seen and not heard in these situations, I quickly learned.)

So you can imagine my pleasure this Saturday night in America’s College Town – Greater Boston is believed to have the highest concentration of colleges and universities in a metropolitan area anywhere in the world – that 16-year-old Melanie is thoroughly enjoying herself. Certainly it helped that we opted for a hip new hotel The Liberty Hotel (www.libertyhotel.com), built on the site of a former jail (check their Web site for winter deals and the special college visit rate) and made time to visit the Museum of Science (www.mos.org) a short walk from our hotel.

I look around the restaurant and wonder if any of the other families here are also touring colleges. Boston boasts some 57 colleges and universities and college applications and college tours are up, as they are most everywhere. According to the College Board (www.collegeboard.com), college applications have risen 50 percent nationwide in the last decade. Just that morning at Tufts University in Medford, which is just outside Boston, there were high school students and parents from California and Colorado, as well as neighboring Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. Boston University campus tours hosted nearly 50,000 prospective students and their families last year, an increase of 52 percent since 2001, said BU spokesman Colin Riley.

These visitors mean big bucks for Boston, tourism officials report, contributing more than $350 million to the local economy each year.

Boston has become such a popular college tour stop that the city has developed a college visit area on its Web site (www.bostonusa.com).  Hotels have special college visit packages. (Check out the Royal Sonesta’s College Club in Cambridge, for example (www.sonesta.com/CollegeClub), as well as other cities that offers 20 percent room discounts. Wherever you book, ask about college visit rates.

And don’t think you can avoid the crowds by touring campuses in winter. February and March have become particularly busy times. “They want to see what winter is like in Boston,” jokes Janet Ferrari, a senior admissions official at Simmons College, my alma mater. She adds that this crop of students and their parents aren’t necessarily waiting until they are high school juniors or seniors either. Admissions offices now are welcoming families with younger students adding a college tour or two to their vacation agenda.

The good news for those officially on the college tour circuit in Boston:

There is so much to do and so much fun to be had that your child will quickly forget all about his I-won’t-get-in-anywhere or I-have-no-idea-where-I want-to-go-to-school jitters. “Planning some off-the-campus fun can definitely lessen the stress,” says Susan Ardizzoni, director of undergraduate admissions at Tufts University. “Don’t make it all business.” Check out the penguins and the seals at the New England Aquarium (www.neaq.org) or take your young musicians to see the collection of instruments from around the world at the Museum of Fine Arts (www.mfa.org). Shop till you drop in Harvard Square or Faneuil Hall Market Place (www.faneuilhallmarketplace.com). Eat Pasta in Boston’s Italian North End or take a tour of Fenway Park where the Red Sox play (www.redsox.mlb.com). Bundle up and walk the Freedom Trail (www.thefreedomtrail.org). Boston boasts all kinds of terrific winter hotel deals at under $100 a night. (Check out the Warm Winter Specials and the Family-Friendly Value Pass for all kinds of discounts at www.bostonusa.com).

The other good news about college visits to Boston is that if you are just starting the search, you can see a variety of schools in one trip.  The bad news is that already this year, some colleges have received a record number of applications. (27,278 at Harvard alone, up 19 percent from last year, reports to the New York Times.)

Next year, 3.2 million youngsters, the largest group of high school seniors in the nation’s history, are poised to graduate, the College Board says. My daughter Mel will be among them.

No wonder the tours and information sessions are so crowded! (In Boston and elsewhere, don’t forget to call or e-mail ahead to reserve a spot at the time you want.) And don’t plan to visit more than two campuses a day, Ardizzoni urges. She adds that it’s important to spend some time exploring the surrounding area as well as the campus to get a true sense of what it would be like to go to school there. Boston, with so many different kinds of schools, is a great place to reassure your nervous child – and yourself – that there is indeed a school where they will be welcome and where they will be happy.

Now if we can just find it.

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Jack Joyce, director of Training and Information Services at the College Board (www.collegeboard.com), offers these tips for families planning to tour colleges this year:

FIVE TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL COLLEGE VISITS

1. Visit the campus when classes are in session so that you can sit in on a class of a subject that interests you and perhaps talk to a professor in your chosen major. (College campuses can be beautiful in the summer, but being there when students are there is the best way to get an impression.)

2. Wander around the campus by yourself so that you can ask students why they chose the college, what they love about the college and what they hate about the college. (Campus tours are important and informative but meeting “real” students can sometimes provide important background.)

3. Experience the campus. Stop to eat in the cafeteria, read for a little while in the library and see what it’s like, maybe spend the night in a dorm. (Reading catalogs or visiting Web sites can be helpful, but being there is more important.)

4. Think beyond the classroom by asking students what they do on weekends, listen to the college’s radio station and Scan bulletin boards to see what day-to-day student life is like. (Making sure the right courses and classes are available is important, but there is more to “college life” than academics.)

5. Imagine yourself attending this college for four years . . . and enjoy the opportunities that await!

© 2008 EILEEN OGINTZ, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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