When should teens start touring colleges?

I considered myself lucky this spring. While many parents of high school seniors were helping their children cram in visits to multiple college campuses before making a final decision, our family was spared that down-to-the-wire stress. My daughter, Louisa, has known since last fall that she’ll be attending a four-year art school in Georgia, starting next September, to study animation. 

Her college selection process seemed almost too smooth, in retrospect. We probably won’t be so lucky when her younger brothers are evaluating their options. Louisa decided as a sophomore that she wanted to pursue a career in animation, which immediately narrowed her college search considerably. She visited her top school choice last spring, and she also toured a school closer to home. 

Once Louisa was accepted at her top choice, she decided her search was over.

Now that her plans are set, I’ve realized that it’s time to think more seriously about the college search for Sebastian, a junior. So I called Paul Thiboutot, the vice president and dean of admissions at Carleton College, to ask: When is the ideal time for teens to start visiting colleges? 

Explore casually at first.

Thiboutot recommended that parents not consider formal campus visits until their child is at least a junior in high school. 

But for those with ninth- and 10th-graders, combining a family vacation with informal visits to colleges that are nearby — or on the way to a vacation destination — can give younger teens an idea of what different campuses look and feel like. It can also help them decide if they’d prefer a rural campus or an urban one, or if they might be interested in attending a school in a particular area of the country. 

“You can make it natural and really choose the place in terms of where your family is going to have a nice vacation,” he said.

Thiboutot emphasized that these visits in the early teenage years should remain low-key. He also said parents shouldn’t be surprised if their child’s reactions are completely different from what the parents are hoping for or expecting.

He illustrated his point with a personal anecdote: Once, on a family vacation to Boston, he and his wife decided to visit their alma maters and a few other colleges in the area. They were hoping their daughters would react favorably to the urban college environment. Instead, as they drove out of the city, he heard his ninth-grade daughter ask from the backseat, “Dad, is there any good education that happens outside of cities?”

Let them stay overnight.

Once students have completed their junior year of high school, Thiboutot said, families can become more organized and intentional about the college-visit process. Summer can be a good time to visit a campus because families often have more time to travel. 

But Thiboutot recommends that students return to campuses they like during the academic year so they can ask questions of students and professors, and get a better feel for the campus environment.

“Certainly by senior year, I would encourage your son or daughter to stay overnight if possible and to do it on their own,” he said. “Going to a class, and having lunch or dinner with a college student without parents in tow is beneficial.”

Thiboutot said whether families visit in summer or another time of year, it’s helpful for parents to give their older teens the option of exploring the campus on their own for at least an hour while their parents grab a cup of coffee. 

Tour 17 colleges this month.

If Sebastian weren’t going to be away at camp most of this month, I would encourage him to register for Minnesota Private College Week, June 23 to 27. 

This is a time when 17 private colleges from across the state invite high school students and their parents to campus to attend informational sessions and take introductory tours. These free sessions are an informal way for teens to explore what they’re looking for, or what they aren’t looking for, in a school.

During that week, my youngest child Elias will be attending a technology camp at one of the participating campuses. As an eighth-grader, he’s not yet started his college search. 

But I’m curious to see what he thinks of staying in a dorm and eating in a college cafeteria.

Whether my sons follow their sister’s smooth road or choose a bumpier path, I look forward to sitting in the passenger seat they each take off on their own college search adventures.


Joy Riggs is a mother of three teenagers. She lives in Northfield. Send comments or questions to jriggs@mnparent.com.