Elise Amendola/Associated Press
LONDON — At least I didn’t have to whack anybody.
When I told a cousin that I was taking my daughter to look at U.S. colleges this spring she sent me a DVD of “The Sopranos” episode in which Tony, embarking on a similar tour, encounters a former associate and strangles him with a length of wire while his daughter is visiting Colby. Although Maine is home to several superb schools, it seemed safer to skip the whole state.
I was grateful for anything that helped narrow down the list. You might think I’d have a better handle on this process than most parents. I write about higher education for a living and graduated from both British and American universities. But I’m just as confused as any dad, even though I went through a version of this five years ago with my son. He wanted to remain in Britain and knew what he wanted to study, which renders the British system, with its successive filtering from 10 or 11 GCSEs (nationwide subject exams taken at 16) down to 4 A-levels (taken at 17 and 18) to finally applying to “read” (study) a single subject at university, uniquely attractive. For my daughter, the choice of subjects in a liberal arts education was reason enough to make American colleges worth a serious look.
The line at the Fulbright Commission’s American college fair last fall stretched around the block. Though all the schools there seemed eager for foreign students, some seemed to have little idea how to make sense of British grades, the different school calendar and a very different culture, where the relentless pursuit of exam results tends to reduce extracurricular activities to an afterthought.
I was hit by the explosion of anxiety familiar to any parent faced with the college maze. There was also a financial question: Is the probable higher cost of an American education worth it? Undergraduate courses at British universities typically take just three years, and the 9,000 pounds, or $12,000, annual tuition is covered by a government loan that wouldn’t have to be repaid until my daughter starts earning a decent salary.
As we lugged home a shopping bag filled with brochures, we realized some serious reconnaissance was in order, along with some guidelines. We agreed to stay east of the Mississippi and ruled out any place that wasn’t co-ed. We’d visit colleges scattered between Chicago and New England.
Here I offer some advice from our U.S. road trip: You can just about manage two schools a day if (a) you pick two that are no more than an hour apart, (b) you don’t get lost on the way (c) you don’t mind eating lunch in the car and (d) your child doesn’t fall in love with your first stop of the day.
But we didn’t really have enough time. Unlike the SAT, which can be taken many times, British A-level exams, whose first part, known as AS-levels, are given just once for the whole country. So the pressure to do well is intense — doubly so for students who are considering applying to selective American colleges, which expect high scores on the SATs as well. Since my daughter hasn’t ruled out staying in Britain she had too much work to allow for a leisurely amble through the groves of academe.
Here, perhaps I can eliminate a myth. Ever since Laura Spence made headlines in England when she got into Harvard in 2000 despite being rejected by Oxford, some British parents have gazed wistfully across the Atlantic. But the truth is that Oxford and Cambridge both accept a much higher percentage of their applicants than comparable schools in the United States. There are plenty of good arguments for American colleges, but being easier to get into isn’t one of them.
All of the 10 schools we saw were impressive — but then, the first job of the admissions office is to sell you on the school.
We got lost once. We also got to one school too late for the last tour, but after a chance encounter with a student learned more about what it felt like to go there — and how the students thought about themselves — than we could have in any “information session.” We ate in college cafeterias, chatted with college librarians — we share a passion for libraries — and, when permitted, traipsed through dormitories.
Whenever possible my daughter sat in on classes. In several cases this resulted in her falling in love — with a school, or a teacher, or a subject she’d given up for A-Level but realized she could take in college. But I also realized (better late than never) that picking a college was about more than just education. It was also about deciding where and with what kind of people you wanted to live.
We returned to London with every school still on her list — evidence, perhaps, of careful advance work — but with a much clearer idea of what it would actually be like to attend each. My daughter had a notebook filled with impressions of each campus, plusses and minuses, and questions to be followed up later.
I had a sense of how much this is her process, her decision, her life.I learned a lot about how colleges present themselves — the way schools with a core curriculum celebrate that, and how schools with more freedom emphasize that, and how everyone seems to talk a good game when it comes to balancing teaching and research.
But more important than any of that — and the reason I’d advise anyone who can spare the time and money to go on their own college tour, even if it’s just in one country, or your home state — is what I learned about my daughter.
Our 10 days were the most time we’d ever spent together without the rest of our family. We listened to her iPod playlist, talked about books and movies and math puzzles and Mexican food and the importance of timing in comedy. I don’t know where she’ll go to college, but I’m a lot more certain that she’ll make the most of wherever she ends up.
D.D. Guttenplan writes about higher education for the International Herald Tribune.
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