The Great College Search–Part Three: The Road Trip Continues

Once again, please consider:  All of the impressions below were OURS.  The aspects of each campus that we considered positive might not impress you or your student, and our concerns might be strengths to someone else.  But the intent of this post is not so much to ‘rate’ these schools as to share my experience accompanying my daughter on this once-in-a-lifetime journey.  So here is the rest of our trip….

A Smaller Campus

The most memorable part of our college tour was ‘phase 3.’  We headed out in the evening for a 6+ hour drive to Winston-Salem, NC.  With 2 possible routes of more or less the same distance, I chose the scenic route through the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia for the trip south.  Along the way, we talked about 17’s senior year, what she had liked & disliked about the campuses we had already visited, whether she should take the SAT for a second time…and dozens of other topics.


The Chapel–Wake Forest University

After an overnight stay near campus, we traveled to Wake Forest University for a tour.  Wake differs from Maryland and Penn State in terms both of size and of…the best word may be opulence.  At 340 acres, the campus is approximately 1/4 the size of either of our big schools, and the enrollment of fewer than 5000 undergraduate Demon Deacons is roughly 1/5 the number of Terrapins or Nittany Lions.  As we walked the campus, my daughter pointed out the grills (as in ‘charcoal’) outside of dorms, amenities that would be considered liabilities in more anxious (equals northern) parts of the country.  The open spaces were landscaped with near-golf-course quality, the common area of one dorm included a grand piano, and the dining hall could have been part of a country club:  at one point during the tour I may or may not have turned to my daughter and said, “I’m not paying for an omelette station.”  However, one practical luxury we heard about was the school’s laptop program:  Every first-year student is issued a laptop with a complete range of software.  This makes it easy for the university to provide tech support and ensures that everyone has up-to-date hardware and software.

Wake Forest was also my daughter’s first experience interviewing with an admissions officer.  She had the opportunity to discuss her academic and extra-curricular experiences, her hopes and plans for college and beyond, and how she introduced her friends to Dr. Who before the show became fairly mainstream in 2012.  By the time we left campus, Wake had become a solid member of my daughter’s short list.

Why I will be glad if my daughter becomes a Demon Deacon:    Wake is a well-regarded school operating in a beautiful setting.  But its greatest selling point for me may be the reputation of its academic climate.  The school is competitive.  But it is a healthy competitive, as the students pride themselves on celebrating their peers’ successes.  The ‘cut throat’ climate associated with many selective schools was not apparent at any point while we were on campus nor mentioned in the college guides my daughter has scoured over the past year.

Something to consider:  Wake Forest is at the forefront of the movement to de-emphasize standardized testing in the admissions process.  For my daughter, this is a concern, because standardized testing has always been a strength for her.  But for a student who performs better in the classroom than on the SAT, Wake may be a perfect match.

Our Only Disappointment


The Well–UNC Chapel Hill

Apologies in advance to my friends in Carolina blue.  We drove from Wake to Chapel Hill for an afternoon tour.  This was the only school we visited that fell far short of expectations.  One experience after another raised questions:  Charging pre-registered visitors for parking?  Sending (not escorting) tour participants on a 10 minute walk across campus, with little signage, from the building where we had to check in to the building where the informational session was held and the tours departed?  Brick walkways that have not been maintained, turning walking across campus into a surfing activity?  Claims during an informational session that seemed to have more of a “you’d be lucky if we let you come here” tone after the “we hope you will consider us” messages we had heard at Maryland, Penn State, and Wake?  The only campus tour we took that did not include a glimpse of the inside of a library?

Why I will be glad if my daughter becomes a Tarheel:  Separately we both arrived at the conclusion that the University of North Carolina might not be a good match, and my daughter never looked back–She decided not to apply to UNC.  However, I have to note that the school offers the resources of a large, public university and the students who do choose UNC share a proud Tarheel identity.

Something to consider:  The campus neighbors a true college town.  But, like College Park, Maryland, there is little to separate the campus from the town, and the traffic on campus was a factor as we walked around.

Studying [In] History

From UNC we drove north to Williamsburg, VA.  After another overnight stay, we checked in for our tour of the College of William & Mary.  During the informational session, the facilitator asked for a show of hands:  Rising seniors.  Rising juniors.  Younger students.  And parents who would like to go back to college themselves–at which point I have to admit that my hand went up.  I loved college, and I am excited for all three of my kids as they work towards that experience.  In particular, I loved my experience at Maryland, both as an undergraduate and as a doctoral student.  But, that having been said, if I had toured William & Mary in the 1980s, I just might have taken another path.


The Wren Building–College of      William & Mary

Like Wake, this relatively small campus is peaceful and beautiful.  But, more importantly, the tour also affirmed the school as a strong match for my daughter in terms of academics and climate.  My daughter’s interests lean more towards English & social studies than math & sciences; at W&M we saw and heard clear value for humanities, whereas at some other schools–and in much of the recruiting literature my daughter has received from around the country since she took the PSAT–tech fields seem to command more respect.  William & Mary’s long history is firmly rooted in the types of studies that my daughter is considering, including government & politics and English.  The campus climate is positive, with a philosophy of offering opportunities for individuals to shape their own experience as much as possible.  For example, in dorms the students living on a particular hall meet to establish ground-rules for quiet hours, laundry, etc. at the beginning of the school year.  Safety & security, a top concern for any parent, includes a service students can call for a golf-cart ride across campus after dark, a comfortable–and more efficient–upgrade to the security escorts that became the norm on campuses 30 years ago.

Why I will be glad if my daughter joins The Tribe?  One of the most important discoveries…or maybe reinforcements…during our road trip was that while a student can get a world-class education at any of the schools we visited, the lifestyles they offer vary quite a bit.  The climate at William & Mary stood out:  the staff and students we met projected seriousness about learning, but without a fierce, competitive edge; the campus offers the polished resources of a top-tier school, as well as quiet places to read under shade-trees; and the location is far enough away for our daughter to establish her own college life, yet close enough for her to come home for a long weekend or for us to visit once or twice a semester.

Something to consider:  Housing.  Again, like Penn State, William & Mary only guarantees on-campus housing for 3 of a student’s 4 undergraduate years.  While 3/4 of W&M students do stay on campus all 4 years, and while some students choose to move off campus on their own, there is the possibility that we could have to find her a place to stay near campus at some point if she heads to Williamsburg.  That having been said, like Penn State, W&M provides support to ensure that the process of sorting out off-campus housing is nearly seamless.

Time Together

While my daughter is applying to Maryland, Penn State, Wake Forest, and William & Mary, and she discovered that Carolina is not a match for her; but the other great benefit of our road trip was spending so much time together.  Like many 17 year olds, she spends most of her time when she is at home in her room, working on homework, catching up with friends online, or–lately–fine-tuning her college applications.  And I am all too aware that her high school days are winding down.  So spending hours on the road gave us large chunks of time to talk.  That, in and of itself, was a tremendous bargain for just a few tanks of gas and a couple of hotel stays.

Comments wanted:  Thoughts about or experiences with finding a college?  Please post.


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2 Responses to The Great College Search–Part Three: The Road Trip Continues

  1. Meg

    Our son, a prospective history major, shortlisted 6 colleges that he applied to. All were small schools except George Washington University, which appealed to him for the location in DC. He did not wish to apply to our alma mater, as it is a mega university in his home town. His first choice was Gettysburg, which we made a memorable visit to last fall, not only for the campus visit, but the time he and I spent walking the battlefield. Unfortunately Gettysburg didn’t accept him (he wound up on the waitlist) but two others did, and of the two choice Washington and Jefferson in PA. Several things appealed about it, far enough from home without being too far, a liberal arts program, which he wanted, and small class sizes, indeed far smaller than his high school had. Indeed it had all the features of Gettysburg except the proximity to the battlefield, and one semester in he is very happy with his choice.

    • Glad it worked out well for your son. My theme with my daughter from the beginning has been that she needs to be sure she sees several good options since she can’t control the admissions process.

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