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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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The Great College Search–Part Two: The Road Trip

I seldom offer a caveat at the beginning of a post, but 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 we go….

This time next year, our oldest child will be living on a college campus somewhere, leading her own life with a new level of autonomy, freedom, and responsibility.  But the question is where?

So this summer, my daughter & I set out on a 3-part road trip.  We considered making this a family journey since her sister is only 2 school years behind and 5th grade brother is always up for going just about anywhere.  But in the end, her mom & I agreed that this trip needed to be one parent-one rising senior, and we decided I would go.

My Alma Mater

We live less than an hour from the University of Maryland, and our first tour was of my old campus in College Park.  First, we sat through a brief introduction and a pretty inspiring promotional video, available here:   University of Maryland Impact

Then we started walking, touring dorms, classrooms, the library, and the student union–all of the usual college tour landmarks.  Two resources that stood out along the way were the grammar hotline (Call from your dorm for help sorting out the wording of a paper?!) and the Math Success Program (free walk-in support with anything related to math).

Why I will be glad if my daughter becomes a Terp:  Maryland is a BIG school, a top-tier public university with world-class facilities, a wide range of entertainment options, easy access to opportunities in the nation’s capital, and as many majors as you can find anywhere.  The size of the school offers options, enough options to allow any student to redefine him/herself several times over during a 4 year undergraduate experience.

McKeldin Mall–University of Maryland

Bonus & Disclosure:  I am a two-time Maryland grad, and I bleed red, white, black, and gold–a Terp For Life.

Something to consider:  College Park is a quasi-urban campus, just 15 minutes from Washington, DC.  As a one-time commuter school that is transitioning into more and more of a residential school, Maryland experiences a constant ebb and flow of car and foot traffic with the neighboring community.  Although safety is a concern ANYWHERE, I would worry more about my daughter more at UMCP than at some other schools–at least until I know she has routines in place to protect herself.

Farther From Home

A few days later we drove 3 hours or so to State College, PA.  We stayed in a hotel the night before to ensure we would be on time for Spend a Summer Day at Penn State.   To begin the day, we parked in the football stadium lot, then caught a designated shuttle bus across campus.  We climbed out of the bus, walked through two lines of applauding students, high-fived the Nittany Lion, then walked into the largest lecture hall I’ve ever seen (even as a Maryland grad) for the welcome presentation.  Then we started walking, taking the obligatory tour of campus.  Two highlights were the writing center (the student gets help with the paper; the professor receives notice that the student took the time to seek help to do well) and the 6-tier dining plan (with options ranging from a light meal or two per day for students living off campus to what our guide called “the linebacker plan”).

Why I will be glad if my daughter becomes a Nittany Lion:  Penn State offers similar advantages to Maryland as another large, well-respected, public university.  But what sets Penn State apart from other schools is the universal sense of identity and loyalty.   The ‘summer day’ event was staffed by scores of volunteers who all appeared to be students and alumni, literally ranging in age from their teens to their eighties.  University Park is also a more ‘enclosed’ campus than College Park; although the school neighbors a college town, there was little evidence of non-university traffic on campus.


Old Main–Penn State University

Bonus & Disclosure:  We were familiar with Penn State because my daughter had stayed and played on campus for a Memorial Day weekend volleyball tournament 6 of the last 7 years.  We both had stayed in dorms, eaten in dining halls, and walked the campus through those experiences.

Something to consider:  The dorms at Penn State, at least the older dorms that are most likely to house freshmen, are not particularly comfortable.  Small, dark, lacking air conditioning–not posh.  But a greater concern is that while freshmen are required to live on campus, housing is not guaranteed for all 4 years.  The university has built relationships with local realtors and apartment complexes, but the possibility of needing to pursue this may be noteworthy for some students and their families.

To be continued….In my next Dad Knows Better post:  traveling south, some smaller schools, and why this trip matters in our big picture.

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Our #JerseyLove Weekend

Our family recently accompanied my wife on a trip to New Jersey.  We stayed at Caesars in Atlantic City for 3 days as part of the #JerseyLove Social Moms for Social Good event.  The weekend was intended to highlight both sides of the Jersey shore’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy last November:  the work that has been completed and the ongoing work that still needs to be finished.

The Shore is Open for Business


The boy, sizing up a SurfSkimmer before heading over to the beach to try it out in the water.

We spent Friday afternoon at Belmar, which appeared to be as family-friendly as any beach town I have ever seen.  The boardwalk was destroyed by the hurricane in November, but a brand new replacement has been completed.  At a restaurant/bar called D’Jais, the leaders of the #JerseyLove event presented Mayor Matt Doherty with a check for $5000 from the #JerseyLove participants and D6 Sports to help Belmar citizens who are still displaced because of hurricane damage.  D6 also provided adults with surf lessons and allowed children, including our 10 year old son, to try out a fun, new beach product they are introducing this summer–the SurfSkimmer.

What Happens In Atlantic City…..


Hail, Caesar. (Hit me!)

The Name is Better.  Dad Knows Better.  I waited until our last night in town to try my luck in the casino.  When the kids went to sleep, I took a nap; then I got up around midnight to head downstairs to find a blackjack table.  Almost 4 hours of up and down rush as my stacks of chips grew and shrank put the icing on the weekend cake.  In the end, the $100 I was willing (though not exactly planning) to lose was safe and sound back in my pocket when I headed upstairs to call it a night–or, more precisely, to call it an early morning–along with a penny or two of the casino’s money.

Work Left To Be Done

The region is more than ready for families on vacation this summer.  But that’s not to say everything is back to normal.  While visiting the Absecon Lighthouse, we met a lady who shared that she is still not able to return to her home because of storm damage.  Hurricane Sandy dominated the news for a few days last fall; but for many people whose homes and businesses were flooded, it is still not time to move on to the next story.  Hopefully the return of tourism to the Jersey shore will help.


Belmar’s new boardwalk, ready for summer

Additional details about the Jersey Love weekend are available online at

Disclosure:  Caesars Entertainment hosted the official social media participants, including Mrs. DadKnowsBetter, better known as MusingsFromMe, and families, including our accommodations.  Families were invited to the sponsored ‘beach party’ lunch at D’Jais in Belmar, NJ.


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