“Odysseus, eat your heart out,” I thought, while driving our daughter, Lilly, to college visits recently.
Although I wouldn’t encounter any cyclopses or sea monsters, I knew I was embarking on a grueling ordeal. Over the course of our four-day trip, I would put 1800 miles on our minivan, log over 40,000 Fitbit steps on five campus tours, nail-bite through Lilly’s four interviews, swipe mini bottles of lotion from three cheap hotels, and eat at least four tuna sandwiches.
According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 77% of colleges in the United States rate campus visits as a top recruitment strategy for prospective freshmen. After more than 25 college tours between our three kids, I knew the schools we were about to visit would try every trick to get their hooks in us, and that I would need to muster the strength to resist falling into their traps.
At each school, we went to the admissions offices for information sessions and interviews. My goal was to stay awake — thank goodness for complimentary K-Cups — and to be realistic about Lilly’s interviews. When one interviewer proclaimed, “Lilly is PERFECT for our school!” I knew he really meant, “Lilly seems like a real peach, but don’t be surprised if we drop her like first period Physics once we get her transcripts.”
Of course, we were assigned to tour guides that were fresh-faced and overly enthusiastic. “Hi! I’m P.J.! I double-major in Global Mediation Strategies and Interpretive Dance, with a minor in Sustainable Mollusk Farming, and I am the Assistant Treasurer of the Quidditch Club. Follow me while I walk backwards like a trained circus monkey!”
And our tour groups — which always seemed to include a kid with purple hair, a jock with a gum-chewing dad, and someone from Long Island — followed like sheep to slaughter. The parents glanced sideways at each other, muttering redundant thank yous every time we held doors for each other.
We hit the usual campus spots like libraries and student centers, but our guides had a few strategic surprises up the scrunched sleeves of their spirit wear. They wisely steered clear of stark reality such as old Biology buildings that smelled like pickles and frat houses with permanently tapped kegs in front yards, and instead pointed us toward 3-D printers, digitally illuminated mock trading floors, online laundry monitoring systems, colorful rock walls, and staged dorm rooms.
Even though my older children’s dorm rooms reek of nacho cheese and are littered with dirty socks, the dorm rooms on our college tours were color-coordinated, obsessively organized, freshly Febreezed, and adorned with gratuitous advertising signs reading, “Brought to you by Bed, Bath and Beyond.” They explained that we could take advantage of “gender fluid” housing options. Furthermore, if we only fill out a seven-page background check and sign the necessary legal release forms, our child would be permitted to live with someone of the opposite sex.
No matter how one feels about progressive housing options, one should never use the term “fluid” when referring to teenagers’ bedrooms.
In the dining halls, our guides detailed complicated meal plans involving flex dollars, bonus bucks, and recycling rewards, to buy foods described as gluten-free, halal, locally-sourced, mindful, farm-to-table, kosher, Paleo, diabetic-sensitive, and “world-fair” cuisine. I knew this was a fancy way of saying that, for four years, our kids will eat mostly cereal, chicken fingers and soft-serve ice cream.
Like Odysseus resisting the call of the Sirens, I did not fallen prey to the secret strategies employed by those institutions of higher learning. I kept my wits about me, and was triumphantly on my way home after four long days.
I had to admit, however, that the use of chocolate chip cookies was an effective marketing tool. One school had them in baskets at admissions, another offered them hot out of the oven as we toured the dining halls, and another doled them out at the conclusion of the tour. Add that to the free cookies in the hotel lobbies, and despite my Trojan warrior willpower, I was packing a baker’s dozen by the time we passed Poughkeepsie.