How to cope with your parents during campus visits


The University of Vermont employs “parent bouncers,” students trained to divert moms and dads who try to attend registration and explain diplomatically that they’re not invited.  

The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2005

“Happy families are all alike; every family visiting colleges is difficult in its own way.” And thus begins Tolstoy’s great masterpiece, Anna Karenina Applies to College. While there’s no prescribed formula for dealing with your particular parents during college visits, we can offer some advice based on recurring types we’ve observed over the years. For instance: how should you deal with the alumnus father who shows up for the campus tour clad head to toe in “University of So-And-So” gear? Or the overbearing mother who takes it upon herself to make all your friends for you on Move-In Day? And what about the hands-off parents who drop you at the college gates with a hearty slap on the back and an almost-too-cheerful “See you at graduation!”? Although these are of course only stereotypes (and hopefully exaggerations), being able to recognize symptoms of, say, bullish overbearingness or alumni fever in your own parents may help you to overcome the embarrassment factor and get the most out of having your family along for the ride.

College Visits for Prospective Students

There’s no way around it.  Chances are, if you’re applying to more than one college (and the average these days is somewhere around 27), you’re going to have to spend a sizable amount of time visiting schools and taking obligatory college tours.  But gas is expensive, not to mention jet fuel, or tuition.  You’re probably not going to foot the bill alone, which means the inevitable involvement of your most invested investors…your parents. 

The college road trip has even become a tradition of sorts, in which, every spring, millions of high school juniors and seniors pile into planes, trains and automobiles, and in the span of a few days spend more time with their parents than they have the entire year prior.  This can be disturbing, to say the least (for parents as well as students), and it is important to prepare for it as best you can.  Then again, what sort of road trip would it be if people didn’t fight over control of the radio, and someone didn’t have to clean up a little blood with a surprisingly-useful college brochure?

Blood feuds aside, here are a few tips on how to handle college visits with a range of those parental types we all know and love.

The Overbearing Parent: The itinerary is probably already set in stone, but if your Overbearing Parent is making all the decisions, you need to whip out the first amendment and assert your independence. Make sure you have a voice about what colleges you are actually interested in, and what you want to be seeing and doing during your visits. You may even want to hook your O.P. up with an alternate activity while you wander the campus solo — for instance, send them to a lecture, or sic ‘em on the admissions office so they can grill the staff on their own time.
The Hands-Off Parent: Make sure you have directions and tour schedules printed out before you go.  Don’t shy away from telling your Hands-Off Parent that you need all hands on deck for this big decision.  Parents can be especially useful on tours because they tend to be less self-conscious than prospective students — and with a little prodding, they could ask the questions that you’re not comfortable asking in front of the group. 
The Alumnus Parent: Try to derail as many trips down memory lane as possible (asking to see the computer labs usually does the trick), but be aware that even questions about how the school has changed since Watergate can give you sense of its personality.  Avoid the campus store at all costs — school paraphernalia can prove too tempting for nostalgic alumni to resist. 

The Foreign Language Parent: On the tour, talk to your parent about what’s being discussed, and don’t be embarrassed, if it’s needed, to hold your own side conversation about the college.  Also, offer to translate for your parent if he or she has any questions. 
The Divorced Parents: Maybe you aren’t all going to drive across the country together, but make sure to involve both parents in your college selection process if they want to be involved.  Consider breaking down your college choices to allow for two different road trips, or, if this isn’t possible, give the absent parent a full account of your college explorations and ask their advice (digital photos are fast, easy, and will be much appreciated).      

Move-In Day

The station wagon is packed to the gills with extra-long twin sheets, shower caddies, little brothers, and collapsible laundry baskets. Passengers are cramped and anxious after a long trip. Cheery RA’s do the meet n’ greet, lending a summer-campy (or just plain campy) tone to the momentous event. Finally, Move-In Day has arrived.

Your mission is clear: you’ve just got to move in. Your parents’ role, however, is a little more ambiguous. Should they stay? If so, for how long? Long enough to meet your roommate, and potentially your roommate’s parents? To plant framed family portraits on your bedside table? To gather your entire hall together to hear stories about that time you ate a roll of dimes when you were six?

Often, both sides of the parent-student equation feel conflicted about these questions, perhaps because Move-In Day calls attention to one particular contrasting fact: to your parents, it’s also the day that you officially move out.

So let’s look at a few possible examples of parents attempting to deal with that fact.

The Overbearing Parent: On Move-In Day, the Overbearing Parent often shifts into turbo mode, and sometimes tries to act as Interior Decorator, Roommate-Meeter, and Potential-Friend-Screener all at once. The shy student may feel tempted to hang back and let the O.P. do their social work for them — but remember (and remind them, too) that it’s you who’s going to be living in your dorm. Try to set aside some Family Time later in the day, like a lunch date or a walk around campus. That way, you can tell your parent(s) that you’d love to hear all of their opinions and suggestions — but for now, they need to back off.

The Hands-Off Parent: “Come on, Dad! These boxes are heavy…Dad?” Overly concerned about giving you your “own space” to move into your new space, the Hands-Off parent will sometimes peel out of the driveway a little too quickly on Move-In Day. But that day is actually one of the most parent-friendly days on campus, not to mention one of the potentially loneliest days to find yourself parent-free. Being around other new students who are also with their families is a good way to meet people, and can lead to the formation of impromptu (and unspoken) support groups when it’s time for families to depart.      

The Alumnus Parent: Where’s your Alumnus Parent? Probably back in their old freshman dorm room, tormenting some other family with tales of Move-In Days past. Rein them back in by reminding them that you’re not there to relive their college days, but to live your own. For the first time. Use reminiscences and disputes to point out that you’ll sometimes be doing things differently than they did — but of course you can’t wait to compare experiences once you’ve moved in and had the chance to have some.

Your parents can seem both bane and boon to your move in day process. Saying goodbye once the day is done can seem even more baneful or boon-ful. If they’re getting on your nerves, remember: they contribute vital manpower to the unpacking endeavor. And if you can’t bear to see that empty station wagon pull away, fear not, because soon enough, it’ll be time for Parents’ Weekend.

Parents’ Weekend

Why is your college all of a sudden cracking down on parties? Why has the dining hall started serving higher-quality brunches? And who are all those old people wandering around campus? Yep, you guessed it. It’s Parents’ Weekend.

While some families choose to make every weekend a parents’ weekend, the school only sanctions it once or twice a year, and it usually becomes a major event. There are variety shows, extra campus tours, open lectures, outdoor lunches, and enough people in the bookstore to technically qualify as a fire hazard. The frenetic atmosphere of Parents’ Weekend can work even the mellowest parent into a frenzy, but put on pair of parent gloves (get it? like kid gloves?), check out the tips below, and get ready to show your folks the ropes. Last but not least, don’t forget to live large on your parents’ dime – make sure they take you out to dinner!

The Overbearing Parent: The Overbearing Parent will want to go to every single event and college showcase on the schedule. Attend a few with them — you never know, you might learn something cool about your school. But also make sure that you schedule some downtime with your family, so they can get a feel for your everyday campus life, and not just the shows that the college puts on for Parents’ Weekend.

The Hands-Off Parent: No problem there — they didn’t come. Seriously, though, just because your parent is AWOL on Parents’ Weekend doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy it. Offer to help your roommate handle his or her parents, in exchange for a dinner invitation. Remember, other peoples’ parents are often more tolerable than your own, not to mention easier to charm. Volunteer to take the family photos at dinner; that way they won’t have to flag down the waiter every five minutes (plus, you’ll get your food faster). If all else fails, seek out the International Students Club. Either way, you should get a square meal and fine company out of the deal.

The Alumnus Parent: For once, your parent’s alumnus status might actually make things easier for you. Skip all those redundant campus info tours and lectures, and tailor a tour to your folks. Show them your favorite haunts, and take them to coffee or lunch at a choice spot away from the salivating masses. Also, consider their interests. Maybe they were Psychology majors and would want to hear a lecture on “The Science of Separation Anxiety,” or they dance and would like to attend “The Mom and Pop Hop” (held at Brown), or they like to play golf and would be happily surprised to learn that you’ve reserved all three of you an afternoon tee-time on the campus course. Whatever their particular proclivities, just try to find something that fits and have a good time.  

The Foreign Language Parent: Try contacting the appropriate language department and see if they can offer any translation resources for Parents’ Weekend. Also try getting in touch with your International Center and find out if there are other parents coming who speak the same language as your parents, in which case you could form a group for campus explorations. And remember, you can always give your own tour, concert, or lecture — who needs the school to show your parents a good time?

The Divorced Parents: Divide and conquer. Parents’ Weekend is a whole weekend long — that could be split into one day per parent. Or both could come for both days, but you could spend one day with one, and one day with the other. Or bring in the lawyers to battle out who gets to attend the lecture and who gets to attend the Mom and Pop Hop. College (at least if you do it in the conventional way) is conveniently an even number of years long.

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