When I was deciding where to go to college, way back before the Age of Aquarius, I applied to six distinguished colleges—none of which I had ever visited.
By April, the schools had made my choice easier: it was Cornell or UPenn. My parents thought campus visits might finally be in order. I flew to Philly, but a freak spring storm kept me out of Ithaca. I chose Cornell anyway and enjoyed my four years there as much as I imagine I would have at any school.
Four decades later, when my daughter, Sarah, was entering her junior year at Brookline (Mass.) High School and poised for the college-admissions ordeal, I knew my parents' approach wouldn't meet current standards. So guided only by my daughter's wish to put some distance between college and home, we—Sarah; my wife, Karen; and I—set off in search of the best possible collegiate fit for her.
Over the next year we visited six major cities, drove past dozens of cow pastures and ventured as far south as Washington, D.C., and as far west as Wisconsin and Missouri. In total we visited 16 colleges—big and small, urban and rural, frat-centric and countercultural, pretty and ugly.
Despite all the mileage, our approach still felt rather minimalist. We had read a few college guides beforehand. And on each visit we sat through an information session and took a campus tour (and sometimes a second tour with children of friends or friends of friends). We came away with what was really only a snapshot of the school on a given morning or afternoon.
That didn't stop my daughter from forming quick and, she assured us, lasting impressions: Cornell—"too geeky" (couldn't she have inferred that without leaving home?); my wife's alma mater, Northwestern—"too Greek"; Georgetown and Union—"too preppy"; Barnard and Bryn Mawr—"too female"; the University of Wisconsin—"too farm" (a mistake to drive rather than fly from Chicago); Vassar—"too Poughkeepsie."
But as junior year turned to senior year, Sarah was armed with some useful convictions. She wanted an urban school, preferably midsize and definitely coed. And on our final college trip, over Columbus Day weekend, it all came together for her.
Washington University in St. Louis certainly fit her criteria. It was also a hot school, a rising star in academia labeled one of the "new Ivies" by NEWSWEEK. The campus was pretty, and we sensed a happy vibe among students on the quad.
Karen, a Midwesterner by birth, and I, having spent a decade in Chicago, were reminded how warm and welcoming folks were in the heartland. Sarah had always said she wanted a place with true diversity—and not just racial, ethnic, and economic diversity. She wasn't sure she knew anyone back home whose parents had voted for George W. Bush, and she was anxious to encounter a broader spectrum of the country.
The Wash U admissions office was presided over by a vivacious receptionist named Delice LePool who boomed out her welcome—"Come on in, darling"—to visitors. Because it was a three-day holiday weekend, the office was filled with families that had ventured out from New York and Boston. Many seemed uneasy encountering this kindness from a stranger and had retreated into corners to weather the assault on their sensibilities. But Sarah, whom I had always thought of as shy and a bit reticent, engaged easily with Delice. Soon my daughter was showing her the array of rings, bracelets, and earrings she had made—and both were laughing at the prospect of an earrings-for-admission swap. I was still digesting this surprising glimpse of my child when she disappeared for her interview. Soon after, the admissions director emerged with Sarah and pronounced her "a remarkable young woman." Sarah was beaming. She had found her best possible college fit. All that was left was the easy part: getting accepted.