If it's Thursday, this must be UNC

College-tour companies offer students a look at as many as 12 schools in a week

It sounds like a teenager's dream: Hanging out in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Greenwich Village in New York, South Street in Philadelphia, and Georgetown in Washington – all in one week, with 20 other teens and no parents in sight.

Even better, Mom and Dad are underwriting the adventure.

So what's the catch?

In addition to checking out the shops and meeting new friends, the kids have an assignment: to look at colleges – as many as 12 campuses in a week.

It's a switch from the traditional summer tour with parents. Commercial college-tour groups whirl students through a number of possibilities in different regions of the country. They arrange for meetings with admissions counselors and provide lodging and meals, as well as advice and materials. The idea is to help high-schoolers get the lay of the land as they head into the application process – and to offer an option to parents who don't have time to accompany children on extensive college tours.

Robert Rummerfield, founder and director of the tour company College Visits, and a former director of admissions at The Johns Hopkins University, says the tours help students realize what they want in a college, and what the colleges are really like. "They learn about the different possibilities. They may have preconceived notions about a school, but then they get there and see it in their own eyes and realize what it's really about," he says.

College Visits, which serves between 400 and 500 students a year, organizes tours to colleges throughout the United States. The ratio of students to chaperones is about 10 to 1, and costs range from close to $800 for a five-day Southeastern tour to almost $1,500 for a seven-day trip through the Northeast.

Sometimes the group works with high schools to set up private tours, but many tours are open to any high school student. Students from Brazil, Egypt, Jordan, and Japan, as well as the US, attended one recent tour from Boston to Washington.

Other tour groups, such as the National Institute for Educational Planning (NIEP) College Preview, provide college counselors on their trips to help students evaluate the schools. Brian Tokubo, director of College Preview, says these tours can help make the transition into the first year of college easier for students by making sure they find the right school.

There is no academic prerequisite for the tours, but Rummerfield says most of the participants are highly motivated students. The tours visit many of the Ivy League schools, but there is always a choice of campuses to visit. In Boston, for instance, students can choose from Boston University, Harvard University, and Wellesley College in the morning and then visit Tufts University, Boston College, or MIT in the afternoon.

Some groups offer options for low-income students. NIEP, for example, runs tours of four regions of the country for foster children in the care of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. The students who take these tours are selected on the basis of their grade-point average and other academic criteria.

Students are active participants on the campus tours, asking questions of the admissions officers and tour guides, jotting down notes, and using the workbooks given to them at the beginning of the tour. But Rummerfield stresses that the tour is just the beginning of the college search. Students and their parents then should return to the schools they liked, sit in on classes, talk with professors, and stay overnight in the dorms, he says.

Rummerfield encourages students to start thinking about college early – preferably freshman year. "If they want to attend a certain school, they need to be taking the most challenging classes," he says.

For parents who choose to take their teens to visit schools themselves, Rummerfield tells them to call the campuses ahead of time to find out when information sessions and tours are offered.

He also urges parents and students to take notes while they're visiting campuses. Most important, they should talk to people on the campuses – not just the admissions officers but the student tour guides, students who work in the bookstore, people in the cafeteria. All these people can help prospective students get a feel for what it is like to live and study on that campus.

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