‘Tis the Season for Campus Tours

Senior editor Norie Quintos and her son visited Boston recently to check out the college scene.
_4027347.JPGI’ve entered a new life and travel phase: campus tourism. While I sometimes feel as if my college years were not that long ago, my growing grocery bill and my children’s growing shoe sizes remind me that it’s almost their turn to enter those hallowed halls of learning (academic and otherwise). 

Last month I booked a cheap flight to Boston for my older son, a sophomore in high school, and me. The purpose of the trip was more inspirational than aspirational, as Ned does not yet have particular schools in mind. Nor do I have any specific collegiate ambitions for him (though if he ended up at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, I would cheer like the proud Wahoo I am). I wanted to get Ned excited about university life and to get him thinking about the kind of experience (big/small, urban/rural, private/public, liberal arts/technical, Division I/intramural) that would best fit him. 

There is perhaps no better destination to go for inspiration than Boston and its surrounds: It’s the cradle of education in this country and current home to about 50 nearby institutions of higher learning.

MIT interiorWe stayed at the contemporary art-filled Royal Sonesta in Cambridge, overlooking the Charles River and the downtown skyline. Like many area hotels, it is acutely aware that among its clientele are the families of prospective and current students.  It participates in citywide programs such as the “Accepted Student Days” program, which offers discounts in March and April to those who have received offers of acceptance. The Sonesta also offers a College Club; guests who register get discounts and  priority booking for special events such as Parents’ Weekend and graduation. My advice: Wherever your child ends up in school, find a hotel you like in the area, sign up for its loyalty program immediately, and get to know the hotel manager.

With only two days (not nearly enough time, by the way, to enjoy all Beantown has to offer), we spent the first following the red-brick road called the Freedom Trail, the city’s premier attraction. (I did this as a kid and it’s still fascinating as an adult.) The 2.5-mile self-guided tour (ranger-led tours are also available) took us to Revolutionary-era sites such as Paul Revere’s house, the Old North Church, Old Ironsides, and Quincy Market. Best bite along the trail: a slice of Boston cream pie at the place that invented it, the Parker House Hotel on School Street. 

The next day, in Cambridge (technically a separate city across the Charles River), we took the “Hahvahd Tour,” an irreverent student-guided stroll of the campus that poked fun at everything from the Boston accent to the school’s reputation of elitism. Just walking past the neo-Gothic architecture and ivy-covered walls of this esteemed campus founded in 1636 and attended by eight American presidents and more than 40 Nobel laureates made me feel smarter. 

MIT architectureA few miles away, M.I.T., or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is as intellectually gifted, if somewhat less historically renowned. The campus offers a a stark, but not unpleasant, contrast in aesthetic. Where Harvard’s uniformly gray buildings are mostly cohesive and staid, MIT consists of a sometimes jarring mix of 20th century styles, from neoclassical to deconstructivist, with structures by such celeb-architects  as I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry, and Eero Saarinen. Ned was largely oblivious to the great art surrounding him, but was drawn to M.I.T.’s undeniable bias toward the sciences and technology. Lukewarm to the school when we arrived (“Mom, I want to go to a college with good sports teams.”), by the time we left, he had decided this was the standard by which he would judge all other schools.

The journey has just begun; there are schools in Pennsylvania, New York, the Midwest, as well as our own Mid-Atlantic area still to visit. Schools out West are under consideration as well, but my budget may preclude actual face-time. Here are a few tips I’ve already picked up. Be sure to share yours in the comments below.

  • Boston’s tourism website has a section devoted to campus visiting, with helpful tips on dining and attractions, hotel packages, and train discounts. Another good resource is Study Boston.
  • Visit the individual school’s website for information on campus visits; some of them require registration.
  • Save formal campus tours for schools you are really interested in. For others, a drive-by should do. 
  • If possible, visit while classes are in session, though try to avoid exam week and other special events. 
  • Many parents who have been through this have told me they wished they hadn’t waited until their child was a junior or senior in high school to start visiting colleges; several suggested that younger middle-school siblings would benefit as well.
  • Finally, avoid the great temptation to take over the process. Parents, this is important: Your job should be to inspire and guide, not to direct and choose.

For more Boston options check out our travel planner and free city guide.

Photos: Norie Quintos


  1. Emma
    April 9, 2010, 5:51 pm

    Not that i’m biased or anything, but Tufts should really be on your list for your next trip to Boston. And you’re absolutely right, this year more than ever I feel like an exhibit in a museum with all the tours passing by. Go Jumbos!