Campus Visit is Prerequisite for Preparing for Rite of Passage: Choosing a College
By Karen Rubin

As thousands of other families did this past school break, we hit the road that ribboned past colleges in preparation for that rite of passage, college applications. And as so many others from our area, our road leads to Boston. No wonder, with 250,000 students attending 50 colleges in a 50-square mile area, the Boston metro probably has more colleges and more college students than any other on the planet.

Visiting Boston area colleges attracts so many people, that a company has emerged just to provide assistance to out-of-towners. Supported by the 15 major schools in Boston which tend to draw a large from outside the state participate (among them, Harvard, MIT, Brandeis, Tufts, and Wellesley), Campus Visit publishes an incredibly handy and helpful guide (the maps alone are invaluable), chock full of marvelous tips about making the visit more productive. The company also helps facilitate bookings at hotels at discounted rates, and enables you to save five percent on booking air transportation on USAirways (just mention Campus Visit to USAir as a "star code" or book through Campus Visit) and 50 percent off Amtrak (code X786). The company even provides driving directions

"Our goal is to facilitate," says Todd Hoffman, a former marketing professional for a major Boston hotel who runs the company with his wife, founder Cherlene Hoffman. "Our aim is to prepare families for the campus visit, so they have faster, better, cheaper visits. If they do, we think they will think more highly of Boston."

One reason they started their company was that it was so hard to get a hotel room in Boston, particularly around the peak campus visiting times which tend to coincide with other happenings in Boston (and when are there not happenings in Boston?). "People would drive up five hours from New York or New Jersey, for a two-hour visit here and be grumpy. If they had a terrible day, they wouldn't remember Boston fondly.

"One of our goals was to get people to take their time, spend longer, spend the night, and definitely not to do more than two campus tours in a day," he says. "People think Boston is small enough, they can fit three college visits into a single day."

One thing is sure, you have to calculate for traffic. I only had to travel 14 miles between one campus and my hotel, The Lenox, but it was already the afternoon rush hour (that lasts from 4:30-6:30 p.m.), there is the inevitable construction, and it took about one hour. Another tip: get directions. Another tip: follow the directions.

But even if you could cram three campuses into a single day, Todd advises against it. "Physically you may be able to, but then you can't remember it all, and it backfires. If you are fitting three campuses into a day, you are not doing it right, you are not giving yourself enough time to decompress. This is such a big decision."

Indeed it is. Choosing a college is one of those life-changing choices, perhaps not quite as significant as proposing marriage, but certainly on par with going for a job that may well involve relocating your family. With the cost of college today, this may well be the second biggest investment a family makes, after owning their home. For the student, college is one of those major steppingstones (we think, anyway) to career and (when you consider that many people meet their future spouse at college) even their future family.

I am thinking these heavy thoughts as we begin our odyssey, the current edition of Campus Visit in my lap as we make the turn off the highway to our second campus of the day.

In this edition of Campus Visit, Michael Kalafatas, Director of Admissions for Brandeis University, offers 14 tips to make your campus visit fun and useful. The sage advice includes: Don't overdo it; be sure to allow at least a half-day per campus; give yourself adequate travel time between schools (particularly since there may be only one or two scheduled general information sessions and campus tours), because you should expect traffic in Boston (not to mention the lack of direct routes from point A to point B), and if you are going to be late for an interview, call. Don your best consumer glasses, he advises, "kick the tires, ask tough questions." Take the campus tour, but also roam widely; spend time with students, ask directions freely (it's a great way to get into conversations and talk to more than one student). Get the scoop on academic life; visit a class.

He also advises that it is best to visit the campus when there is activity, but avoid visits during exam time or summer or holiday breaks. "The campus will look bleak and, during exams, students are generally stressed out and grumpy." Check out the dorms, libraries, computer facilities, and, if they interest you, visit the laboratories and arts and athletic facilities. Scan student newspapers and bulletin boards which are revealing about campus culture and the level of extracurricular activity. We also found it useful to eat in one of the dining halls and at the student center.

Notice how well the buildings and grounds are maintained-both are clues into the college's financial health. Consider safety and security on campus (we were introduced to the "blue light" and call-box system on several campuses, as well as informed about campus police).

I also found it extremely helpful to check the websites of the different universities we were visiting (usually it is the name of the university followed by dot-edu). Under "Visiting Campus" they usually post a schedule when the general information session is given, and the campus tours lead by students (as opposed to the tours offered to tourists).

Todd Hoffman also advises on taking notes (and Campus Visit magazine even includes a helpful form; you can also download it from the site, www.campusvisit.com). "People don't think about taking notes," he says, but after you've visited a bunch of campuses over a period of time, you may not remember them as well. "When all of your campus visits are over, you will be able to compare your options more objectively."

For most students, the campus visit the most useful single element in making a selection. Todd, interestingly, did not graduate from one of the Boston schools. "I was among the 40 percent of people who, if could do it all over again, wouldn't have gone to their school," he reflects. "I didn't visit before hand and I would conjecture that a good proportion of those who would have chosen to go to a different college than the one they did, didn't visit. I am a big proponent of making sure you walk the campus. If you are serious, you will visit."

But the visit should be more than casual. You have to be an educated consumer. "You can do a 'K-mart' campus visit, and just walk through, and not let any of it sink in." That will not give you a true impression. Instead, go to the library, eat at the dining hall, ask a student to show you their dorm room (dorms are rarely included on the tour); if you know what you intend to major in, visit that department or building. "Talk to students, talk to a professor who has the office door open. Get beyond the person who gives the spiel. Also size is something to consider-the college guide just doesn't give you the three dimensional picture." It boils down to finding a right fit, a place where your child will feel comfortable.

In addition to the publication and a marvelous website, Campus Visit also provides a hotel reservation desk. When you call, you can speak to a person who can give you the best advice on where to stay for the places you want to visit. "People call us and tell us their child got such and such score on the SATs, do you think he will make Harvard?"

For information on visiting campuses in the Boston and Cambridge area, call 888-99VISIT, or check the website, www.campusvisit.com.

Happily, the company has started a similar service in Philadelphia, sponsored by 17 schools and the city, and publishes a magazine as well as a website, www.onebigcampus.com; you can reach the Philadelphia hotel desk, at 877-88PHILA.

Historic Lenox Hotel

Knowing that my son would be staying on campus to soak in the total atmosphere, I decided to treat myself and soak in the ambiance of The Lenox Hotel and Boston's Back Bay area, and see Boston the way it is best seen, by foot. Boston is, after all, a major reason why students choose to attend a college here, because of all the cultural resources, heritage, not to mention the potential internships. (A really thorough campus visit should also include time for your prospective student to tour the city and its major sights.)

A member of Historic Hotels of America as well as Small Luxury Hotels of the World, The Lenox, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, offers classic elegance and is set in Boston's swankest section in the heart of Boston's Back Bay at Copley Square. Just outside the front door is the finish line of the famous Boston Marathon, and it is a short walk to the Public Garden, the Boston Common, and the Freedom Trail. It is also steps away from Boston's marvelous "T" (America's oldest subway), which makes it easy to get around to various campuses without moving your car.

The 212-room Lenox was built in 1900, at a cost of $1.1 million, to provide Boston's carriage trade with an establishment comparable to the Waldorf-Astoria. Lucias Boomer, the original owner of the Lenox was the manager of the first Waldorf-Astoria. He named the hotel after the family of Lady Sarah Lenox, wife of King George III, who ruled before and during the American Revolution, to honor the anniversary of over 150 years of peaceful English and American relationships. The hotel is situated between the Boston Public Library and the Prudential Center, which had been a railroad yard until the 1960s. The railroad yard was an important feature for The Lenox, allowing the more affluent guests like opera singer Enrico Caruso, to pull their railroad cars up to the hotel, and walk right in.

A $22 million re-do of guest rooms and public areas was completed in March of 1997 and there is a multi-million dollar renovation of the facade.

The Lenox makes a delightful retreat. There is a fitness room (open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.), Anago, a highly acclaimed restaurant under Chef Bob Calderone; Samuel Adams Brew House; and The Upstairs Cafe serving breakfast and dinner. Valet parking is available ($28/day).

In celebration of its centennial year, The Lenox is offering a trio of celebratory summer packages.

One of the packages being introduced (just in time for Earth Day, April 22), is "Tread Lightly", with a used-sneakers-for-cash room discount program. After a visit walking the streets of Boston, guests donate their worn out sneakers upon check-out. The size of the sneaker equals a discounted dollar amount off the total bill. Size 11s, for example, slides $22 off the bill. All the collected sneakers (one pair per person) will be donated to a national rubber recycling program. The $287 package also includes full American breakfast for four, a copy of "The Young Environmentalist," an eco-map of Boston and four-day passes for the MBTA. For addition cost, bike rentals for forays along the Charles Riverway can be pre-arranged. The package is available from April 22 through Sept. 3.

For "The Americana" package, The Lenox is teaming with Boston's Museum of Fine Arts to offer preferred viewing tickets to the American Folk Art show. The $305 package also includes valet parking and full American breakfast for two. Additional persons may be added for $60 each. The exhibit and the package, run through August 5.

"Stage Lights," celebrates the 100th birthday of The Lenox and its neighbor, The Colonial Theatre, with a pair of orchestra seats to the summer's top blockbusters, "Les Miserables," "Fiddler on the Roof," and "Mama Mia." The package includes a Friday or Saturday evening show or a Sunday matinee, plus valet parking and full American breakfast for two ($407, May 28 through Sept. 3).

Also this summer, The Lenox is offering, "Deal of the Century," celebrating the 100th birthday with a second night at $20 (through Sept. 3; the first night is at the regular rate); "Real Simple," which offers bed, breakfast and parking package for $277, year round; and "Taste of Boston," a deluxe room, guidebook and discount coupons for the city's top attractions, plus lobster dinner for two at Anago, $375 (through Sept. 3).

For further information, contact The Lenox, 710 Boylston St., Back Bay, Boston, 800-225-7676, www.lenoxhotel.com. For further information on Boston, call the Greater Boston Convention & Visitor Bureau at 888-SEE BOSTON or visit at www.bostonusa.com; Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism, 800-447-MASS, ext. 657, www.mass-vacation.com.

2001 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. E-mail questions or comments to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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