Covid-19 Update. This trip was planned and executed before summer 2020. Many colleges do not offer guided tours in the spring of 2021, but self tours are still possible- plan ahead (and follow your local health guidelines and those at your destination before leaving home).
Whether you are an applicant or a parent of a high-schooler, chances are – college application process is something you both may want to forget soon. College road trips on the other hand could leave a lot of positive family memories. Although this concept was foreign to me in the beginning of the process, I am now a big proponent of a well-planned college road trip that includes colleges big and small, state and private, set in in a city or a country-side, a trip that also leaves room for some sights along the way- all together as a family!
When I was planning our trips, discussing the stops on a friend’s family college trip was a great starting point in planning our own. So here I am sharing our itineraries touring colleges in the American Northeast to get you started on planning your own.
A Week or a Weekend?
Many American families opt for a week of college touring over a summer or spring break. We could not get away for the entire week, so we went on three separate weekend tours. As you can see from my map above, going for a week in a “logical” circle without back-tracking would save up to 20 hours of our driving time! On the other hand, going on separate weekends allows to keep things in a better perspective as you have some time in-between the tours to process (and adjust) your experiences and expectations.
Starting in Boston we did not include Boston area colleges on our road trips (we did them separately on other weekends). If you are starting your trip outside of Boston, it will probably be on your tour. There are a variety of colleges here and as many historic and cultural attractions. (and some colleges, like Harvard University is worth a visit regardless of whether you are applying there or not).
Extended Weekend Tour 1 (4 nights). Thursday-Monday.
Boston-Syracuse, NY-Bethlehem, PA
Stop 1: Syracuse (3 nights).
We drove to Syracuse from Boston on an April pre-spring break Thursday of my son’s junior year. We had tours planned for Friday, Saturday and Monday with Saturday afternoon and Sunday left for sight-seeing and travelling between stops. This was quite an enjoyable trip!
(The junior or senior Days are often planned by colleges on Friday and Saturday and you get more out of them than just regular tour and information session)
We made Syracuse, New York our base for the first 3 nights of touring and stayed at Syracuse Homewood Suites, (separate bedroom and kitchenette).
On Friday we drove from Syracuse for an hour to Rochester, NY and spent the day touring Rochester University in the morning and then Rochester Institute of Technology in the afternoon.
It is intense but not impossible to have 2 tours in one day, as tours start early. We were at Rochester University from 8am-1pm and then at RIT from 2-5 and still had time for nice dinner on lively Park Avenue in Rochester. Set among the Victorian houses, it is made up of nice restaurants and cute shops. (It is also home to Edward E. Boynton House, a prairie-style home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.)
On Saturday we explored Syracuse University. We were done by 2pm with just enough time left to visit a quaint town of Skaneateles in the Finger Lakes region. We tasted wines at the Anyela’s Vineyards, walked the Main street and just sat reflecting quietly by the lake.
*Other nearby college towns to consider: Ithaca, New York (Ithaca College, Cornell University)
There are no tours offered on Sundays and we used the day for a leisurely (3-hour) drive to our next destination in Pennsylvania and explore some sights.
Stop 2: Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania (1 night).
Our next overnight destination was in the old steel town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. We explored the remains of the 18th century Moravian settlement and Moravian Book Shop – the oldest book shop in America dating to 1745 (for official walking tours, check out historic Bethlehem website).
We woke up early on Monday morning ready for a very busy day of exploring Lehigh University in Bethlehem and the Lafayette College in nearby Easton. We drove back home to Boston (4.5hours) in the evening.
*On your way from Lehigh Valley back to Boston, you could of course stop to tour colleges in New York City or Connecticut. We have toured New York University, Yale and University of Connecticut on separate weekend trips.
Weekend Tour 2
As I already noted, it would take less driving time overall if we had combined this tour with our first tour of upstate New York and Eastern Pennsylvania and avoided “backtracking”. The advantage of having two separate tours was that we have done the second tour a year later, in the spring of a senior year, when both the applicant and colleges have made some decisions. Post-acceptance tours are trickier to plan as there are fewer “accepted student days” than regular touring days on the office of admissions calendar. (Note that if you are not able to do a formal “accepted student tour”, they will still sign you up on a perspective student tour or you could just tour around on your own to get the “feel” for the school.)
Stop 1. State College, Pennsylvania (1 night)
We drove to a student town of State College on a certain evening in April to visit an “Accepted Student Day” at Pennsylvania State University the following morning. We enjoyed the stately academic buildings and cute main street just off campus. Being on a tight schedule, we could not endure the long lines at the famous largest on-campus University creamery in U.S. where President Clinton was allowed an anecdotal exception to mix the ice-cream flavors in one cup!
A two-hour drive in the afternoon got us to the city of Pittsburgh to tour Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh.
*If you have time (and eager family members) consider exploring Pennsylvania attractions of Hershey World, historical Philadelphia and Longwood Gardens.
Stop 3: Pittsburgh (1 night)
We spent a couple of hours exploring Carnegie Mellon on our own late in the afternoon (picked into the academic building, the library and performance arts center and observed the students building the tents for the annual carnival. We stayed in Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center (adjacent to the University) which allowed us some extra (and very needed) sleeping-in time in the morning before we toured compactly-sized Pittsburgh University. We saw some familiar faces of other prospective students we have met on the Penn State tour the day before!
We finished the touring day by checking out Pittsburgh’s landmark Point State Park where the rivers Allegheny and Monongahela meet to form the Ohio river. An impressive fountain in this park is one of the largest in the United States! Another fun nearby attraction is a funicular that takes you up and down Mount Washington. You can see the cars going up and down as you stroll along the river.
*If small liberal arts colleges (and U.S. history!) are on your agenda, colonial Gettysburg is an hour drive from Pittsburg. From Pittsburg, you could also choose to continue to Washington, DC for some capital sightseeing (as you explore American University, Georgetown and George Washington Universities) or even further to Virginia for smaller William and Mary University and other area schools.
There are so many exciting options which I am hoping to explore with my younger child when the time comes!
Have fun on your college road trips and share some college tripping memories in the comments!
TIPS ON PLANNING YOUR COLLEGE TRIP ITINERARY
* If a driving time is more than 2 hours, plan to arrive the night before your tour.
* It might be possible to fit a tour of two colleges in one day, especially if you are in the early exploratory stage and the colleges are very close to each other. It gets a bit intense and there will be no sight-seeing on a day like this, but it works!
* Tours are not offered on Sundays so you can use it as a driving (or sightseeing day) on your road trip, or to explore on your own.
* Campus Days offer extended programming with specific majors and colleges sessions, lunch and other ways to explore in addition to traditional campus tour and information sessions.
* If you are touring in the summer, there are will be few students around and you might not get a real campus feel. Fall and spring touring is better for that reason as well as weather-wise.
* If you plan to revisit (or visit) some colleges once the acceptance letters come in, keep in mind, take a note of “Accepted Sudents” days which you may want to plan your tour around.
* Even if your kid is set on a certain type of school (e.g. large University in a country-setting), invite them to explore a different style school (e.g. smaller liberal arts school) in the area where you are visiting – to expose them to more choices and to keep things in perspective.
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