College visits are a roller coaster ride of long drives, tedious tours, ah-ha moments and the paralysis of indecision that follows seeing so many amazing places in so little time.
Spring Break is a worry-free getaway, a time to bask in exotic destinations and forget the real world for a few days.
Apart, they’re as different as a large public university anchored to a sprawling urban campus – and a small private liberal arts college draped in the shadow of a mountain. But together they can create an unexpectedly satisfying getaway to contemplate the future and see some new sights.
If you’re using Spring Break or any vacation time to visit a short list of preferred colleges, keep a few things in mind. First, if soaking in the student experience first hand is important to you, make sure the college isn’t on break, too. Second, take virtual online tours for any schools you’re considering. You don’t want to to step out of the car, complain that the admissions office looks like a vacant post office, and waste a trip. And finally, choose areas where several colleges you’re considering are clustered together. This makes for the most efficient use of time for Spring Break college visits.
We started the homework work for you, suggesting three popular college visit circuits.
Boston: College Town, USA
If you’re OK with packing gloves and boots instead of flip-flops and T-shirts for your Spring Break getaway, then Boston should be atop your list of college visits. Cold and blustery weather aside, Boston boasts the biggest cluster of colleges and universities. Tallying more than 80 schools and 250,000 students, Beantown easily ranks as the higher learning capital of the country. (1)
Not only does Boston feature a lot of schools, but it also features a great variety of institutions. Harvard is Harvard. Boston University is a big urban campus built right into the city – a great contrast to Boston College’s traditional Chestnut Hill suburban setting. And MIT is equally known for its Blackjack team and influential alumni: Kofi Annan, Buzz Aldrin and Carly Fiorina, among others. There are a number of other schools that should be on your radar, too:
- Northeastern University: Features a unique co-op offering that may extend your time in school but add real-world work experience. This is much more than your average internship. (2)
- Babson College: Offers both downtown and Wellesley campuses with a strong tilt toward business and entrepreneurship.
- Brandeis University: A small college located about 10 miles from Boston with a focus on liberal arts and study-abroad programs. (3)
- Emerson College: Among the most sought-after schools with a curriculum focused on the visual, media and performing arts.
Tufts University is right down the road. And Brown University and Providence College are just an hour away in Rhode Island.
Boston is a very walkable city, even when it’s snow covered. But the city’s simple mass transit system, The T, is there to help get you from Braintree, the southernmost stop, to Oak Grove, the northernmost point. (4)
In terms of making Boston college visits a great Spring Break stop, you might get lucky and have your trip align with St. Patrick’s Day. Boston’s famous parade and festivities are among the most popular this side of the Atlantic.
Otherwise, check out the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, hike the 2.5-mile Freedom Trail or catch a Bruins hockey game. In terms of establishing your home away from home, the Boston-Cambridge Marriott, which packs plenty of value and amenities, is a 4-minute walk from the T. (5)
Just remember: When it’s chilly, Boston’s unwritten rules of the street dictate that everyone digs their own car out from the snow. If you find a sweet parking spot free of snow and ice, park there at your own risk.
Southern Hospitality: Washington, DC., Virginia and North Carolina
College is where many a teen and 20-something discover the road trip. So why not make the prelude to the college experience a good old fashioned roadie? We’ve got a route where you can experience every season as you snake down the East Coast making college visits.
Start the trip in our nation’s Capital by car – either your own ride or renting one after landing at Reagan or Dulles Airport. Of all D.C.’s prestigious institutions of higher learning, Georgetown University stands apart. The alma mater of former President Bill Clinton and the backdrop for “St. Elmo’s Fire,” Georgetown boasts four centuries of academic excellence in one of the most coveted ZIP codes in the country. Don’t forget to climb aboard the Metro to The Smithsonian, National Zoo, monuments and all the other free federal attractions while you’re up there.
Next, head south down the beltway, turn right (west) and pull into Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia, a town and city consistently ranked as among the best to live. UVA’s Darden School of Business was ranked No. 2 in the world by The Economist. (6). They work hard and play hard in C-Ville, exhibited by the region’s Monticello Wine Trail. With 30 wineries and a growing number of craft breweries, mom and dad can let the future scholars explore campus while sipping on a choice Viognier, one of the area’s signature varietals. (7)
Here are some other schools to consider adding to your itinerary:
- The Washingtons: George Washington University (D.C.) is a 25K-strong school located in the Foggy Bottom area of D.C. that’s groomed the likes of Colin Powell, Harry Reid and J. Edgar Hoover. Mary Washington (Fredericksburg) features a renowned teaching program. And Washington & Lee is a selective, small liberal arts school that’s big on tradition and its uncompromising honor code.
- University of Richmond & Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU): Located just a few miles from each other in the former capital of the confederacy, two schools couldn’t be further apart. While Richmond showcases a picturesque, tree-lined campus and small class sizes in Richmond’s suburbs, VCU spills out into the city and is known for its strong visual arts program as well as its medical school.
Wake Forest (Winston Salem), Old Dominion (Norfolk) and American University (D.C.) are a few other schools to consider on this southern trail.
If you want to make it a true Spring Break road trip, build some flexibility into your schedule so you can play it by ear. As long as you know when and where the college tours are happening, and that you can definitely find a room in DC – conventions and other large gatherings can skyrocket room prices on some nights – you should be able to plan your itinerary in real time. Finally, remember: it’s not a true road trip until you hit an out-of-the-way diner (Mike’s 610 Diner in Stafford, Va.), stay at a campground (Shenandoah National Park) and make a detour for a random roadside attraction (The Arm of Stonewall Jackson in Fredericksburg).
Higher Degrees: Southern California
Going to school in Southern California is like being on vacation… always. You can major in film studies, minor in surfing and grab late-night study grub at In-N-Out Burger.
Here, rain is a headline. And running into celebrities or their kids on campus eventually feels normal. You can take a field trip to Venice Beach or the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Best of all, eventually, you’re not a tourist anymore.
You can taste the good life, SoCal college life, on a Spring Break excursion thanks to the number of highly ranked and competitive universities clustered around Los Angeles. Sure, the traffic is a total bummer. But if you avoid peak rush hour times, utilize the Metro, and schedule your visits so that you’re hitting all the schools inside L.A. before hitting the outskirts – not zig-zagging back and forth on I-10 – you can avoid gridlock and headaches. (8)
Few public institutions stand out in as many ways as UCLA: academic excellence, athletic success and a sweeping urban campus located just 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Touring the 419-acre Westwood campus on a sunny day is like walking through a postcard (spoiler alert: they’re all sunny days). Of course, one of the few schools that challenges UCLA is right down the road. Private school USC is a rival in every way, and boasts a thriving graduate student population. A top-tier destination for students pursuing the cinematic arts, USC counts George Lucas and Judd Apatow among its graduates. (9)
Here are a few other schools to consider for your trip:
- Loyola Marymount University: Also located in L.A., it’s one of 28 Jesuit universities in America and the largest Catholic college on the West Coast.
- Harvey Mudd: One of the Claremont Colleges – with Claremont McKenna, Pomona, Scripps and Pitzer being the others – this small college specializes in engineering, science and math. Its unique Clinic Program allows students to take a crack at puzzling problems from partner companies including Facebook and NASA. Did we mention they have a unicycle club called Gonzo Unicycle Madness. L.A. is 33 miles away; that’s about a six-hour unicycle ride. (10)
- Whittier College: Richard Nixon served as student body president of this college with Quaker roots. The school features a unique 3-2 engineering program where students can study for three years at Whittier before studying an additional two years at USC or the University of Minnesota.
If you ever tire of the beaches or shopping on Rodeo Drive in between college visits, L.A.’s Museum Row includes the Petersen Automotive Museum, the Craft & Folk Museum and other destinations. Don’t miss the Getty Center, overflowing with lush gardens, spectacular modern architecture and famous works of art including Van Gogh’s “Irises.” (12)
Despite L.A.’s over-the-top style and in-your-face opulence, you can find value when looking for lodging. Take the Hilgard House Westwood Village, which is located right beside UCLA and features everything you need, from HBO to free breakfast, without all the frills and extras. (13) If you want to pamper yourself, Hotel Bel-Air is a family-friendly resort located in 12 acres of beautiful gardens in the L.A. suburbs. The spa, outdoor pool, Wolfgang Puck eatery and Egyptian cotton sheets are a far cry from your average dorm room, even in SoCal. Of course, they come at a tuition payment. (14)
Let’s be honest, combining Spring Break with college visits might not just be your best option for looking at faraway schools. Depending on work schedules, exams and vacation time, it may be your only way to see these schools. Fortunately, there are several clusters of top colleges in areas across the country that also offer built-in vacations. Plan your itinerary right, and the road to higher learning leads to higher relaxation, too.