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The Pickle Barrel is a go-to for Montana State students in search of an ice cream fix. COURTESY MOIRA MCCULLOUGH/COLLEGE SCOOPS

By PAT BERRY
For Montclair Local

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PAT BERRY

Pat Berry is a writer, editor, and college application essay coach. Check out the archives for her tips on building a college list, writing a meaningful essay, and more at montclairlocal.news/tag/pat-berry/. For information on essay coaching, visit collegeapplicationcamp.com, and follow @college_essay_coach on Instagram.

Moira McCullough wasn’t having it. The Summit mom was not letting college-application angst overtake her home as it had for so many families she knew. The college application process is stressful enough. Couldn’t the travel aspect — the touring of colleges and universities during school breaks — be more fun? The mother of three then-teenagers was confident it could be.

Moira looked to a method she’d used when her kids were little and the family moved frequently while living overseas. Back then, the McCulloughs would get to know each new town or city by its cafés and pubs, kid-friendly restaurants and ethnic eateries. It was a tasty way to feel like a local, one meal at a time.

The same approach, it turned out, worked well for any college visit. “We explored colleges through our stomachs,” she told me.

“My kids enjoy travel and food, so touring schools meant making sure we didn’t just blow in and blow out, doing the tour and info session, but not much else,” Moira said. The McCulloughs would linger, creating their own personal tasting expedition of the neighborhoods surrounding each school. It’s how they happened on the deep-fried Oreos at Jack Brown’s, near the University of Richmond campus, and the wide range of barbecue options surrounding Syracuse University, like those at Dinosaur-Bar-B-Que. The family also made a point of checking out sights and cultural events near each institution. They also took advantage of opportunities to get physical, like ocean swimming on a visit to the University of Southern California.

How. Brilliant.(!)

I recall my husband and I trying to inject some playfulness into touring with our kids. But in hindsight, I think we viewed each visit as a nuisance that stole time from school breaks and lengthened the already-onerous college application checklist. How much healthier to approach this step not as an obligation but as a vacation, with all the earmarks of same — regional adventures, cultural outings, tasty meals, et al. — adding more facets to a potential student’s overall experience of a school.

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READ: COLLEGE BOUND; WITH EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITY, BE SELECTIVE

READ: COLLEGE BOUND; READ BEFORE, DURING, AND AFTER COLLEGE

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Eighteen months ago, Moira turned her personal mission into a resource and college-touring business, College Scoops. The business offers college-specific guides (at $10 apiece) to eateries and hotels, fitness options and local sights, compiled with the help of student ambassadors on each campus. College Scoops also has a concierge service, for those with the budget to hire someone to assemble an entire college-tour package.

Such packages aren’t in the budgets of most parents I know, but that’s not the point. By reframing college visits as opportunities instead of obligations, parents and siblings, along with applicants, can reap the rewards of trying out unfamiliar cities and regions for the cool stuff they offer. And by treating such journeys as vacations instead of fact-finding missions, an area’s shortcomings, as well as its assets, may stand out. Take, for instance, the small college town with one burger joint. It may seem quaint at first blush, but the traveler with interest in a diverse food scene will catch on quickly that four years is a long time to spend in a town with one dining option beyond the college cafeteria.

The 1,305 miles between Montclair and the campus of Tulane University had prevented a Montclair High student I know from seriously considering the university until late in the process, when she visited the New Orleans campus as an accepted student. She’d been to the city on vacation with her parents and sisters two years prior and remembered how they’d all connected immediately with its cultural vibrance, including the abundance of palate-pleasing restaurants. Now, Tulane checked all the academic boxes, and she felt confident she would be happy there.  

A couple of weeks ago, the now-college junior and I met for brunch at Saba, a Middle Eastern restaurant on Magazine Street near the Garden District (I happened to be in New Orleans visiting friends). We gobbled up delicious hummus, labne, and pita bread and then walked through sprawling Audubon Park on the way to campus. She spoke warmly about how she took advantage of the city whenever possible, attending food festivals and checking out different neighborhoods. It’s a long way from home, she admitted with a shrug, but The Big Easy has been a big draw for friends and family. Most importantly, she feels at home and thinks she may stay past graduation to start her career there.

Whether it’s to hike a scenic New England trail or to try out the best cheesecake south of the Mason-Dixon line, consider enhancing each college visit by going beyond the campus gates. It stands to reason that the better your student feels about the place they ultimately choose to spend the next four years, the greater their chances of success.

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