By Sarah Kuper
The fall season for Over the Mountain high school students is in full swing with pep rallies and Friday night lights. But looming over the fun of a student’s senior year is the deadline for a big decision – where to apply to college.
Now, one Birmingham business is helping take the stress out of at least one step in the process. Several times a year, College Bound Birmingham takes groups of high schoolers to tour colleges in the southeast or Texas, hitting multiple campuses in the span of a week.
The week is packed with official campus tours, informal gatherings with current students, one-on-one meetings with coaches and professors and downtime to evaluate.
And no parents are allowed.
Kristin Sartelle is the founder of the company. With her background in admission counseling and recruiting, she understands the importance of actually setting foot on campus instead of depending on brochures and online experiences.
“I think students are much more content and confident in their ultimate decision if they have been able to look around campus,” she said, “but it can be hard for two working parents to take off a week to get kids to several colleges.”
The most recent tour of southeastern schools included a large state school, University of Virginia, and smaller liberal arts schools, including Sewanee: The University of the South, and Washington and Lee University.
Owen Riley is a junior at Mountain Brook High School. He went on the tour of Texas schools this summer. He said one of the most helpful things about the tour was going off-the-record with current students.
“We met up with some recent Mountain Brook High School grads who were at some of the schools we were touring. We were able to talk with them about their experience; they had a different perspective sometimes,” he said.
Riley said he was surprised to find that Southern Methodist University in Dallas was his favorite of the schools he toured.
“I really wasn’t interested in SMU but I ended up liking it the best. You can just tell that some campuses feel more welcoming than others,” he said.
From the Students’ Perspective
Sartelle said she keeps the groups small and tries to cater to individuals as much as possible, setting up meetings with the drama department for some students or tours of engineering schools for others.
Amy Roberts’ son James went on a College Bound tour as a junior last year. Roberts said she was impressed with the way Sartelle was able to get on the students’ level and find out what was going on in their heads.
“She was so vivacious and full of life,” Roberts said. “She worked hard to get students individual attention, lining them up with meetings and introducing them to peers.”
For Roberts, the idea of having her son look at schools without her parental guidance seemed to make sense.
“At the end of the day, it really is his decision. Seeing the schools himself makes him more invested in the process and less anxious. Plus, it is more fun to go with your peers.”
Sartelle said students may be more open-minded without their parents looking over their shoulders.
“Without parents, conversations among students are rich and honest,” she said, “Plus, students pick up on their parents’ biases, but really this may be the first truly independent decision they make in life.”
When a student gets serious about a school, Sartelle encourages parents to go back with their student for a second look.
College Bound Birmingham arranges transportation, hotel stays, campus tours and off-campus activities. Fees for tours range from $1,300 to $1,500. Sartelle’s husband, Preston, often comes on the trips to serve as an extra chaperone.
College Bound Birmingham does not assist with college testing prep or the actual application process, but Sartelle recommends getting help from school guidance counselors or ACT prep courses such as All Pencils Down.
Most college applications are due Nov. 1, but the process can start months and even years before.
Whether it is through College Bound Birmingham or not, Sartelle recommends students tour colleges any chance they get no matter where they are in the process.
“Any time you are on family vacation, if there is a college in the town, go see it, even going as a freshman or sophomore. Instead of stressing a student out, this can actually make it seem less intimidating,” she said.
The next trip is in January. Students will visit Georgetown University, Davidson College, University of North Carolina, Wake Forest University, University of Virginia and Washington and Lee University.
To register and learn more about future trips, visit collegeboundbirmingham.com.