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College tours and visits can be an incredibly valuable resource for gaining a first-hand understanding of a college. By walking the campus, sitting in on classes, and interacting with current students, you will get a sense of what you can expect in the future should you enroll in the college. In addition, as you visit colleges, you might be surprised at what you discover would work best for you in a campus community. You may begin the process thinking that you want to be on a rural campus and discover instead that the hustle and bustle of city life is invigorating to you. Or, you may have dreamed of attending a big state school only to find that the large classes and sprawling campus are a bit overwhelming for your taste. Many of these things are not evident from reading a website or speaking to admissions officers over the phone, but instead become clear through in-person experience.

However, depending on the distance of the schools you are applying to and the many demands on your time, planning a college visit can feel overwhelming. How do you start the planning process? And once you plan your visit, what can you expect when you arrive on campus?

Starting Point: Planning Your College Visits

College visits can be expensive and require dedicated amounts of time, so you will almost certainly not be able to visit all of the schools on your list. At the same time, college visits can be incredibly useful both for narrowing your list and for cluing you in on what that school really cares about, so be strategic about which schools you choose to visit in person. You can plan to start your college visits once you have received your standardized test scores and created a balanced college list—typically the second semester of your junior year, though if you’re going to be traveling near one of the schools you’re interested in before then, it never hurts to visit!

Before selecting which colleges you want to visit, first work with your parent or guardian to create a budget and decide on the timing that will work best for you to visit. Spring break tends to be the best time to visit, particularly if the colleges you’re interested in require significant travel or if you intend to visit more than one school, but long weekends can allow enough time for schools closer to your location. While summer might afford you the greatest amount of free time, it is best to visit colleges while school is in session so that you can attend a class and speak to current students. If you have to visit colleges in the summer, make these plans while keeping your other summer activities in mind—if you are planning to attend a merit-based summer program, take an online class, or do an internship, be sure to plan your visits around the scheduled dates for those activities.

Once you have clarified the logistics, it is time to decide on which schools you want to visit. When creating your list, make sure that your list includes a variation in types of schools (small/medium/large, rural/suburban/urban, etc.) so that you can get a sense for what type of environment most appeals to you. In addition, consult with your college list to select a balance between schools that are reasonable reaches and matches. If your test scores and/or GPA are well below the 25th percentile for some of the schools on your list, it isn’t advisable to devote your time and resources to visit more than one of those schools.

When it comes to the schools that you will not be able to visit in person, there are ways to get the same insight a college tour would give you. Some of the top schools offer virtual tours on their site along with other online resources and events to engage your questions and give you a better sense of the school. Harvard offers a virtual tour followed by a virtual information session, Columbia’s virtual tour is accompanied by student panels and a live Q&A, and Dartmouth also offers live virtual tours, allowing you to experience the campus in real time with a current student, even from afar. In addition, you can check out www.campusreel.org to go on virtual tours of numerous college campuses guided by current students.

Parent Tips: Budgeting for Your Child’s College Visits

Planning financially for college visits may seem like a large task, but you can mitigate costs by strategically planning your other vacations and holidays around the locations of schools your student wants to visit. Additionally, you can help your student to select colleges to visit that are within a reasonable vicinity to one another so that you can visit multiple campuses on one trip rather than allocating funds for multiple days-long trips. While the schools nearby one of your student’s selected colleges might not be at the top of their list, seeing a school of a different size or kind of campus can still help your student to narrow their list based on how they respond to different types of colleges.

First Stop: Arriving on Campus

The initial arrival on campus can be an overwhelming experience, particularly if this is your first college visit. With so many sights and sounds, how do you know what to pay attention to and take into consideration as you meander through campus?

First, take in the location—college location is one of the first things we notice about a school. If you’re taking a tour of campus when you arrive, you’re likely to be swayed subconsciously by how pretty it is, or what kind of weather it is that day. However, try to carefully consider individual aspects of the location and how they might suit your individual needs and wants.

One way to do this is to take a walk or run individually through the campus and surrounding area. What do you notice about the city or town as you make your way down the sidewalk? If you’re interested in musical theater, do you notice local theaters or posters displayed in the windows of shops you pass advertising local plays? Or, if you enjoy spending your free time outdoors, do you notice parks or outdoor activity spaces that would be conducive spaces to relax and unwind? Likewise, use the same thoughtful process as you walk around on campus. Stop when you see corkboards and other spaces reserved for students to advertise events, clubs, and activities. This is an organic way to see what’s happening on campus even before speaking with current students.

Along the Way: Avoid Rushing to Judgement

As you make your way around campus, resist the urge to jump to conclusions about the school prematurely or call to mind stereotypes you may have heard about the school or its students. Keep in mind that almost all colleges are far bigger than high schools, so the social and academic stereotypes, no matter how pervasive, are only generalizations.

It is important to avoid buying into stereotypes such as:

  • ^Private schools are more challenging than public schools
  • ^Private schools cost more than public universities: oftentimes, private universities are able to offer scholarships to students that make the price of education far more affordable (for example, at Princeton 82 percent of recent seniors graduated debt free)
  • ^_________ is a party school
  • ^_________ school is not fun
  • ^_________ school is elitist
  • ^_________ school is the place where people learn to________________

At the end of the day, remember that you’re the one going to college. This process is a huge step towards asserting your independence as an adult, so take ownership of it and think critically about what appeals to you about the college and what doesn’t. Remember that every college almost certainly has a niche group of people for each student. College is about finding your community, and if the particular group you’re looking for doesn’t exist, you have the capability to create it! Regardless of the stereotypes you may have heard about the student body as a whole, your experience will be what you make it to be and you’ll get out of college what you put into it.

Fuel Up in the Cafeteria

Be sure to make a stop at the school cafeteria(s) while on campus during your college visit! Not only will this help you to get a sense of the food you’ll be eating for the majority of your meals at college, but it is also a great opportunity to mingle with current students and get a better understanding of the school culture by seeing how students interact outside of the classroom.

Along the Way: Ask Questions!

During your visit, the most important factors to consider are academic rigor, social life/student happiness, and research opportunities. We recommend asking both the tour guide and, if possible, other students around campus. The student next to you when you sit in on a class or eat in the dining hall will likely be able to provide less scripted, more candid responses. Explore questions to ask about:

Academics

  • How difficult is the coursework?
  • How many hours a week do you spend per class and how many classes do you (and the student body) take on average?
  • Have you had a professor who has done research and if so, how did that help the class or your understanding of the material?
  • Are professors renowned? Are they accessible? Do students often go to office hours and if so, how useful are office hours for certain courses?

Opportunities Outside of the Classroom

  • Are there opportunities for undergraduates to work more closely with professors, like writing a thesis or doing summer research?
  • How does the career office help the undergraduates?
  • Are there student clubs or organizations in the discipline I’m interested in pursuing? If so, which ones should I be aware of?
  • What jobs are available to undergraduates on campus? Can an undergraduate be a TA? Can you give me an example of when a professor was able to help you outside of class?

Career Preparation

  • What are some on-campus resources for career counseling?
  • Does the college help students find internships and professionals in their field?
  • Are there career fairs for those interested in x discipline? If so, how often does the university host them?
  • How do current students connect with alumni in their field? Does the school provide any opportunities for mentorship and networking?

School Culture & Student Life

  • How do most students here meet their friends? What do students do for fun?
  • What kinds of events does the college sponsor, and do people attend?
  • What percentage of the student body lives in on-campus housing?
  • What is residential life like at X University?
  • How do students get involved in the community? Does the college sponsor volunteer activities or other ways to give back?

Next Stop: Admissions Office

While current students are an invaluable resource as you visit the campus, admissions officers will likely have more of a comprehensive awareness of the school’s academic programs, student clubs, and school-sponsored activities, whereas students can be siloed in their particular major, residence hall, or on-campus involvements. Because of this, be sure to bring your list of questions to the admissions office as well. Plan to attend any programming the admissions office offers during your time on campus—whether a campus tour, Q&A session, or an interview with an admissions officer.

Finally, request contact information from the admissions representative you have worked with most closely during your visit. Inevitably, you’ll think of questions during your travel home that you wished you had asked, and having their contact information on hand will allow you to follow up, thank them for their time, and inquire further if you need more information.

Final Stop: Class Visit

Sitting in on classes provides you the opportunity to observe the students’ engagement levels and the professor’s lecture skills while getting a sense of the school’s academic offerings. However, keep in mind that making a good impression on a professor does not give you any boost in the application process. In order to choose which class to sit in on, you can do your research in advance by taking a look at the course catalog and asking an admissions representative if you can sit in on a class that interests you, or you can communicate your interests and intended major and ask them to place you in the class they think best aligns with your interests. You will likely be placed in a first-year course, so your experience in class can be an informative look into what you can expect from your freshman-year coursework in that particular major.

As you sit in on classes, be sure to have a notepad and a writing utensil. While you do not necessarily need to take notes on the lecture itself, you can jot down notes about things you notice throughout the class visit. Is the professor engaging? Is the class discussion or lecture-based? Do students seem engaged? How much homework does the professor assign? Making notes about these things will help you remember your experience later and compare the academic experience to that of other schools you visit.

COLLEGE VISIT FIELD NOTES

Use this printable template to take notes to keep track of everything you experience on your college visit tour, including:

 

N
Impressions of the campus
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Contact information for the people you meet
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What you like and dislike about the school

COLLEGE VISIT FAQ

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How important are college visits?

College visits are helpful to get a sense of what you want in a college (as far as size, region, type of campus, etc), so it is important to visit at least a few different colleges. That being said, visiting a college and attending a class or meeting with an admissions officer does not give you a leg up in the admissions process—so these visits are ultimately for your enrichment rather than your chance of admission. You can, however, weave in information about your visit into your supplemental essays to demonstrate your knowledge of the school and your clear interest in their programs.

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Is it too early to start college visits in 9th or 10th grade?

While you can certainly tour a campus or visit a college during your 9th and 10th grade years if you’re in the vicinity, odds are you have not yet created a college list based on your SAT/ACT scores. Because of this, it might not be the best investment of time and money to travel to colleges during those years of high school. It is best to allocate the time and funds for touring colleges in your junior year, when you will have a better developed sense of which schools might be a good fit for you academically and culturally.

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What should I do if I can’t visit all of my schools in person?

Odds are, you will not be able to visit all of your schools in person—and that’s okay! The most important thing is that you visit a range of schools (different sizes, locations, types of campuses) in order to make an informed decision about what type of school is best for you. For those schools that you are unable to visit, plan to take a virtual tour and attend an online information session so that you can hear from current students and admissions officers about what makes that particular school distinct.

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What should I expect on a college visit?

On a college visit, you should expect to tour the campus (both formally and informally), meet with admissions representatives and current students, attend a class, and (depending on the school) potentially spend the night in one of the residence halls. Be prepared to bring clothes which are casual but still polished, a list of questions you want to ask students and admissions officers, and a notebook to record things that stand out to you on your visit.