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Making the Most of a College Visit

Jul 21, 2021

It’s time to pack up and head off to visit a college campus. How can you make the trip worthwhile?

Some visits may be as simple as an informal drive to a local college. Others may be week-long excursions visiting several schools. No matter the complexity, advance planning will help maximize the return on your investment of time, money, and energy.

Here are a few tips to make the visits fun and informative.

Tip 1: Make sure everyone’s head is in the game

A visit to a college campus is a very important part of the process of finding a college that is a great academic, social and financial fit. The very first point: make sure your son or daughter wants to visit the school. Visiting a college campus just to make a parent happy is more likely to backfire than result in an epiphany that this is the college of the student’s dream.

Making arrangements and planning the logistics ensures that the trip goes smoothly and the student gets a good feel for the schools on the list.

There is no “right” time to schedule a visit. Many students start getting serious about college visits during their junior year and the summer before senior year.  

Tip 2: Before leaving, do some preliminary research

Make a college list

Developing a list of colleges sounds pretty basic, but it is THE place to start to avoid wasting time and money visiting colleges without a purpose. The college list changes over time as the student collects more information, talks to friends and school counselors and starts to assess how affordable each college is likely to be. Using free college search engines like this one at can provide important information that will start the process of finding the right college fit academically, socially and financially.

Take a virtual tour

Many colleges provide virtual tours on their website where families can “walk through the campus” with the click of a mouse. Some schools offer panoramic views, video footage, or student voiceovers to paint the picture of how they want you to see their facilities and meet their students.

Virtual tours offer an easy first look at a college. We know these are well-designed marketing pieces to show the college in the very best light. However, they can save lots of time and money by offering a peek into the college with the click of a mouse from the comfort of home.

Although there is no substitute for walking around a campus, virtual tours will provide students with information to consider whether a particular school is worth a visit.

Make a plan.

Like most aspects of the college process, students who plan ahead will get more out of the experience and feel calmer about the process. The plan can be very simple if you’re visiting a local campus or more refined for a multi-campus trip. Typically, you should budget about three hours including the information session and guided tour of the campus.

For a local visit, it may be as simple as attending a sporting event or seeing a play or concert.  Multi-campus visits over several days will require more planning. Be sure to check the college’s website to see if local hotels, restaurants and other merchants offer discounts.

It pays to research colleges in advance, make a timeline and sign-up as early as possible for the information session and tour.

Tip 3: Take advantage of the in-person info session and tour

During prime visiting times, appointments for formal tours and information sessions can fill up quickly. Visit a school’s website to view to schedule your tours in advance. With proper scheduling you may even land a 1-1 tour. Colleges carefully track a student’s interest in their school and take note of who visits on campus, at College Fairs and special events a college may host.

The tours are particularly fun. Most times, they are conducted by a student who happens to be particularly adept at walking backward while talking up the fine points of the school. They’ll show you a dorm room, classrooms, the library, the student union and one or more of the dining areas.

The true benefit of a campus visit for students is very often intuitive. Students pick-up on the vibe of a campus. Are the students dressed the way the student likes to dress? Does the campus feel comfortable?  Is the atmosphere very serious? Can the student picture themselves on this campus?

If a student would like some special arrangement (meeting a professor or coach, attending a  class, visiting a particular laboratory or building) call in advance to see what accommodations can be made. Also, try narrowing the list before investing the time, effort and emotion of visiting a school. Is the student most interested in urban or rural schools?  Large or small? Is this school likely to be affordable for your family? Do you need to meet someone in the financial aid office to discuss options?

Some high schools consider a campus visit to be an excused absence that does not count against a student’s attendance record.  Check with them if you are considering a visit during the school year.

Tip 4: Visit local schools first

Try visiting a school nearby to get accustomed to the on-campus college visit before trekking across the country on an expensive college tour. This also helps you better measure differences and make comparisons between colleges. High school students often know kids in the grades above them making visits to local campuses meaningful and fun.

Tip 5: Get the informal scoop

Visit the school for the “official” information session and tour is important. So is digging a little deeper.  After the well scripted school marketing effort is over, students benefit from the personal contact with friends and students on campus to get a better insider’s view of the college and all it has to offer.

If a student does not know anyone on campus for an informal chat, spend time after the tour is over to interact with students directly.  Most students love their college and are very willing to share their experiences with prospective students.  They will likely be forthright in what they like the most and what surprises they may have had to deal with.  All remember what it was like to be in a high school senior’s shoes and often cheerfully want to be helpful.

Remember, the info session and guided tour are carefully scripted marketing sessions intended to sell the school to students. Dig a little deeper to get a more authentic experience: walk around  independently, eat in the cafeteria, visit the student union or bookstore, and roam around areas of campus that weren’t featured on the tour.

If it’s not possible to do an on-campus tour before applying to the college, be sure to visit before accepting an acceptance.  It can happen that a student arrives for freshman check-in to a school they did not visit, gets a bad vibe and wants leave before the first class starts.

Tip 6: Take great notes and ask lots of questions

Every college has a lot to offer, but after a few campus visits, they all seem to blur together. Taking notes, and even pictures, can help reinforce key differentiating points among the schools. Making these notes during or soon after the tour will help keep the campus visits straight.

Some students benefit from having a list of standard questions to be answered for each school. Recording notes and answers to the common questions while the visit is fresh in mind is very helpful. It affords a great opportunity to compare the schools on a common basis when it is time to choose a college.

Tip 7: Visit while school is in session

To get the best feel, it is preferable to visit campuses while the students are there. Visiting in the summer shows the buildings, but not the student body. While visiting, engage with students – they love talking about the process of selecting their school!

A final thought

For many students, visiting college campuses is a real signal that their life is about to change. They picture themselves on the campus,

interacting with the kids they are meeting as future peers. The feeling they get from the time they open the car door to the time you leave is an important part of the selection process. Give them some room to take it all in and encourage them to take notes to help them recall the visit.