They say attending a college you’ve never visited is like getting married on a blind date—probably not the best idea. Yet, even though the campus visit is a very important part of the college application process, it doesn’t mean the visits themselves need to feel like your whole future is riding on a single tour! Here, one admission expert gives his top tips for making the campus visit both productive and enjoyable.
For a lot of the high school students and parents I meet, the idea of visiting colleges feels more like a homework assignment than it does an adventure. They feel pressure to visit all the colleges they’re interested in, to turn every visit into an intense fact-finding mission, and to do all of it while the colleges are in session as opposed to over the summer. Those expectations can make college visits stressful and not nearly as fun as they should be. Here are some visit tips to help you enjoy what should be a positive part of the college search process.
There’s no need to visit all your chosen schools before you apply
“Visit all the schools you’re considering before you apply” is great advice in theory. But it’s just not practical, especially if you’re applying to colleges far away and in many different directions from your home. Remember, you can also visit colleges after you apply, and even after you get accepted.
You apply to most colleges in the fall of your senior year. You hear back around March, and you usually have until May 1 of your senior year to make a decision. That means there are five to seven months after you apply when you can still visit colleges.
That being said, when you visit schools before applying, gravitate towards those near places you’re visiting anyway, like if you’re going there for a sports tournament, a band competition, or even a Thanksgiving weekend to Uncle Frank’s house. That will get you the most bang for your visit bucks. You can see more schools by choosing those that are easier to get to. And by visiting schools you’re on the fence about, you give yourself the chance to fall in love or decide they’re not right for you. The rest you can save until after you apply.
Don’t limit your visits to schools out of your reach
Many of the students I meet want to make the collegiate pilgrimage to visit their dream schools, which all too often are those schools most likely to reject them. Instead of widening their college choices by visiting schools where their chances of admission are solid, they’re narrowing the pool by renewing vows to their dream schools. If you love Duke, if you’ve cheered for their basketball team since you were 12 years old, and if you simply cannot envision a universe where you wouldn’t apply to Duke, you don’t need to fall any deeper in love with Duke by visiting the campus.
Spend this time visiting other colleges, preferably some more likely to love you back. Baylor, Ohio State, Syracuse, and Michigan State have great basketball teams, rabid fans, and a lot less competition for a spot in the freshman class. And if your Duke acceptance package arrives in the spring, then you can go see the campus the Blue Devils call home.
A summer visit is better than no visit
Some students are told to only visit a college when it is in session, that visiting over the summer doesn’t give you the same feel as when the campus is teeming with students. There’s truth to this—a lot of colleges are deserted over the summer and it is absolutely not the same experience as if you were there in the fall. But it’s not easy to put your high school classes and activities on hold to go see colleges, so the visit-while-it’s-in-session logic doesn’t always hold up.
If you can visit a college during the school year, do it, especially if you want to sit in on a class, get a sense of whether a big school’s population is too much, or do anything else that only works if the students are there. But if you just want to see the campus or find out just how small the college’s small town really is, a summer visit is probably fine, and certainly better than not visiting at all. Before you make the trek, just check the college’s website to make sure they’ll be offering tours while you’re there.
Don’t see more colleges in one trip than you can handle
It’s possible to commit college-visit overkill by trying to see too many colleges in one trip. I understand why this happens to families. If you’re going to take the time to travel someplace to see colleges, it makes sense that you should see as many as possible as long as you’re there. But the average person wouldn’t enjoy seeing nine amusement parks in three days, either. So be realistic about just how much college touring you can really handle. I’m a college junkie who will visit schools anywhere I happen to be visiting. But even I can’t see more than two or three in a day before I’m ready to do something else.
If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong
Some of the advice you read about visiting colleges borders on the absurd. “Take the tour, listen to the admission presentation, sit in on a class, eat in the cafeteria, interview a faculty member, stay overnight in a dorm, visit the athletic facilities, tour the library, visit the surrounding community” . . . the list goes on. You may want to do all those things, but finding the time (not to mention opportunity) to do them at every college on your list is not realistic. Learn how to prioritize your campus stops; doing lots of research beforehand will help you do so.
Of course, it’s probably a good idea to contact the campus tour offices and make some formal arrangements for your campus visits. Once you’re admitted, there will likely be some schools that deserve more time to give a thorough evaluation, maybe even one that includes a visit to a class and an overnight stay. But until that time, most college visits don’t need to be so rigorously planned.
When you arrive on those well-manicured grounds, be prepared to take the tour, look around, maybe have lunch on campus, and try to imagine what it would be like to attend. Most importantly, enjoy yourself. Looking at colleges is like getting to shop for your own birthday present. It should be a fun learning experience, a peek at your possible future and what might be the best years of your life.
The campus visit is the perfect time to ask questions. Here are some examples to get you started!
- What kinds of student-faculty research opportunities does XYZ University have?
- What are some internships XYZ University students have held?
- Where are some local spots students go during their free time and on weekends?
- How does XYZ University support students during the internship/job search?
- Do freshmen have access to any upper-level classes? If so, which ones?
- Does XYZ University host any events (festivals, concerts, movies, etc.)?
- What is the availability of academic, career, and personal counseling?
- Which academic programs on campus are most popular?
- How successful are the graduates of XYZ University in finding jobs?
- Do people participate in a variety of activities, groups, and clubs on campus? Or is the social scene dominated by only a few groups?
And you'll find a ton more questions in our Ultimate Campus Visit Checklist.