It was the summer before senior year. My parents and I had traveled across the United States to take a tour of 11 colleges in 10 days, and honestly, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that I was going to sit through almost a dozen tours and information sessions, collect more pamphlets than I could fit in my suitcase home, and, if I was lucky, find some schools that I could see myself attending. I’m glad to report, however, that college visits can include more than just speeches on financial aid that all blur together, or serious foot cramps from trekking up that one hill to see the dorms. If you’re organized and proactive, you can have a great time on these visits, and even find the college of your dreams. Check out these tips to make these exciting trips just a little bit less overwhelming.
1. Visit multiple schools
Try to visit colleges even if you're only vaguely interested in them. Of the 11 colleges I visited that summer, only six made it to my final list of applications. I wasn’t very interested in some of the schools and only visited because their location was convenient or because they were especially prestigious. But touring campuses that I could never see myself living on ended up helping me in the long run. It helped me confirm what I didn’t want in a college and gave me a way to compare different types of schools. I saw them all—large and small, stringent core classes and open curriculum, vibrant Greek life and quiet studiousness—and by the end of it, I knew my “type.” I was able to pick and choose colleges to apply to and was confident that I liked the traits of each school.
2. Always ask questions
Short as this piece of advice may be, it is perhaps the most important. Asking questions is incredibly helpful when it comes to getting insight about a school, and your tour guides and admissions officers will be more than happy to help you; it’s their job, after all. Ask about everything, from scholarship opportunities to dorm sizes to the weather (as a Californian touring Northeastern schools, I asked my fair share of questions about the snow), and hold on to the answers you receive. Chances are, they’ll help you out when application season begins. Additionally, some tour guides and information session presenters might offer their contact card—take it. You may not use it, but if you think of a question about the school later on, this is a valuable resource. Plus, communicating with people in the admissions office shows that you’re interested, which could potentially give you an edge when it comes time to apply.
3. Take advantage of informational interviews
When I was scheduling my visit to Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, I noticed they had an option for students to have an informational interview with someone from the admissions office. It was casual and non-evaluative, so, though I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into, I signed up. It turned out to be a great decision. I was paired up with a recent graduate for a short, stress-free chat about the school. She was able to answer all of my questions and point me toward resources at the school that aligned with my interests. Of course, not all schools have this option—Colgate was the only one that did of the schools I visited—but if you find a college you’re visiting offers informational interviews, be sure to take advantage. It has no bearing on whether or not you’ll be admitted to the school, but it might greatly impact your interest.
4. Explore each campus on your own
Campus tours are great. With an engaging guide and a good group of people, you can see all the major buildings on campus and learn a little bit about the history and traditions of the university. But there’s something to be said for taking a little while after the tour to wander around campus alone, taking in the sights without anyone who (like all college tour guides) is trying to sell you on the school. Stroll down the paths of the main green; sit on the steps of one of the academic buildings; check out the restaurants nearby. Just see if you can imagine yourself making that college your home for the next four years.
5. Record your thoughts after you leave
Regardless of how unique a school might feel in the moment, there’s a point when you’ll be elbows-deep in information and every visit will start to seem the same. To prevent this, keep a journal (or at least a Word Doc) chronicling your tours and your thoughts about each university. When I went on my big college trip, I took some time after visiting to jot down a few quick paragraphs about my general feelings: how I liked the campus, what I thought about the surrounding area, whether they had programs I was interested in, etc. I’d forgotten most of those thoughts by the time I moved on to the next campus, but at the very least, I had it written down. Months later, as I was deciding which schools to apply to, and even the next spring as I made the choice of which school to attend, I referenced these pages to help me remember just what I liked about each college.
Of course, you’ll discover your own strategies as you make your rounds through different colleges and will likely be able to add to this list by the end of it. But this is a good place to start. Visiting, applying to, and choosing colleges is an overwhelming experience, but it’s incredibly rewarding—and in the end, you’ll wind up on a campus that feels like home.
Once you're done with your visits, use your newfound knowledge and perspective to narrow down your college list!