Originally Posted: Jun 4, 2018
Last Updated: Mar 4, 2021
I recently utilized my spring break to visit some colleges. And I found almost every expectation I had about college tours was completely wrong. The only one that stood after my trip was that I expected to love every college I visited! But that’s why people who’ve been there give advice to those who haven’t so you can navigate your college visits with ease. Here’s some basic advice about college tours so you don’t have to have your mind blown quite as much as mine.
Research before you go
Don’t walk into your tour knowing nothing about the school. Make sure you thoroughly research the college to see what you have questions about and what programs you’re interested in. By now, you’ve probably started looking you’re your colleges of interest. Make sure to focus on coming up with questions you want to ask, and research is especially helpful for learning what you don’t need to ask because you can already find the answer online. Come up with questions you can’t get answers to through your research. Also, map out places you want to see in case they don’t cover it on the tour and you have free time to explore by yourself. You’re putting in a lot of effort to go on the tour, so you should try and get the most out of it.
Related: College Search Spreadsheet Template
Don’t be late
To get to my Harvard University tour, we had 20 minutes walking on campus to get to the info session. Plenty of time, right? Wrong! I hadn’t planned on the admission office being off the main campus or needing a map to find it. I especially hadn’t planned for it to be snowing! Unfortunately, we arrived five minutes late to the session and had to stand in the back, drenched and exhausted. The next day we toured Boston University. We arrived an hour early, not wanting to repeat our previous tardiness. I made sure I knew exactly how to get to the admission building. It was a great experience, and we arrived about 45 minutes early to every other college tour. In general, if you’re familiar with the college you’re touring, feel free to arrive around 20 minutes early. But if you’re stranger in a strange land, budget about 30–45 minutes extra.
Check the weather
I made the mistake of assuming the snowy forecast for Boston and Chicago would be wrong. I packed a little bit of winter clothing, but I assumed the weather would be similar to a typical Washington spring. Make sure to check the weather and pack for it! If you’re just taking a tour and listening in on an info session, wear comfortable clothing. You’ll need to be able to walk and sweat in your clothing, but don’t be too lax. If you’re interviewing at some point during your campus visit, you’ll need to look professional. The biggest taboo is to wear clothing from colleges other than the one you’re touring. (It seems obvious, but I saw multiple people do it.)
Know that colleges care if you take a tour
Northwestern University, University of Chicago, BU, and Brandeis University all had me fill out a form when I registered for a tour with information about where I’m from, my interests, and whatnot. They also had me check in when I arrived. Of these colleges, all but one had me fill out a survey afterward about the quality of the tour and its effect on my decision to apply. Colleges know you toured! It’s a way of demonstrating your interest. Just touring the school won’t put you ahead of another identical applicant who didn’t, but it can put you ahead when you’re writing your essays. Many colleges require a supplemental essay that asks why you want to attend. Going on a tour or sitting in on an info session can help you understand why you want to go to that school. That will make your essay writing much easier and put you ahead of the pack.
Don’t let your parents take over
I saw so many parents taking notes and asking specific questions about colleges while their kids were on their phones wearing a bored expression. I don’t know how you could set yourself up for failure any more than that. You’re applying to colleges, not your parents! College is about growing up, and that means doing things yourself. Take your own notes, because you’ll learn a lot of information and you’re going to want to remember it. And ask your own questions—try having three prepared about aspects that are important to you.
Take advantage of being on campus
Ask your tour guide what buildings are open to the public. They can’t fit everything into an hour-long walking tour, so take it upon yourself to check out the rest of the school after. (This means you need to plan in advance to hang around campus to do so. So don’t overbook yourself by scheduling a tour at another nearby school only 30 minutes after the end of the last one.) You should also check out the official school bookstore, because that’s where you can buy school swag.
Pay attention to admission info
Most info sessions are pretty repetitive, but each school was pretty specific about what they’re looking for in an applicant. One common theme was sincerity. They don’t care if you were president of 1,000 clubs if you can’t come up with an actual reason for why you want to attend that school. Also, make sure to get the contact info for your regional admission officer. This is the person who will read your application, so get their info, get in touch, and start making a good impression!
Realize not all tours are the same
My tour at Brandeis was very different from my tour of Harvard. I learned a ton about both schools, but at Brandeis I got to see a dorm room and a dining hall and several classrooms, while at Harvard we could only go inside one building for security reasons. Some tours showed dorms and others didn’t. I was able to see some classrooms and libraries, but not all the schools allowed tours inside. If you didn’t feel like you got to see enough of the school, look on their website to see if they have a virtual tour. This might allow you to see what you missed, forgot, or weren’t able to see in the first place. If the college doesn’t offer a virtual tour, check for blogs and articles about the school. Students may have written about their experiences and taken pictures.
Explore the local area
Remember, you’ll be living here, so make sure you actually like living there! You need to make sure you’ll be happy where you live and that the area can provide the opportunities you’re looking for. The best way to do this is explore the city between tours. If you can swing it, only schedule one tour a day. It’s so much fun to do a tour ending around noon and be able to spend the rest of the day roaming the area. Research the weather too. A freak snowstorm might deter hot-weather lovers from wanting to go to school in the North. Or you may get to the college and find nothing wrong with it but realize you would rather go to school in a big city than a small town. I’d never been to Boston or Chicago before, so getting to explore was an amazing experience that made me want to attend the colleges there even more.
Don’t force yourself into a set opinion or perspective about a school until you visit. Let yourself think while you’re on your tour, and don’t forget to write down those thoughts. It’s a lot more fun to go to a tour with a positive mindset than a negative one!
Start planning your college visits by researching your schools of interest with our College Search tool.