Residing in the digital age, it’s tempting to forgo more and more tasks that, a decade or two ago, involved an actual trek out into the real world. Hassles such as buying paper towels or searching for the perfect used car that used to require legwork, human interaction, and possibly even wearing pants can now be done with a click of a mouse from one’s own living room.

Similarly, parents and students may find themselves considering skipping the annoyances of long car rides or plane trips, days away from work/school, and the slew of hotel bills that come from visiting your teen’s prospective colleges. After all, it’s possible to take a virtual tour of campus, chat with an admissions officer in an online forum, and find answers to most questions about anything from dorm life to financial aid on a school’s FAQ page. So, given the availability of fairly comprehensive virtual excursions, is it still worth the time and expense of a physical trip? We at College Transitions believe that, when feasible, it is for the following reasons:

1. Use your senses, including your gut

For many, college will be life’s greatest expense outside of buying a home and should thus be given every bit as much attention. Would you ever considering buying a house, sight-unseen, from an online listing? What looks like a lush backyard may actually be swampland, the beautiful hardwood floors may be rotting and moldy, and two of the three alleged “bedrooms” may feel more like medium-size closets.

Just as with a new home, it helps to see, smell, feel, and fully experience a college campus before forking over that tuition money. Equally important will be the gut-sense you get around campus. Have a meal in the cafeteria, sit in on a class, read the student newspaper, and talk with a few current students. Does it feel like it could be home for four years? Does it have a positive vibe? Do you feel safe and comfortable walking around campus? The only way to answer these questions is to plant your feet on campus and soak it all in.

2. Distance is more than an abstract concept

There are a multitude of reasons that 72% of college students choose to attend school in their home state, the chief one, of course, being reduced tuition at public universities. Yet, many teens are equally influenced by the proximity to family. After all, it’s comforting to know that a home-cooked meal, a free washer and dryer, and most importantly, a network of love, support, and guidance is no further than a few hours away.

If you don’t visit your prospective colleges then you are missing out on accurately assessing how important distance to family is to you. In the abstract, a school that is 200 miles away isn’t that much different than a school that is 2,000 miles away. One can rationalize that a 4-hour plane trip and a 4-hour car ride are roughly equivalent. As an armchair globetrotter it’s easy to acquire a false bravado. Actually packing your bags for the opposite coast, waiting for hours in the airport, crossing time zones, experiencing jet lag, and seeing how it feels to be so far from home is an appropriate test that will bring clarity to the geographical parameters of your college search.

3. Go on an official and unofficial tour

It’s wise to begin with the official tour offered by your college. While sanitized and sales-pitchy, you’ll likely get a good sense of the heart of campus, and of the school’s main architectural and social attractions. It will also be a chance to ask your tour guide questions about dorm life, the social scene, and other anecdotal information that is tough to glean from websites and guidebooks.

After the official tour ends, we recommend setting off on a self-guided tour to make sure the infomercial version of the school appears to align with reality. Chat up a few random students about their favorite and least favorite things about their school. Explore the surrounding town or city. Dine at a restaurant or two. The more information you can take in, the better, whether of the school-sanctioned or unofficial variety.

4. Connect with an admissions officer

If you are visiting a liberal arts school or a mid-size university, you will likely be able to schedule a one-on-one evaluative interview (for a complete list of colleges that offer interviews click here). If you are attending a larger university that does not offer a formal one-on-one interview, try to participate in an information session with an admissions official. Either way, you’ll want to come prepared to talk about your academic interests and achievements, extracurricular activities, and also have a number of thoughtfully-crafted questions for the admissions officer about their institution. Particularly at small liberal arts colleges, making a positive and lasting impression as a nice and engaging human being can pay dividends when application review time rolls around.

For more on how to prepare for a college interview and what type of questions one should expect, revisit our previous blog on the subject.

If you can’t swing an in-person tour…

As we stated at the beginning, we believe that visiting a college is immensely helpful, when it’s feasible. Sometimes due to budgetary or time constraints, seeing some of your prospective schools simply isn’t possible, especially if you have a lengthy and geographically diverse college list. If you aren’t able to view a campus in person, there are still actions that you can take to better form an assessment of a school’s fit.

For those who can’t make it to campus, attempt to schedule an alumni interview at a location near you. Doing so will still afford you the opportunity to humanize your application and make a lasting impression with someone affiliated with the university.

Connect with current students at your prospective college through social media or via your high school’s guidance department. Chances are, unless you attend a tiny high school, a recent alum is currently attending your institution of interest and will be willing to share his or her experiences.

If you aren’t making a pilgrimage to campus, there are plenty of other ways to please the demonstrated interest gods. Attending a local admissions event, following a school on Facebook, and corresponding over email with an admissions counselor are all excellent ways to show a potential higher education destination that you have a genuine interest in attending.

College Transitions’ Bottom Line

There’s nothing wrong with buying paper towels online but when it comes to a six-figure purchase like a college education, an in-person inspection is recommended. If a school is within reasonable driving distance but doesn’t feel worth the time, effort, and money to visit, then it should be eliminated from your list.

Andrew Belasco
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew’s experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.