College Visits 101

January 14, 2023

college visits, college tours

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. Given the availability of fairly comprehensive virtual tours and the abundance of online resources, are physical college visits still worth the time and expense? Our answer is a resounding yes—keep scrolling for why.

1. College visits require you to use your senses, including your gut.

Physical college visits are an integral aspect of the application process. For many, college will be life’s greatest expense outside of buying a home. Thus, it should be given every bit as much attention. Would you ever consider buying a house, sight unseen, from an online listing? (You shouldn’t.) What looks like a lush backyard may actually be swampland. The beautiful hardwood floors may be rotting and moldy. 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.

In addition, we advise keeping an open mind during college tours. You might find that the layout of a large university isn’t as overwhelming as you thought it might be, or that a smaller campus feels surprisingly sizable.

2. Distance is more than an abstract concept.

Although it varies by state (Texans stay in-state 94% of the time while Vermonters only do 33% of the time), there are a multitude of reasons why 78% of US college students choose to attend school in their home state. The chief one, of course, is 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 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 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. College visits are a fantastic way to demonstrate interest.

If your prospective colleges track demonstrated interest, visiting campus will be a checkmark in your favor. Taking the time to drive or fly to campus shows that you are serious about researching a school. It also shows that have taken the time to thoughtfully consider why it’s a good fit for you. Moreover, “Why Us” supplemental essays typically ask you to write about particular aspects of a given college’s academic or social communities. If you’re able to cite actual experiences you’ve had on campus—whether about a class you sat in on, a fun fact you learned during a tour, a facility you fell in love with, or an informal chat that you had with a current student in the campus center—all the better.

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 or college fair, following a school on social media, 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.

4. College visits often allow you to connect with admissions officers.

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 (check out our complete list of colleges that offer interviews). 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 as well as extracurricular activities, and also have several 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.

If you’ll be engaging in an interview, be sure to spend time preparing, which includes practicing your answers to popular questions.

How should I structure my college visits?

It’s wise to begin with the official tour offered by your college. While often sanitized and sales-pitchy, you’ll likely get a good sense of the heart of campus, of the school’s main academic, architectural, and social attractions, and an insider scoop on campus traditions. 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. You should also plan to attend an information session and sit in on a class, if possible.

After the official activities end, we recommend setting off on a self-guided college tour to make sure the infomercial version of the school appears to align with reality. Have a meal in the dining hall. Chat up a few random students about their favorite and least favorite things about their school.

Equally important: explore the surrounding town or city. Stop in at a store. Dine at a restaurant or two. Try to envision what your day-to-day life would look like. The more information you can take in, the better, whether of the school-sanctioned or unofficial variety.

Finally, consider keeping a detailed file on each school. After visiting a few campuses, you’ll be surprised at how quickly the information begins to run together (“Did that school say double-majoring was almost impossible or was it that one?”). While some schools will naturally rise to the top of your list, staying organized during college tours will help you remember which attributes you especially appreciated (and didn’t appreciate) about particular campuses.

When should I visit?

If at all possible, try to conduct college tours during the school year, when classes are in session. A bustling campus will give you a better sense of a school’s general vibe. It will also give you access to current students and professors. During the summer, campuses are often very quiet. Even if they run summer programs, those programs may not be attended by current students.

Ideally, you’ll visit before you apply to a particular campus. However, if you’ve already been accepted and are trying to decide whether to attend, the visit could be an important factor in your ultimate decision. Overnight campus visits for prospective students or special open houses can be excellent opportunities to take advantage of.

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 attend certain college visits, 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 on someone affiliated with the university. Moreover, you can engage in a variety of virtual campus visits. In addition to virtual visits offered by the school, sites like CampusReel can offer a secondary perspective.

Finally, if visiting a college is impossible, make an effort to connect with current students 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 their experiences.

Questions To Ask on a College Tour

Visiting colleges? You might be wondering what questions to ask on a college tour. Try to avoid questions that are easily Google-able, such as “How large is your freshman class?” or “How many students graduate in four years?” Instead, do some research before you go in an attempt to ascertain where your current information gaps are. Are you craving more in-depth knowledge about academic opportunities, campus life, or the surrounding community? Below, we’ve compiled a list of potential questions to consider:

  • Are classes usually taught by professors? How accessible are they, in your experience?
  • Is it difficult to get into upper-level courses?
  • Are there internships or on-campus job opportunities available?
  • What is career services like?
  • I’m premed/prelaw/prevet. What type of support is available?
  • It looks like there are quite a few undergraduate research opportunities. Do many students engage in those?
  • Is it difficult to change majors or double-major?
  • Do most students live on- or off-campus?
  • Do many students study abroad?
  • Do you have favorite spots to visit in the surrounding neighborhood?
  • Are there special activities or orientations offered for freshmen? What are they like?
  • Do you have special campus traditions?
  • What advice would you give a new student?
  • What has been your favorite class so far?
  • Who has been your favorite professor so far?
  • What do you like most about this school?

Final Thoughts — The Importance of College Visits

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 visiting colleges within reasonable driving distance doesn’t feel worth the time, effort, and money, then they should be eliminated from your list. Overall, think of college visits as one more vital data point in your quest to find your best-fit college campuses.