Deciding whether to visit a campus can involve many factors. If you’re applying to schools far from where you live, you are most likely considering the financial burden as well as time commitment necessary to make these visits. Visiting a campus might also seem like one more thing to do….after all, you already have a lengthy application checklist and a busy schedule. In this post, we’ll discuss why visiting is important, how to visit, and several important tips to keep in mind while communicating with prospective colleges.

Why visit?

  1. You’ll figure out what you like and don’t like. Perhaps you’ll find that you are attracted to a huge, bustling campus with thousands of students or that you’d rather stay small, with just a few hundred. You might also find that the student flow makes a large university feel more accessible or a tiny university feel sizable. In addition, you’ll receive a better sense of the type of students who attend, the surrounding community, and the activities offered.
  2. Since programming can vary greatly from campus to campus, you’ll get a much better sense of academic offerings and programs after visiting in person (especially if you have already been accepted to several schools and are unsure which one to attend). Not only can you check out different departments and ask questions, you can also plan to sit in on a class. Ask the admissions department about course availability, and pick one that you are interested in to receive an insider’s view of what the college will offer you academically. Remember, your primary objective is to graduate with a great education.
  3. You’ll figure out how far is too far. Maybe you live in New York and always thought you wanted to go to school in California, but after trekking there and realizing just how far away it is, you decide you want to be closer to home (or vice versa). College is a huge transition, and some students are more comfortable within a few hours of their family while others thrive a few states away.
  4. Visiting will provide you with excellent material for supplement essays. Think about writing a Yelp review for a restaurant you’ve never been to. Sure, you can check out their menu and decide you’re ordering their double chocolate lava cake because the pictures and description look amazing, but you won’t be able to really tell fellow Yelpers what it was like until you’ve been to the restaurant and enjoyed it (or not) yourself. Visiting a campus will affirm and invigorate your inclinations while allowing you to be more descriptive and focused in your discussion of why you would like to attend.

How do I visit?

Take a look at your list and start with the college(s) closest to where you live. This will ease you into the process and give you an idea of what you like and don’t like. From there, prioritize your visits according to your top choices. Here are eight helpful strategies while visiting:

  1. Book a tour and information session. Instead of taking a self-guided jaunt through campus, schedule a tour & information session with the admissions department. A tour will give you a wealth of information about the school, lead you through many academic & dormitory buildings, and expose you to special programs, campus traditions, and interesting facts. Also, tours are run by current students, giving you a great opportunity to ask questions and learn from their experiences. You can even have a meal or spend some time in the campus center to gage how approachable other students are.
  2. Go while school is in session. You might be tempted to visit during the summer, but you won’t get the full experience if there are no students. You want to see what the campus is like when it’s alive and busy.
  3. Keep a file for each school you visit. What was the campus like? The dorms? The food? Student life? If you visit several campuses, it can be hard to keep all the details straight later on. Staying organized and taking notes will help you remember which attributes you liked and didn’t like about each school.
  4. Organize your trips. Visit schools in the same area at the same time. You may even be able to visit two in one day, or plan a spring break trip to visit a cluster of colleges that may be a few hours (or states) away.
  5. Take advantage of overnight opportunities or open houses for prospective and/or accepted students. If you’ve already been accepted, these events will help you revisit your initial inclinations. If you haven’t, you’ll still receive valuable insight into whether you can truly see yourself attending the college.
  6. Listen to your gut. It’s true that you might just “have a feeling” about a certain school as soon as you walk on campus. If you feel out of place during a visit, there’s a good chance you will feel out of place as an admitted student. Identifying campuses that aren’t a great fit will help you avoid the stress of a transfer and also increase your chance of graduating in four years.
  7. Keep an open mind. If you love small schools, perhaps there’s a medium sized school that has an intimate campus layout while still offering small class sizes and unique programs for your major. If you can’t see yourself anywhere else but a large school, perhaps there’s a small school that is part of a consortium or in a major city that will still provide you with a wide range of appealing options.
  8. Ask questions. Have a list ready before you go. Are you thinking about playing sports or auditioning for a music program? Is there a certain major or department you are looking for? Do you have questions about merit scholarships? Do you have a learning disability? Here are some potential questions to consider:
  • What is the size of the freshmen class?
  • What are your most notable academic programs or majors?
  • Are classes usually taught by professors or TAs (teaching assistants)? How difficult is it to obtain a spot in upper level courses?
  • What kinds of academic opportunities are available?
  • What types of internships or on-campus job opportunities are there?
  • Do you have a study abroad program?
  • What is the surrounding neighborhood like?
  • What activities do you offer for freshmen? What is orientation like?
  • Are there campus events on the weekends? What are the most popular activities?
  • Do you have special campus traditions?
  • I would like to live on-campus. Is housing guaranteed?
  • How many students graduate in four years?
  • How many students receive financial aid? How many students have their need fully met?
  • Are merit scholarships offered?
  • What type of student do you think would do well here?
  • (To ask the tour guide) What do you like the most about this school?

I’ve heard that visiting a college will give me an “edge” in the admissions process. Is that true?

All colleges give certain factors different amounts of weight, such as academic performance, course rigor, standardized test scores, community involvement, extracurricular activities, personal statement, “legacy,” and special talents or abilities (such as music and athletics) to name a few. In addition, certain schools look upon demonstrated interest favorably while considering your application. Your interest level can be evaluated by attendance to an information session, participation in a campus tour/activity (such as an overnight visit), an early decision application, killer supplemental essays, an interview (and thank you note afterward), contacting your local admissions representative, attending a college fair, signing up for the college’s mailing list, requesting information, or even tweets and Facebook “likes.” As you can see, visiting is a great way to show your interest level but it’s not the only way.

Check out the college’s website and Common Data Set information (if available) to determine if level of interest is important at your campus of choice. For instance, Stanford does not take demonstrated interest into account at all, while Cornell encourages visits and interviews depending on department. Some schools, such as small, less selective schools who evaluate applications holistically, may place more importance on interest level because they want to offer admission to students who they believe will accept. Other colleges, such as those in the California State University system, choose applicants exclusively based on grades and test scores and don’t take demonstrated interest into account at all. Below are several examples of schools that do and do not take interest into account:

Not considered:
UC Berkeley,
Georgia Tech,

Washington University in St. Louis,
College of Charleston,
Tufts University

Eckerd College,
Carnegie Mellon University,
Brandeis University

If you choose to demonstrate interest, all communication with prospective colleges should be professional. Spell-check written messages, and make sure you have an appropriate email address (i.e. your initials or first and last name only) as well as a clean Facebook and Twitter if you choose to use social media. Resist the urge to go overboard. Please don’t call every day, bombard the school with letters or emails reiterating your love of their campus, or tweet about the college every other hour. Be genuine and show interest in the ways that feel most comfortable to you. Crunching numbers, overanalyzing factors, and obsessing over communication will cause you undue stress and anxiety.

What if I really can’t visit?

While we strongly recommend visiting a college before accepting an offer of admission, we do recognize that it is not always possible. If you cannot visit:

  • Make sure to give the college’s attributes and program offerings careful consideration. Check out their website, noting areas where you have questions or need additional insight.
  • Take a virtual tour for a better sense of what the campus is really like.
  • Connect with a current attendee. If you know an older student who attends the college in question (perhaps even someone who graduated from your high school), he or she would be an honest resource for what the campus is actually like and what you can expect academically and socially.

The bottom line…

Visiting can be stressful, but spending time on campus can help you test drive your college experience and ensure that the environment is a great fit for you. Be selective and honest about the attributes you are willing to compromise on and the ones you are not. You’ll be happier in the long run.