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Plan Your College Visit Wisely: A Guide for Students and Parents

Visiting college campuses is a great way to get a feel for the school and see if it's the right fit for you. But, it can also be overwhelming – there are so many things to see and do! That's why we've put together this guide on how to visit college campuses like a pro. From covering the basics (like how much time to allocate) to granular questions to ask your college tour guide, we're here to help you make the most out of your experience.

So, whether you're just starting your college search or narrowing down your list, read on for our top tips on visiting college campuses!

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Letting Your Kid Take Charge When Should You Start Touring Colleges

Parents: Let your kid take the lead

College tours are like catnip to parents. You're on tour, then you get a glimpse of someone that reminds you of your kid. You start to imagine their future life. You see them walking to the library with their friends and get excited as you pass a rock climbing wall they would die to climb. 1.5 hours later, you've steamrolled the entire tour with a million and one questions and your kid hasn't said a peep. Don't. Colleges that track demonstrated interest pay attention and watch to see if the parent is more excited about a particular college than their kid. And if you are the one initiating everything it can look bad. Colleges are looking to admit proactive students, not helicopter parents. Let your student be the one to take the lead and ask those questions you're dying to ask.

For other families (especially when parents have taken a more dominant role), it can be hard to transition the power dynamics in such a high-stakes environment. After all, your desire to ask a bunch of questions is because you care. But what is more important is that your kid has the space to step up to the plate. If you're worried that you may be unable to restrain yourself, take a step back. Let them fly solo for the tour. Don't worry; just print out our handy dandy question sheet so your kid at least has a reference to help them ask the right questions.


When should you start visiting colleges?

Stage 1 - Freshmen, sophomores, and early juniors

If you are a freshman, sophomore, or an early junior, now is the time to explore your taste in colleges so you know how to filter down your list come the end of junior year. Think recently divorced woman hitting the dating scene type of exploration. Go crazy. Check out a small, medium, and large college campus. And try to visit one liberal arts college and research university too. Don't worry about the details; you're trying to feel the vibe, attend a class or lecture, and see what you like (and don't like).

On a budget? Check out nearby local colleges to sample. While these colleges may not be the exact right colleges, experiencing how a classroom of 15 vs. a lecture hall of 300 helps to inform future colleges on your list.

Stage 2 - Seniors

Stage 2 is for our seniors who have already applied and been admitted to several colleges and want to make sure they are making the right decision. We recommend visiting your top three campuses (not on the same day!) one last time, asking lots of questions, talking to students one-on-one, and even living in the dorms for a weekend (if possible) or attending a school event. This will give you the best sense of what college life will be like at your future school.


Planning Your College Visit

How much time should I plan to spend visiting colleges?

We suggest you visit a maximum of 2 colleges per day, with at least 3 hours at each college campus, if not more. But, for an immersive experience that gives you a really good look into what life will be like at that particular college, book a nearby Airbnb and stay the night around that area so that you can check out the town and surrounding areas.

Can I just show up on campus, or do I have to book a tour?

While you can just show up on campus, you aren't fully optimizing your visit time if all you can do is walk around campus. Therefore, the first step in visiting any college campus is to book a tour AND information session before you get there. Most of the time, the tour and information session are bundled but watch out because colleges occasionally separate them. An information session is typically run by a regional representative of the college, whereas the tours are often student-led. You can do this by visiting the admissions website for the school you're interested in and finding the link for times.

What about Virtual Tours?

We think virtual tours and student panels are great at helping students determine if a particular college is worthy of their college list. Still, you want to experience college when making your ultimate decision fully. We love virtual tours, but if you are in stage 2, try and see if you can visit your future colleges in person if possible. For more information on what to do during a virtual tour, check out this blog post here.

Why should I email my regional representative?

We recommend that students reach out to any interested regional representatives of colleges right after booking their tour. Introduce yourself, tell them your upcoming date of your scheduled tour, and ask if there are any additional opportunities that you can sign up for,

  • Tour a particular department that you are interested in.

  • Attend a class or lecture.

  • Spend a weekend at the dorms.

  • Meeting with a student one-on-one in a program that you are interested in (like honors colleges, a sorority, or which majors in something you are interested in).

  • Eat at the cafeteria. (Hey, never walk away from an opportunity for free food.)


What to do on College Visit Day

1. Take notice (and notes)

We recommend you bring a small notebook and take notes about each college visit. Or better yet, just record a voice memo! You'll want to remember what you liked and didn't like about each college and remind yourself of any questions you have so that you can make an informed decision later on.

Look for red flags

Be on the lookout for any red flags during your college visits. This could be anything from feeling unsafe on campus to sensing a competitive or cut-throat environment or just not feeling like you fit in. These are all valid concerns that should factor into your final decision-making process.

Look for what you like

Of course, you should also look for things you like about each college! This could be anything from the campus's feel to the students' friendliness to the dining hall's food. Be sure to take note of these things as well, as they will help inform your decision-making process later on. Mention specific events in your messages - when a student waived "hi" in a coffee shop or how weird a sculpture was in a building. Even college traditions that stuck out deserve space in your note-taking.

The most crucial part is capturing your gut impression of the college. Because trust us, you will forget - especially if you visit multiple colleges.

2. Pretend to get lost on campus

One of our favorite strategies is to grab a campus map and pretend to look visibly lost in the middle of a busy campus and wait. Notice how long it takes before someone stops by to try and help. That's a great indicator of how friendly the campus culture may be. It's also a way to naturally ask students a few quick questions than trying to canvas them for questions.

They can give you the scoop on everything from the best and worst parts of campus to what classes you should (and shouldn't) take.

3. Canvas the student body (ok, only 3 students) for opinions

One of the best ways to get an accurate feel for a college is to ask current students questions! So interrogate them! We know, we know. How dare we ask you to socialize with not one but three members of your own? Honestly, it's not that bad. You'll find that people relish talking about their life, so you're doing humanity a favor.

The gall, right?

Here are some icebreakers that we like to use:

"Hi, do you attend this school? What do you think of it?"
"What's your favorite thing about going here?"
"What's the social scene like here? Do you have any recommendations for things to do on a Friday night?"
"Do you know anything about the (insert program/department/activity) here? I'm thinking about majoring in (or participating in) that, and I wanted to get more information."

Of course, feel free to ask any other questions that come to mind! Remember to respect people's time - no one wants to be stuck talking to someone for hours.

4. Walk around Campus (and the neighborhood)

College campuses are enormous, and it can be easy to feel overwhelmed when visiting. Our best advice is to take some time to explore independently, without a tour guide. This will give you a chance to get a feel for the campus and see if it feels like somewhere you could see yourself spending four years of your life.

As you're walking around, here are some things to keep an eye out for:

Are the buildings well-kept?
Do they seem new or old?
What is the overall vibe of the campus?
Does it feel like a place where you would be comfortable living and studying?
Are there a lot of students around, or does it feel deserted?

College campuses are usually located in bustling areas overflowing with adventures and activites, so make sure you can find everything you need. And don't forget to check out the surrounding neighborhood! Here are some questions to keep in mind:

Is there a grocery store nearby?
What about a coffee shop?
Are there any restaurants or bars in the area?
What is public transportation like?
Is the area safe?

The campus and the surrounding neighborhood will play a significant role in your college experience, so getting a good feel for both is essential before making any decisions.

5. Check Out the Dorms

If you're planning on living in the dorms, it's a good idea to tour them while visiting the campus. This will allow you to see the living conditions and get a feel for what it would be like to live there.

Some things to keep in mind as you're touring the dorms:

How old are the buildings?
Are they well-kept?
What is the furniture like?
Is there a lot of storage space?
How big are the rooms?
What is the bathroom situation like?
Are the dorms co-ed or single-sex?

Keep in mind that dorms can vary widely from school to school, so it's essential to tour them in person to get a feel for what they're like.

6. Attend a Class

One of the best ways to get a feel for a college is to sit in on a class. This will allow you to see what the classrooms are like and how the professors teach. But note that you may need to ask your regional representative if you can attend one before you arrive on campus. That is unless you visit a large research university with lectures (those classes are so large that no one will notice if you slip into the back. Most of the time). Things to notice:

How large is the class size?
Is it taught by a TA or a professor? Does the class seem engaged, or does the teacher drone on with a bunch of students who are half asleep? After class, how many students stick around afterward to talk to the teacher?

7. Meet with an honors college student or sorority student one-on-one.

This is a great way to get insight into what student life is like at school, especially if they are involved in a sorority or honors college you are interested in. You'll be able to ask them all sorts of questions about their experience and get a sense of what it's like to be a student there.

Some things you might want to ask about include:

What is the workload like?
Are the classes challenging?
Do the students seem engaged in their learning?
Do the professors seem accessible?
What are the social opportunities like on campus?
Are there any extracurricular activities that they're involved in?
What do they wish they had known before starting college?


To Wrap it Up

College visits can be a lot of fun, but they're also a lot of work. There's a lot to see and do, and it can be tough to fit everything in. But if you take some time to plan and think about what you want to get out of your visit, you'll be sure to have a great time. And who knows, you might even find your dream school!


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