Some of the first questions that clients ask me when we begin working together, whether the student is in eighth grade or eleventh grade, have to do with college visits. Are they necessary? When is it best to go? Why are they important?
I always recommend trying to visit a number of different schools. There’s only so much that one can learn about a college by looking at a website, and sometimes, there’s no better way to determine if a college is the right fit than by seeing the campus in person. That said, there are also situations where this is not possible – due to time, cost, or a combination of the two. If a student can’t see many schools, it will be okay. There are other ways to find a fit. However, I would certainly advise students to plan to visit schools if they are able.
Here’s what you need to know ahead of time to plan for a successful college visit:
When to start: You should visit colleges when you feel ready to do so. Sometimes that means as early as freshman or sophomore year in high school, and sometimes that means the summer before senior year. However, visiting colleges early on can help shape what you find important in the schools you’re considering and whether or not you actually apply. Further, it’s also recommend to visit all of the colleges to which you plan on applying, if your schedule and budget allow. Some students find that they will change their “top” schools based on their visit. At the very least, I would make a sincere effort to visit any school where an early decision application is under consideration. The idea of signing a binding commitment to a school, sight unseen, makes me very nervous!
How to visit: Most colleges allow you to schedule a visit online or over the phone. The option to do so typically resides on the school’s “visit” page. Be aware that different parts of campus may have their own tours available (ex. music school vs. main campus). You may also be able to sign up for an info session as part of the tour. Some schools “cap” their tours, so it’s worth it to schedule a tour well in advance. Many families ask about whether it is equally beneficial to simply walk around campus themselves, to get a feel for the environment. This is often quicker and easier. My answer: if this is the only way to see a school, go for it. It’s certainly better than nothing! However, it is always preferable to partake in an official visit arranged by the admissions office. First of all, it increases the likelihood that you will learn about the school on a more in-depth level. Secondly, it shows the school that you took the effort to come to campus to do your research. This can actually help you in the admissions process, especially when a school takes demonstrated interest into account.
Timing counts: The time of year you visit a college makes a big difference. If you can, try and visit when school is in session. It’s easier to picture yourself as a student on campus when there are actual students there! Most schools have academic calendars available online. Make sure your visit doesn’t conflict with holiday breaks at the college. Be aware of the season in which you visit as well. If you’re visiting a cold weather campus in the middle of summer, know that life on that campus will be very different in January! I always joke that students should make sure to head up to Ithaca in the middle of February- if they like Cornell then, they are in good shape for the rest of the year!
Special options: Depending on where you are in the admission process (admitted vs. prospective) you may have even more options. Colleges typically offer an admitted-student open house (sometimes several of them) and may offer the opportunity to visit campus as part of an overnight program. Similarly, athletes might have a chance to visit with the team as part of their visit. You may even be able to sit in on a class when you visit! Make sure to explore all of your options.
It’s always worth it to make the effort to visit college campuses, if you have the option. Many students get that “feeling” about a school and know that it’s the right fit for them after visiting. A visit can also help you answer application questions with more specificity. Win-win!
Now that you understand the importance of college visits, you should embrace them! I enjoyed these two recent articles from the New York Times:
5 Ways to Make College Tours Fun Instead of Grueling
New Feature of the College Tour: First-Class Campus Hotels