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Ask the Experts: Campus Tour and College Visit

By Peterson's Staff updated on Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Question Would you recommend that I visit some schools during the summer if that's the only time I can get there? Or should I miss some school in the fall? Or should I see the school in the summer, and if I like it go back in the fall? Would a summer visit give me an accurate representation of the school? - Stephanie

AnswerMany students must do summer visits because of the time demands during spring and fall. You've got it right. Visit in the summer: if you like the school well enough, go back in the early fall if it might be a top choice (or EA/ED option); or go back in April to reevaluate it if you are admitted regular decision.

 

Question Is the fall of junior year too early to look at a few colleges. I'm thinking that it might get my daughter interested in the process and give her an idea of what she might like. Thanks. - diane

AnswerYou are definitely on the right track. We encourage parents and students to visit several college campuses in the fall of junior year primarily to gain a sense of the different types of colleges and environments that are available. You are likely to find your daughter more agreeable (perhaps even enthusiastic!) to doing this if you make it clear that she is not going to interview, that she is not determining her college choices yet. We refer to this stage in the admissions process as the browsing campus options. You can select a group of colleges that represent different models within easy travel distance in this foray. Students do tend to get more excited and ready to begin the admissions process if they have seen some campuses.

 

Question Are there programs out there you can join to go and visit colleges of your preferences? If so, what are the names of some and what are their cost? - Simone

AnswerSeveral companies offer programs to help families plan and execute campus visits, including:

College Visits
http://college-visits.com (organizes and leads tours for families of college campuses)

College Explorations
www.cetours.com

www.campusvisit.com (which offers more in the way of planning and travel resources)

You can find much in the way of online "virtual" tours, on the Petersons.com site, on colleges' individual Web sites, and on the following sites:

http://eCampusTours.com/
http://www.campustours.com/

Finally, a local travel agent can help you plan a tour to a cluster of colleges in a particular area, and you can find resources to help you navigate your way around the local region (including hotel info, driving times, airports, and so on) on most colleges' Web sites.

 

Question What should I bring to a visit to a school? - Zander

 

AnswerIn addition to your personal questions, bring a notebook, workbook, binder, or journal in order to take notes during information sessions, write down immediate reactions to the campus, and list key additional questions you'll need to answer about the institution. After five (or fifteen!) visits, you'll be glad you took the extra time to track your feelings about each school, and your notes will remind you about what  you liked and disliked.  

More students are also finding it helpful to bring along a digital or disposable camera. Now, following the tour guide around with a video camera and conducting an on the spot interview is probably not going to win you many friends or lead to a relaxed experience on campus. A few snapshots of key campus settings will likely be more than enough to remind you of high points and low points during your tour on and around the campus.

 

Question What is one of the main things you need to know or do when you go to visit a college on its open campus days and what are some of the main questions to ask the people? - Sierra

 

AnswerFirst, you need to know why you're there. Spend time browsing a college's Web site, viewbook, and college guidebooks to gain an initial sense of a place before you visit. Then develop an understanding of why you're visiting this college. How could it fit for you? What kind of college model is it (large, small, urban, rural, competitive, arts-oriented, etc.)?

Second, consider a few questions related to your own interests to which you would like to know the answers. Then ask those questions of interviewers (if you have an on-campus interview), speakers at campus information sessions, tour guides, students wandering around campus or in the dining halls, coaches, and faculty members, as appropriate.

The most important criteria that will eventually make yours a successful and enjoyable college experience are the teachers, the academic program, and the match you feel with the students on campus. So, don't focus too much on the food or the radical new student activities center. Consider what academic programs could be of interest to you, how the classes are run, and how students feel in general about their institution and their professors.

 

Question Should parents attend college visits with their child? - Edward

 

AnswerYes, parents, or at least one parent, should try to accompany a student on at least some of the visits he or she makes to colleges. There are a few qualifiers there. Given time and resource constraints, and many single-parent households, it is usually not possible for a student to have two parents along for every visit. We find that many families choose a divide and conquer strategy, letting Mom or Dad take a few visits each, letting son or daughter go on a few with a friend or another relative for a few others, especially later in the college visiting and admissions process, and sometimes allowing students to visit a couple of colleges on their own when they are making a final decision about a school.  

Having a parent along can help a student to bounce reactions and reflections off someone he or she knows and trusts. Parents are the number one influence on a student's choice of school. The key is to allow students to take the lead in campus visits, and to let them offer the first responses to any given place. It's OK to disagree about colleges, and to discuss varying viewpoints. The ensuing conversation can help a student continue to define what the best environment will be for him or herself.

 

Question What would you say is the most important question to ask during a visit? - sandi

 

AnswerThe one that's most important to you as an individual student. That is, you need to ask a question, or preferably more than one, that relates to your particular areas of interest. If you are certain you want to be an engineer, then you should ask a question about what it's like to major in engineering at the college. If you are thinking you'll be a recruited athlete, you might want to ask what it's like to be an intercollegiate athlete on campus. These are the deeper, more important long-term questions.

Are there general questions that can always serve as conversation starters or useful information gatherers? Sure. Examples include: What type of students do well at this college? Are most students happy here? What's the most important factor in your admissions process? Where do students go when they graduate from this college?

 

Question My daughter has been invited to attend the National Youth Leadership Forum on Defense, Intelligence and Diplomacy. Would our money and time be better spent on visiting more colleges or attending this conference? - Barry

AnswerThis is a credible organization that many students we have worked with have attended in the past, though we're not particularly familiar with this forum. These are usually interesting, eye-opening experiences, but not too in-depth and focused. If the program fits with your daughter's interests and you can afford it, it might be worth attending. However, she should not do the program "for college." In other words, it's not going to overly impress or wow admissions officers. If it fits with your daughter's overall interests, background, and college admissions directions, it can further her development and aspirations, and that's how we would look at it.

If it's a choice between this program and doing visits, and you won't be able to do any visits if she does the program, then you might be better off planning careful visits and developing a reading list and independent study at school next year around her areas of interest.

 

Question How much time do you recommend spending at any one school. How many schools should you look at? - Barry

 

AnswerOn a first visit, you should spend about two to three hours on campus. That allows for about an hour for the campus tour and another 45 minutes or so for an information session. Usually the info session is conducted by an admission officer, and the tour given by a student. If you are able, you might consider another hour for strolling around campus, eating lunch on or nearby the campus, and walking or driving around the outside of the campus area.

Two colleges in a day is reasonable, one more if they are close together. Four or five in one cluster in a couple of days is manageable. Seeing ten in one bunch is usually overwhelming. We like students to see between six and sixteen colleges over the course of their admissions exploration. Sometimes, you'll want to see a college twice prior to committing Early Decision, and certainly prior to enrolling.

If you plan your trips carefully, see representative, contrasting college models to give yourself some comparative choices, and then build your list with colleges similar to those you like best, you won't need to see twenty-five campuses.  

Yes, it's hard to take the time to do a lot of visits. However, visits are essential to making the right choices of what to put on your list, and visits (and interviews if offered) can help boost your chances for admission. That is because more colleges (particularly small and private institutions) are considering "demonstrated interest" when making their admission decisions.

 

Question If I am going to go visit a friend at Cornell over the weekend, should I call people from admissions to let them know that I will be visiting? Are there things that I can participate in on campus while I'm there to get questions answered or do I need to plan a separate trip that is during the week? - cait

AnswerVisiting a friend can be a great way to see a college campus and get a feel for the social life and student atmosphere. It's important when doing so to try to talk with people other than your friend and your friend's friends. Try to get a mix of views. If you can sit in on some classes, that will also be helpful. If you are a junior or senior, then it makes sense to do the official campus tour and admissions office information session. You will be unlikely to get an on-campus interview at Cornell, but if you have a particular academic or extracurricular interest, you might try calling or e-mailing a professor, coach, or music/arts instructor, for example, to see if you can meet with someone teaching or working in your area of interest.

 

Question What ARE some strategies for visiting a college? I am visiting my first one tomorrow, and could use some insight. - Robert

 

AnswerThere are so many benefits to be gained from a day spent on a college campus. You want to create a balance between programmed time and free time in order to get the fullest sense of the particular college. Programmed events should include sitting in on one of the scheduled information sessions in the admissions office. This is always led by a professional member of the admissions staff, so many questions can be asked about the process of choosing each entering class, the specific requirements and criteria that are important, and the types of students and interests who are of most interest to the college. Listening carefully to the particular features of the college that the presenter emphasizes is often a very good clue to what kind of environment and students most characterize the place. 

You should take a scheduled tour led by a volunteer undergraduate. This is a good way to gain a better sense of the campus facilities. Some tour guides are experienced and articulate the main features of their school, while others may be less energetic and enthusiastic. Try not to form your opinion of the college on the basis of just the tour guide. Ask to see specific facilities that relate to your strong interests. It can be the athletic facilities, the art studio, the theater, etc. Be certain to check out the undergraduate library as this is where you will be spending a good deal of time over your four years. A quiet place to study in the library is important, as is easy access to books and magazines. Be certain to see a freshman dorm to know what kind of facility you are likely to be living in.

In a less formal fashion, you should check out the student center and the main dining hall both to see what the facilities are like and to get a sense of the atmosphere. How students interact with one another, the level of noise and laughter, or lack thereof, will be a major clue to the social tone of the campus. Also read some of the bulletin boards dotted around the library or student center or in a dorm to get a sense of life on campus in a typical week. See if there are organized social events, concerts, trips, or speakers of note. 

Lastly, do not hesitate to go up to students and ask them anything on your mind. You should find them friendly and interested in sharing their experience with you. If you get a cold shoulder more than once, perhaps you want to move on to the next college campus you are considering!

 

Question Should I visit every school that is on my list or only those that I ultimately decide to apply to? When is it too early or too late to visit a school? - chris

 

AnswerYou should visit most of the schools on your eventual college list by the time the colleges begin reviewing your applications. We recommend beginning your visits toward the beginning of junior year. Because of the complexity and stress associated with the college process these days, and the fact that much of the process has been pushed back into junior year, it is helpful to see some representative schools during the fall of your junior year, if you're ready to do so, in order to get a sense of what types of schools are out there, and which seem to be right for you. No interviews will take place during these trips, and you need see only three or four during that time.

Then your real visiting should start during junior winter and spring, when you can start narrowing your list based on your preferences, research, academic performance, and early test scores. Your list will likely expand during this time and into the summer, and then narrow again as you enter senior fall. You can apply to some schools without seeing them, but try to see most of your colleges during the fall or even the winter. The majority of selective schools now use "demonstrated interest" as a factor in making their admissions decisions. That means visits, and interviews where offered, as well as letter writing and other forms of communication can help make a difference in the admission decision in your favor. The short answer: it is not OK to just apply to a bunch of schools and then visit once you get in.

 

Question What is a parent's role during a campus visit? Should parents accompany students? Ask questions? Get out of the way? - susan

 

AnswerEspecially during the early phases of the visiting and research process, a parent should accompany a student to a few campuses. Such visits will help all of you be on the same page and have a common language and set of experiences to work from. Even if you visited a particular campus with an older brother or sister, it's important to go back and make the visit your younger child's experience. Times may also have changed schools you thought you knew. 

Before a visit, encourage your son or daughter to do some research, and possibly help him or her register for information on the college's Web site. You should plan two hours on a campus (one for the tour, one for the information session) and, if there's time, some free time to get lunch, talk with students, and wander around the area. You should take a back seat when you get to campus — your child should ask questions during the information session and tour — you should not (unless there really is something from a parent's point of view you need to ask). It's hard to avoid taking the lead sometimes, but there's not much worse a hole to dig yourself out of during the college admissions process than totally embarrassing your son or daughter during a college visit. If you want to be included in the process, give them some space.

 

Question When should you start looking at colleges? Is sophomore year too early? - Jason

 

AnswerWe typically recommend visiting colleges during the summer before junior year and thereafter. Sophomore year is usually too early to visit. You'll likely change significantly as you mature, and you will probably forget what you saw by the time you're a senior. You can begin researching colleges early on in high school, and considering your own strengths and priorities, but starting to see a few contrasting models of colleges during junior fall makes the most sense.

 

Question If you are unable to visit every school on your list, what are other ways you can figure out if it's the right place for you? - susan

 

AnswerThe ideal process in our opinion in the early stages of your search for the right college or colleges for yourself is to visit a sampling of different types of campuses that are convenient to where you live. Be sure to check out a small, medium, large, or even gigantic campus, some in or near a city and some in small town or rural settings in order to discover what appeals the most to you. You can do a wider search based on the model of college that does appeal the most.

Use one or more of the college guides or use an Internet search program like Peterson's to learn about more institutions that might match your preferences. If you cannot visit some of those that look appealing, visit their Web sites which will provide a good deal of information on students, programs, housing, etc as well as pictures of the campus. You will be encouraged to e-mail the admissions office for further materials and answers to any questions you might have. Feel free to ask for a name or two of students from your home area so that you can contact them for more insights on the college.

One very important recommendation: do not commit to attending a college in the spring of your senior year until and unless you have visited the campus.

 

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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