Five tips to get the most out of visiting colleges

Visiting campuses can be one of the most exciting things about deciding where to go to college. It’s often your first taste of the undergraduate lifestyle. How are the classroom facilities? What types of dorm rooms do they have? How’s the food? What kinds of social activities are available?  

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While the COVID-19 pandemic has stopped in-person visits, they’re likely to come back once vaccinations are more widespread. Be sure to check with each school to see if it’s open to visitors. If not, check out the school’s website, which can offer additional visual resources.

Whether your campus visits are in person or virtual, here are five tips to maximize your experience.

Tip 1: visit as many schools as you can. “I tell families that starting in middle school, anytime you’re near a college—whether you’re on vacation or just out for the day—go to the campus,” said Nancy Steenson, a college admissions consultant. “Do a drive-through, or better yet, walk around because it exposes your child to the different types of campuses.” Steenson recommends that her clients make their more formal visits once they start their junior year of high school and suggests that they tour a wide variety of schools, both public and private, in a varied range of locations. 

Tip 2: if visiting virtually, understand that each college’s online experience may be different. Some schools go all out, providing a panoramic, 3D view of the campus, with in-depth videos and interactive elements of the key academic, sports, arts, and dormitory environments. Other schools may rely on standard photo images and written descriptions. You may need to really dig around on their websites to find the information you seek. Steenson advises to start with the academics section to get a better sense of what each school expects of its students. 

Tip 3: try to schedule your in-person visits during the school year. Summer isn’t the ideal time to visit campuses because they’re largely empty. “The best time to look is when school is in session,” Steenson said. “This way you get to experience all of the activity, the social aspects, what a typical day might look like.” 

Tip 4: schedule an information session at each school you’re interested in. Unlike campus tours, which are usually led by undergraduate students, information sessions are typically led by members of the admissions department. These sessions are important to attend because it gives you exposure to someone who may decide whether or not you are accepted. Make sure at least one parent is with you. And ask questions. Steenson has some good ones. Two of her favorites are:

  1. Ask the representative what his or her favorite thing about the school is. Many admissions officers are graduates of the university they work for and this question gets them to look back at their own student experiences.
  2. Ask the representative if they had $50 million to give to the university, what would they want it to go toward? The answer could give you some insight into the school’s strengths and weaknesses.

Tip 5: take notes. When visiting multiple campuses, you can easily become confused. After each stop be sure to write down a list of the things you liked and didn’t like. This will help you keep the different colleges straight in your mind, especially as you continue to visit more schools. It’ll also give you a handy reference when decision time comes.

Before making any visits, your family should sit down with your financial professional, who can help you make decisions on the affordability of college and can help you implement a plan, including setting up a specific savings vehicle such as a 529 college savings account.