We counsel our students about the importance of a visit to their prospective colleges. Yes, online admission material is compelling (panoramic website views of stunning campuses, informative virtual tours, and links to social media accounts with engaging content). But nothing truly takes the place of being there, of talking to current students, of sampling a meal at a dining hall or enjoying coffee at the library Starbucks. The task is daunting: in accounting for time, money, and distance, you feel as though you have to be independently wealthy with abundant leisure time. Don’t fret. With some strategic planning, you can make college visits manageable. Plus, if you’re truly unable to schedule a visit, we have some tips at the end of this post to help you plan a stay-at-home college tour – the next best thing.
Our first tip is to start local. At the start of their junior year, most students draft their college list, often headed by a handful of local schools. “Local” could mean anywhere from the small, private college twenty minutes south, to the large state university several hours north. Whatever local means to you, begin there. Check admission websites for campus information sessions and tours (most schools offer them throughout the year, five or six days/week, but not during Christmas or Thanksgiving), sign up and set out on your road trip. Maximize your day; schedule a morning program at one school and an afternoon program at another if the campuses are within an hour or so of each other. Even if you’re sure you don’t want to attend a nearby school, by visiting a few local campuses you’ll gain enough insight to recognize college characteristics that appeal to you and those that don’t − which will help you refine your list. For instance, maybe that private college of 5,000 students felt too small, so you know that a larger university better meets your needs.
Additionally, check with your guidance counselor about college visit opportunities. Private companies will often coordinate with high schools to offer tours of various college campuses. Several local high schools in our area of southeast Florida offer bus tours that bring students to many of the campuses in Florida’s State University System – cost-effective and fun!
But what if every single one of your dream schools is hundreds, if not thousands of miles away? While we still advise you to visit some local schools, there are ways to plan effective, affordable long-distance trips. It never hurts to start early, and it also pays to combine destinations. What do we mean? Let’s say you’re a rising 10th or 11th grader on a family vacation to San Francisco or Washington, DC. You’ve heard of a few colleges in these areas (Berkeley in CA; Georgetown University in DC). Why not spend a morning or afternoon there? Work in a visit – you only need to set aside a couple of hours. Will your family be spending time near Chicago or Boston? Great! There are lots of excellent schools in both metro areas; research a couple and tack them on to your trip there. Even if you’re not 100% sure that you’ll apply to these schools, you’ll save time and the expense of an additional visit simply by adding a tour to an existing trip. One student, for instance, took advantage of a family trip to northern Virginia over a school break during her sophomore year. She signed up for tours at Georgetown and George Washington; American University had nothing available during this time period, so she reached out to the Florida admission rep and scheduled an informal yet informative tour.
For long-distance college visits during the school year, conduct enough research ahead of time to ensure that you’ve created a comprehensive list of all possible colleges to visit in a particular geographic region. Try to set up one visit in the morning and another in the afternoon. If, for whatever reason, the school isn’t offering tours that day, either reach out to the admission rep who serves your area (like our student above did), or contact one of the cultural or religious organizations on campus like Hillel or the Newman Club to see if they can arrange a tour. Alternatively, consider a tour conducted by a private company like Campus Sherpa.
Here’s the kicker when it comes to these visits: many schools, especially those with more competitive admissions, ask students to submit as part of their application an essay in answer to the question Why are you applying here? There is absolutely no doubt that the most convincing responses are written by students who have visited the campus to gain maximum personal insight into the college community. A visit will truly demonstrate your thoughtful interest. And here’s another thing…
…Many students struggle to identify appropriate back-up colleges and often resist visiting them − and then get denied! The lesson here is that no matter where else you’re applying, you need to ensure getting into your back-up colleges by visiting so they don’t suspect their role as just back-ups for you. In fact, you should do any optional essays they have, and even apply for special scholarships for which you may be eligible. Now, that shows interest – and helps ensure your admission!
There are ways to keep expenses manageable: ask your parents to leverage any loyalty points they may have for airlines or hotels, and check out affordable rentals on AirBnB. Dining on-campus is tasty and inexpensive, and also gives you the chance to get a “taste” for the school. Observe the current students – can you imagine yourself fitting in? To further maximize a long-distance college visit to a school high on your list, consider a day-long prospective student event where you can deeply immerse yourself in campus life and have multiple opportunities to interact with current students, faculty, and other college staff.
While it’s ideal to spend time on campus, we understand that it might not always be feasible. Just as with an in-person visit, there are ways to strategically visit colleges from the comfort of your own home or the convenience of your high school. Begin with your guidance department: which college reps are visiting your high school? Are there any upcoming local or regional college fairs? Sign up for a college’s email list so that they will let you know if they are planning to visit your high school or make a presentation at a local hotel. Plan to attend as many events possible where colleges visit you! Come prepared with questions that cannot be easily answered on a college’s website, and make sure to send a follow-up thank-you note or email a few days later. Good manners make a great first impression. From your own room, you can engage in online virtual tours, follow college admission blogs (here, you’ll often find tips on essay writing and other ways to make your applications shine), and connect on social media. Sometimes, colleges will host webinars or other live online events that give you the opportunity to interact with school representatives.
Whether in-person or virtually, getting to know a college and its culture is an integral part of the college application process. Make this step a priority, and call us to teach you how to make your campus visits ultra effective and find the perfect schools for you!