Five college visit tips

For many high school students and parents I meet, the idea of visiting colleges feels more like a homework assignment than it does an adventure. They feel pressure to visit ALL the colleges they’re interested in, to turn every visit into an intense fact-finding mission, and to do all of it while the colleges are in session as opposed to over the summer. Those expectations can make college visits stressful and not nearly as fun as they should be. So here are some visit tips to help you enjoy what should be a positive part of the college search process.

1. No need to visit all your chosen schools before applying.
“Visit all your schools before you apply,” is great advice in theory. But it’s just not practical, especially if you’re applying to colleges far away (and in many different directions from your home). Remember that you can also visit colleges after you apply, and even after you get accepted.

You apply to most colleges in the fall of your senior year. You hear back around March, and you usually have until May 1 of your senior year to make a decision. That means there are five to seven months after you apply when you can still visit colleges.

Before you apply, gravitate toward schools near places you’re visiting anyway, like for a sports tournament, a band competition or even a Thanksgiving weekend at Uncle Frank’s house. That will get you the most bang for your visit buck.

Also, prioritize visiting schools you aren’t yet convinced of. This gives you the chance to fall in love or decide they’re not right for you. The rest, you can save until after you apply.

2. Don’t limit your visits to “reach” schools.
Many of the students I meet plan visits to only their top choices, which all too often are schools most likely to reject them. Instead of widening their college choices by visiting schools where their chances of admission are solid, they’re narrowing the pool by renewing vows to dream schools.

If you love Duke, if you’ve cheered on their basketball team since you were 12 years old and simply cannot envision a universe where you wouldn’t apply to Duke, you don’t need to fall any deeper in love with Duke by visiting the campus. Spend this time visiting other colleges, preferably some more likely to love you back. Baylor, Gonzaga, Syracuse and Michigan State have great basketball teams, rabid fans, and a lot less competition for spots in the freshman class. If your Duke admission comes through in the spring, then go see the home of the Blue Devils.

3. A summer visit is better than no visit.
Some students are told to only visit a college when it is in session; that visiting over the summer doesn’t give you the same feel as when the campus teems with students. There’s some truth to it—a lot of colleges are deserted over the summer and it’s absolutely not the same as if you were there in the fall. But it’s not easy to put your high school classes and activities on hold to go see colleges, so the visit-while-it’s-in-session logic doesn’t always hold up.

If you can visit a college during the school year, do it, especially if you want to sit in on a class, get a sense of whether a big school’s population is too much for you or do anything else that only is revealed when students are there. But if you just want to see the campus or find out just how small the college’s small town really is, a summer visit is probably fine, and certainly better than not visiting at all. Before you make the trek, just check the college’s website to make sure they’ll be offering tours while you’re there.

4. Don’t see more colleges in one trip than you can handle.
It’s possible to commit college-visit overkill by trying to see too many colleges in one trip. I remember one student only somewhat sarcastically recalling her family’s marathon college tour: “We saw four colleges the first day, another four the second day, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to go to college anymore—I just want to go home,’” she said.

I understand why this happens to families. If you’re going to take the time to travel someplace to see colleges, it makes sense that you should see as many as possible as long as you’re there. But the average person wouldn’t enjoy seeing nine amusement parks in three days, either. So be realistic about just how much college touring you can really handle.

I’m a college junkie who will see schools anywhere I happen to be visiting. But even I can’t see more than two or three in a day before I’m ready to do something else.

5. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.
Some of the advice about visiting colleges you read borders on the absurd. “Take the tour, listen to the admissions presentation, sit in on a class, eat in the cafeteria, interview a faculty member, stay overnight in a dorm, visit the athletic facilities, tour the library, visit the surrounding community…” The list goes on.

I can’t imagine my Collegewise students wanting to do all of those things, or finding the time to do them for every college on their list. It’s not realistic. I’ve never met a student who said, “That college visit wouldn’t have been nearly as valuable were it not for this two-page checklist I brought with me.”

Yes, it’s a good idea to contact the campus tour offices and make some formal arrangements for your campus visits. Once you’re admitted, there will likely be some schools that deserve more time to give a thorough evaluation, maybe even one that includes a visit to a class and an overnight stay. But until that time, most college visits don’t need to be so rigorously planned. Gut instincts are surprisingly accurate when visiting schools.

Have a little fun
Take the tour, look around, maybe have lunch on campus and try to imagine what it would be like to attend. Most importantly: enjoy yourself. Looking at colleges is like getting to shop for your own birthday present. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Excerpted from my book: If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted