College Visits: In Summer, April, or Not at All?

I’ll address high school seniors and juniors (and parents) here today. The issue: college visits — to visit or not to visit (and when to visit). Those are the questions.

Since we’re approaching the middle of April as I write this, the main focus of the college-visit world is now on high school seniors. Almost every senior who has applied to an institution of higher learning has by now received his or her application results. Unless you have struck out at every college to which you have applied (extremely unlikely, in my view), you now have to make a decision.

Before you now are at least several acceptance letters and their associated financial aid packages. While it may be a relatively straightforward, objective process to select the best college from among that paperwork, the one element that’s missing is your subjective opinion about these schools. Sure, you may have already visited once when you were trying to compile your list of candidate schools to which you wanted to apply. But now the rubber has met the road, as they say, and it’s crunch time. The pressure is on to make your singular enrollment decision before May 1, melding not only the objective data of financial aid but also the much more subjective elements of your “gut” reaction to those schools, now that you have been accepted.

It’s one thing to visit a college before you have applied. At that stage of your process, your attitude may be like a shopper at the mall: “Just looking, thanks.” Now, post-acceptance, however,  your attitude is more like, “I’m just trying to make up my mind which one to buy.” Of course, college admissions  officers are rather like store sales associates on commission, hoping that it will be their “product” that you buy. That’s why you may have received along with your acceptance notifications some kind of “goody” package containing various trinkets emblazoned with the respective colleges’ names and even, if you’re really lucky, a cool t-shirt or cap.

college tour group

You may be wondering at this point, so close to the May 1 enrollment deadline, “Do I really have to visit a college before I make an enrollment decision?” Well, if you have read any of my past college-visit-related articles, you will have seen me state (at least 324 times) my mantra regarding this: You’ve got to trod the sod! That about says it all.

Making a college enrollment decision without visiting the school is creating a potential for unhappiness and possible transfer complications. So, for those of you seniors who have not visited the colleges that have accepted you, get on a train, bus, plane, or snag a car and go visit! If you don’t, you may regret it if you show up on campus this fall and find out that warning bells are going off in your head and heart when you look around you and contemplate living among the student body you see, not to mention living in the dorm you’re in and — perhaps worst of all — eating the food you see in front of you at the dining hall!

Okay. That’s my admonition to you seniors. How about you juniors (and your parents)? Summer’s coming. What should your college visit strategy be?

For those of you parents with children who will enter senior year several months from now (yeah, time really flies, doesn’t it?), your summer plans should definitely include visits to candidate colleges. The summer is a great time to do some investigation of where your son or daughter might like to go to school.

All colleges offer summer tour programs. Because it’s sometimes easier to combine visits with summer vacation plans, you may want to do so. If you already have vacation plans in place, see if you can make a detour to the campuses of some candidate schools. Who knows? Your vacation might be in the neighborhood of schools on the list.

If you haven’t made vacation plans yet, you have the perfect opportunity to tailor a college-visit trip. A vacation such as this can be more enjoyable and entertaining than you might think. Many colleges are located in very picturesque areas featuring significant tourist attractions.

Consider the advantage of visiting schools over the summer. If your senior-to-be has a list of, say, five or six candidate schools, a summer visit might help him or her refine the list to three or four before the new school year begins. College campuses are always lovely during the summer. The only time when the they appear more beautiful is in October, when the leaves have changed to their autumn splendor. Summertime is a relaxed period because there are far fewer students on campus. There may be some construction going on, but that’s normal for the time of year.

One concern parents often have about college visits is how to remember the unique aspects, advantages, and seeming shortfalls of all the colleges visited on a summer swing. One creative idea that was posted recently on the College Confidential’s discussion forum provides an elegant solution. Go to each college’s bookstore and buy a postcard that pictures the college being visited. Write all your (and your son’s or daughter’s) pertinent thoughts and questions on it and mail it home. When you return, you’ll have a neat collection of all your thoughts posted to a memento of each college you visited. Very clever, and it works. You’ll then recall what school had what program or special accommodations.

If your son or daughter can fine-tune his or her candidate list by the beginning of senior year, your plans can include follow-up visits to the finalist schools. Fall is the time to arrange for the overnight stay. Have your son or daughter contact the admissions offices and inquire about hosting programs. The overnighter should confirm any perceptions about a particular school.

As your child heads toward college, take the time to plan college visits. A small investment in time now can save significant time, money, and hassles during the college application period that’s coming sooner than you think.

On the flip side of colleges visits are those who question the value of visits. Are they really worth the time, effort, gas, and other expenses.? Even though I’m from the old “trod the sod” school of thought, there are other overall opinions. Here’s an excerpt from my College Confidential colleague, Sally Rubenstone’s, Ask the Dean answers on this issue:

… In a perfect world, summer is not the best season for campus visits. Ideally, you should see schools at the same time of year when you might be there yourself. But, realistically, June, July, or August may be the only practical months to hit the road. Remember, once September rolls around, most seniors are flat-out with school work, soccer games, or debate-team tournaments, and it may be hard to squeeze in so much as a weekend for college visits, especially for those heading more than a few hours from home. Moreover, Sundays–especially the mornings–can seem so quiet on many campuses, that it can feel like the middle of summer—even if there’s a foot of snow on the ground.

So, in your case, father may indeed know best, and your August plan may be the wisest despite the drawbacks. Even though you won’t get a true sense of a school when the students are missing, at least you will get to see what the buildings look like and where the school is situated in relation to the surrounding community.

So here are some tips to getting the most from your summer visits:

-Colleges can start earlier than many high schools. So, while the last week of August might still scream “summer” to you, classes may have already started at some of your target schools. Check academic calendars online to find out. Do try to avoid the move-in days when you”re likely to be mowed down by overloaded minivans as you navigate the campus paths.

-Find out if any colleges on your list have summer sessions (and, if so, when they end). Even though enrollment may be smaller than in the fall and winter terms, at least you’ll avoid seeing the campus when it’s dead. When selecting schools that you will–or won’t–visit during your summer trip, give priority to those with summer terms.

-If there is a summer term, is it for “real” students–i.e., those who are bona fide undergrads there during other terms as well? If the campus you’re seeing is populated with octogenarians from the Elderhostel course on The Making of My Fair Lady, then you might be better off seeing the place when it’s empty.

-If you’re concerned that a college on your list may be too stereotypically something (liberal, preppy, jocky, nerdy, tattoo-infested, etc.) then this is a campus that warrants a term-time visit.


-Confirm tour and info-session hours by telephone. Web sites are usually accurate, but staff vacation schedules can mean last-minute changes, so call ahead.

-Plan “parallel visits.” Whenever possible, try to do the same things on each campus you see. In other words, don’t opt for the tour and info session at one school and then do just a quick drive-through at another.

-Schedule interviews, if offered. Summer can be a good time to connect with a real staff member or even a student interviewer. The pathologically shy may choose to skip this plan, but for the majority of students, an interview can be a good way to show interest in a college, to get more information that is specific to one’s own needs, and to highlight achievements that the application may not fully reveal.

-Don’t go crazy and try to visit more than a couple colleges each day. Hot weather can leave you asleep on your feet during all those similar-seeming tours.

-Check out the neighborhood off-campus. Allow enough time to get a sense of where each college is located. Visit local shops, cafes, restaurants, etc., to get a better feel for the area.

-Dress appropriately. Leave the flip flops and cut-offs at home, but do dress to beat the heat. Wear comfortable walking shoes (an imperative at ANY time of year).

If I had to pick the best time to see campuses, I’d vote for April of 11th grade when many high schools are on spring break but colleges aren’t. Typically, it’s not quite the crazy time of year as the fall of senior year can be. Of course, many high school juniors haven’t honed in on target colleges by then or may want to see more colleges than can fit in a week’s vacation. …

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So, bottom-lining the college visit issue for seniors: If at all possible, please visit the colleges that have accepted you before you make your deadline-driven enrollment decision.

For current high school juniors: Make plans with your parents to visit at least a few of the colleges you’re planning to apply to. Visit right now, during the spring, or this summer. You can also visit this fall, if the pace of your senior year isn’t too prohibitive.

In any event, one way or the other (here it comes again): Trod the sod!

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Don’t forget to check out all my admissions-related articles at College Confidential.