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Articles / Applying to College / The Importance of College Visits

The Importance of College Visits

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Nov. 3, 2016

We've discussed college visits quite a bit here over the years. There's a simple reason for that: it's a crucial part of the college admissions process.

Most people wouldn't buy a car before taking it for a test drive, even a new one. Most people wouldn't buy a house without having a home inspection done before signing. The same goes for college applicants and their prospective colleges.

If you are a loyal reader of Admit This! you'll probably be tired of hearing me write, “You've got to trod the sod!" That means simply — You have to visit a college before you can get a solid feeling — one way or the other — about it.

Even visiting a college and just taking the standard tour can be misleading. Tour guides are more or less marketing agents for the school. They are trained to highlight all the positive aspects of the school. On most college tours, you won't see dilapidated dorm rooms, shoddy bathrooms, antiquated lab facilities, and lousy landscaping. Those are the kinds of things that can make a difference for enrolled students.

I recall (here we go again!) one particular classroom building that I had to use during my freshman year at my small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, which shall remain unnamed. (Of course, you loyal readers will know the school to which I'm referring.) Anyway, this classroom “building" was just an old rundown house that the college had purchased. It was on the far perimeter of the campus and required a bit of a hike to get there.

I always felt like I was walking to visit my grandmother when I had a class there because as I approached it I could almost see Granny standing in the big living room window waving at me. This is not the kind of atmosphere most college students want for their higher education. In fairness, the college I mentioned has long since demolished that house (I can't imagine that it took all that much work) and built “normal" classroom buildings. This relates directly to fundraising, which supplies the funds for colleges to build modern facilities. Just walk around an Ivy League campus and take in the quality of its facilities. It takes huge amounts of cash to provide amenities like they have.

But, back to actually visiting a college …

Here are a few observations that my College Confidential colleague, Sally Rubenstone, and I have noted. She and I have discussed ideas and realities about college visits for years, since we both have gone through the process with our children. Hopefully, some of these points will benefit those of you seniors who are in the midst of your college application process right now.

– Without a doubt, a visit to campus is the best way to make college matches. Sure, there are bound to be those random and red-herring moments that may make or break a school unfairly. One young woman determined her favorite college before even getting out of the car. “I saw this girl who looked just like Katy Perry," she told her admissions interviewer later, “and I knew right way that this was the place for me." Conversely, eager applicants have been turned off by rainy weather, campus construction, or the crabby graduate student who gave bad directions at the front gate. Nonetheless, if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a morning or afternoon on campus surpasses a million catalogs, viewbooks, and Web pages. Sometimes it doesn't take much more than a snack in the student lounge to determine if a fit seems right.

– Where to Visit: Take a look at the long list. Has your child read the appropriate publications for every target college? There's no point in getting all the way to William and Mary before discovering that there's no journalism major, nor in trekking to Temple if you want a rural campus. Eliminate the colleges that only sound so-so, then try to see the others. When cost and distance permit, schedule trips to each front-runner school.

The more colleges you visit, the easier it will become to discern differences and to pinpoint priorities. “It wasn't until I had seen seven schools," Leah recounts, “that I realized that some libraries had 'open stacks,' where I could look among the shelves myself for books I needed, while others had 'closed stacks,' which meant that titles had to be first picked from a card catalog or computer, then ordered at a main desk. I didn't want to do research that way. I like to browse."

Practical considerations may dictate that you see too many schools in too short a time. If you live in Oklahoma, you're simply unlikely to get to Ohio more than once. Try to limit stops to only two schools per day, and no more than 10 colleges on a single trip. In fact, 10 colleges in an entire year is plenty for any applicant—or applicant's parents—to digest. (And be sure that notes get written down during—or right after—every visit to avoid confusion later. Some far-sighted families even tote camcorders for the express purpose of campus ID films.)

– The timing of your visit to campus will also depend on what you plan to do once you get there. Many colleges offer group information sessions that usually include a Q&A period and often a video. These may augment or replace an on-campus interview, depending on policy and availability at your target schools. Some colleges schedule interviews six (or even seven) days a week; some have none at all. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, encourages interviews by alumni in applicants' communities but does not hold them on campus.

– Aim to see schools with students on campus. For many, that means September through mid-May. Even some colleges with year-round sessions are not in full swing during the summer, but for many families, summer is still the best time to hit the highways. You'll just have to use your imagination if a campus (or an entire town) seems dead (and perhaps visit again at “crunch time"). Commonly, high-school and college spring vacations do not overlap, so if you are well-organized, March or April of your child's junior year can be a good time to see campuses in action. Before finalizing any visit, check with the admission office to see if you'll be arriving in the midst of autumn recess, reading period, or semester break. Web sites often include these schedules too.

– While there are entire books available on college visits alone, even frequent revisions can't keep all information accurate. Better yet are Web sites, which typically include visit options and schedules. There are usually driving directions, too, and sometimes lists of other area attractions. But even Web pages aren't always up-to-date. A pre-departure phone call to double-check details can help fend off disappointment.

– Check out the bulletin boards along the way. They often say a lot about an institution's opportunities, ambiance, and attitude. Likewise, pick up student publications—especially the college newspaper—to get more of an inside scoop than admission office propaganda is likely to give. (Look for free copies piled near doorways of major buildings.) Most tours are available without advance notice, but some colleges require appointments even for group tours, so call ahead to check schedules and make reservations, as needed.

– Colleges often welcome overnight visits from applicants, or even from those in the earliest stages of exploring, and it is an excellent way to get an inside glimpse at any school. Guests, who must bring a sleeping bag or bed roll and pay for their own meals, are matched with Bucknell students who share similar academic interests. Appointments should be made two weeks in advance. At Antioch College in Ohio, special guest rooms in the dorms are available to candidates, and each dorm has a host in residence. Meal tickets are provided, and weekend stays are possible, if necessary. Ask each admission office about options and availability when you call.

– If you're planning on an interview and tour, you'll need a minimum of about two-and-a-half hours. Most tours last an hour or so; interviews range from 30 to 60 minutes. Colleges are pretty good about coordinating the two so that you don't spend all morning in the waiting room reading yesterday's USA Today, but there is usually some lag time in between. Be sure to arrive 10 or 15 minutes before an interview appointment. There will probably be a short form to fill out. Colleges can't normally cater to latecomers, and you might find your child's interview time shortened or juggled if you're not prompt. (If you get lost or stuck in traffic, try to call ahead.)

It's always wise to check on estimated tour, interview, and overall timing when you call for an interview appointment. If you have specific questions about financial aid, you might need to see a financial aid officer (often separate from admission staff). Schedule these sessions in advance, when possible, and add extra time. You may also wish to inquire about sitting in on a class or eating a meal on campus. (If campus meals aren't available, the next best thing is the student snack bar or a nearby student hangout.)


All of this information can make it seem like visiting colleges can be a real drag. Well, it can be, but it can even be fun — or funny — as some of these College Confidential posters related in this thread. A few examples:

– The admissions rep at the University of San Francisco started off his presentation for prospective students by talking about class size and faculty-student ratios. He used a nice power point slide to show the exact numbers and went into great detail explaining why this was important for prospective students to know. Then he asked if anyone had any questions about what he had covered so far.

A boy raised his hand in the back of the room.

“Yes?" said the admissions counselor.

“Dude," started the boy (not a good sign right there), “How many girls do you have compared to boys here?"

The admissions rep recovered his composure fairly quickly, told the boy the male-female ratio was 60-40 and tried to move on. Which was difficult because the boy and his friend were now slapping hands and saying loudly, “Cool!"

Daughter decided that USF might not be for her right then and there.

– When I went on a Dartmouth tour with my son, a young woman's dad asked about the reputation for excessive drinking there. The tour guide was large and heavyset young man who had told us he was an officer in the college Republican club. Af the drinking question, he became very defensive and started a long tirade about how wrong the standard definition of excessive drinking is, and how he was tired of people saying that students drink too much. “Like, if I weigh 315 pounds and I have 8 drinks over 6 hours, who is to say that is excessive? ……" I don't think the girl's dad was very comforted about his concerns by the tour guide's answer.

– One of those “hey, I know that guy" moments: D's tour guide at Carleton was in a wheelchair (being pushed by a friend – 2 guides for the price of one) due to a very recently broken leg. He told the group he would be getting his cast on later that week. About 4 months later, D turned on College Jeopardy, and there he was standing behind his podium and responding to questions about his broken leg! He informed Alex Trebeck (sp?) that he had just gotten his cast on that week in time to travel to compete on the show. The illusion of game shows in real time. Cracked D up. Ultimate disappointment as he got creamed by a Middlebury fellow.

There are six pages of “funny" stories on that thread, so you may enjoy getting a chuckle about what can happen on campus when you visit. So …

… I'll say it once again: You've got to trod the sod!

If you haven't already done so, start your college visit planning today.


Check College Confidential for all of my college-related articles.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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