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Articles / Applying to College / Two Types of College Visits

Two Types of College Visits

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | April 21, 2017

We're counting down to May 1: Enrollment Decision Day. Some of you high school seniors are on spring break and making some last-minute campus visits in an attempt to contrast and compare those schools that have admitted you. Some you juniors may be using this time off to begin the task of sampling colleges with a general visit.

Thus, today's topic: Two kinds of college visits. How are they different and how should we think of them?

My College Confidential colleague, Sally Rubenstone, posted an interesting thread on the College Confidential discussion forum about this very topic. In fact, her post inspired me to highlight some of the thoughts from that thread for those of you who may not have seen it. Here's Sally's contention:

Admitted-Student Day vs. Ordinary-Day Visits?

On admitted-student days, colleges trot out balloons and banners, their perkiest undergrads and rock-star profs. These events can be a great way to view school highlights and to see if the lion's share of future classmates are sporting pink polos … or pink hair. But some parents and their progeny insist that a better way to get to know a prospective alma mater is by showing up when the admission folks aren't pulling out all the stops and when, instead, it's business-as-usual on campus, not bells-and-whistles.

So for those of you who have attended an admitted-students day recently … or in the past … would you recommend seeing a candidate college that way or do you feel that an under-the-radar visit is more effective?

This is an excellent question. Over my past many years here, I've written a number of times about visiting colleges, emphasizing its importance. My ongoing mantra has always been: You've got to trod the sod! That means that you have to actually visit a college — walk across its campus, through the buildings, and see the students, in order to experience a school's essence, or at least its general ambience. That's how your “gut" can tell you good things or not so good things about a particular school. That's the so-called “matching" process.

Spending four years and likely many (maybe tens of) thousands of dollars on a college education is not something to be taken lightly. Landing on the wrong campus with a bad “fit" can be sheer misery, so take the college visit requirement seriously.

For those of you parents with children who are about to enter their senior high school year, your summer plans should include visits to candidate colleges. The summer is a great time to do some investigation of where your kids 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 of those schools your son or daughter is considering. 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 solution 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.

Yes, visiting prospective colleges can be time consuming, confusing (“If this is Tuesday, it must be Carlton."), and exhausting, not to mention expensive. But it is necessary.

Now, general college “shopping" (searching for colleges to add to your Common Application) is one thing, but what about visiting colleges where you have already been admitted? This is a different kind of visit under a different set of circumstances. With these, colleges are offering you a marriage proposal of sorts. As Led Zeppelin sang, you're going to se a “Whole Lotta Love."

Those who responded to Sally's question had a variety of views about the difference between “shopping" visits and “deciding" visits. There are some excellent insights posted. Let's look at a few:

– My feeling is that the accepted student days were generally worthwhile. Many colleges had things offered such as: the chance to interact with current and admitted students, an opportunity to sit in on classes, ability to visit the choice of freshman dorms, some had an overnight component for the accepted student etc. that set it apart from a normal visit. Most accepted student days also had a very positive energy. Going to the accepted student days of his top choices really helped my S to decide which college he wanted to attend.

FWIW we tended to avoid the huge “junior days" for the reason noted above — too crowded and we felt we generally got more out of a regular information session/tour, but we did find accepted student days valuable in general.

– [Sally replies]: I think you make a good point … there can be a big difference between programs aimed at juniors (where there are lots of window-shoppers who may know little about the college and who won't ultimately apply) and those for admitted students, who are obviously serious about the school and, hopefully, well-informed.

Thus, folks who were turned off by the 11th-grade all-comers extravaganzas shouldn't automatically avoid the admitted-students events.

– I liked the one admitted students' day we were able to attend because it gave my [son] a glimpse of the potential peer class, and chance to make some initial contacts and recognize that everyone is nervous,. The students may be able to come to campus knowing at least one other person.

– [Sally replies]: I think that seeing the “potential peer class" is indeed a big plus. (Though my son attended one admitted-student program and made a “friend" there … his campus-overnight roommate … who ended up attending a different college. But they are still in touch on Facebook).

So, even though this isn't really the thread for it, I should also point out that, although my son didn't come home from the admitted-student days with a slew of BFF's, he later attended one of those pre-frosh programs, as I call them, which turned out to be very valuable. (These are bonding programs for freshmen that typically last 4 to 7 days, almost always cost extra, and are usually right before the school year starts.) A growing number of schools seem to be offering them and many are theme-based (e.g., community service, hiking). Even now, as a second-semester sophomore, some of my son's closest friends are classmates he met in his pre-frosh program. I've only heard good things about them and, although they can feel pricey–especially on top of all the other college expenses–the fee could be an apt graduation gift from a close relative or a flush family friend.

– Having visited so many colleges I think an ordinary day visit is essential, as blurryface mentions above, so that you can observe more authentically the daily activities of the students and campus. But I think it's also helpful, for all the reasons mentioned by happy1 and Sally in the posts above, to visit the admitted students day for the top 2 or 3 choices before making the final decision.

– Ideally you have gone to see the college before applying,but I realize that isn't always logistically possible. For two of mine, the choice was already made when we attended the admitted students day, we just used it as a way to get excited about the decision and the next chapter and to figure out which dorm to give priority to. For my oldest, she was agonizing between 3 choices, and we used the Admitted Student Days as a tool to help make her final decision.

– We just went to a re-visit day for admitted students, and it was incredibly helpful–well organized, lots of useful info.

Previously, my child had re-visited their final two choices on a regular school day (luckily we could drive, both about 4-5 hours away, and 1.5 hours apart). We did not sign up or do an info session/tour. We just sat on a bench on the main quad and chatted while the school day took place. We arrived a little before 9 in the morning and observed students going to class. We stayed until the 11 o'clock classes had started. She could see how students dressed, how upbeat they were, and how/how much they interacted when no one was trying to impress. It was a very helpful experience.

– Admitted students days are great for kids who are shy about attending classes or doing an overnight individually. My kid never wanted to do either of those things on his own but he enthusiastically embraced the same opportunities when offered as part of a program.

– I suggest on a weekday doing a self tour around the campus first, and doing the admitted student tour afterwards. That way you can see what the campus is really like when they are not putting on a show for the incoming freshmen, to see if the surroundings and atmosphere is right for you, and later you can get a more in depth tour that provides specific information you might not get by walking around campus, and you can meet other incoming freshmen.

– My sister (who went to DUKE) visited 3 times, Admit day, before applying, another random time after acceptance. She said go to Admit day and another day because you get 2 different experiences of the college , when it is crowded and vibrant, versus when its quiet and normal business day. Go both times – it's worthwile.

– We recently saw 3 schools in 3 different states in 3 days. Two were Admitted Student Days (supplemented by one-on-one mtgs I set up for my D to meet with advisors and students). One was not an Admitted Student Day, but a day that I pieced together myself consisting of mtgs with a dept advisor, professor, student, a live class sit-in, campus tour, 2 dorm tours, rec center tour. Despite how extensive the day that I created sounds, the college-planned days proved to be more draining. Why? Lines, waiting, the broad-based approach to their “pitch". At one Big Ten, we spent the first 90 mins at 9am sitting in a huge auditorium, waiting for it to fill, sitting through a band, an acapella group, 2-3 administrators (and one very impressive student who should have been the only speaker over 60 seconds). Far less personalized experience means you can gauge overall “vibe" and “intention", but it's harder to gauge personal “fit". I say supplement the Admitted Student Days with your own pre-planned individual engagement touches for a richer and more informative experience.

All excellent points. But … what if you absolutely, positively cannot visit a college where you've been accepted or visit one that's on your future application list? That can happen, and a student with whom I worked this year experienced that discouraging situation.

He lives in India and was accepted by a prominent research university in the United States. His school's final-exam schedules required him to attend class quite close to the admitted-students day program schedule at that U.S. college. As he explained to me:

“The bad news is that I didn't get to visit because my visa application was rejected. Since my exams were on during that period, I really couldn't go to the embassy for the interview because the embassy was 900 kms. away from my home and there was no way I could make it there without skipping school. When I finally got a holiday from the exams, there were only 4 days left for the Scholars Weekend and the visa officer said that there was no way he'd grant me the visa in such a short duration."

Obviously, this was very discouraging for him, but because of the terrific financial aid offered to him by that school, he enrolled anyhow. I'm sure that he will be happy there because of the research he's already done about that school's curriculum and the information he's gleaned from an alternative source of visiting: the Internet.

I call this a “pre-sod" visit, or in the case of my Indian senior, a “no-sod" visit. It can be quite informative. Interested? Okay, then here's some key info from a previous post of mine:

Where's a good place to go shopping for these virtual tours? Obviously, a school's Web site would be the prime candidate. However, there is a consolidated resource available: eCampusTours.com — “featuring 360° x 360° tours of over 1,300 colleges." That's impressive.

Just for kicks, I entered “Lycoming College" into the search box at the top of the eCampuTours home page. Lycoming (or “Lyco," as it's known affectionately) is a small liberal arts school in Central Pennsylvania. It was where I spent my freshman year, before taking a three-year break for military service. I've expounded on that at painful length in previous posts here.

Anyway, what came up was a large selection of 360-degree images of Lycoming buildings and campus highlights. Just rotate your cursor and get the whole spacial perspective. That's something that actual videos sometimes fail to deliver.

Here's the list of images you can explore:

– Main Quad

– Williams Hall

– Wertz Student Center / Quad

– Rich Hall and John W. Long Hall

– Heim and Academic Building Walk-way

– Martha B. Clarke Chapel

– Lamade Gymnasium and Fine Arts Building

– Asbury Hall and Long Hall

– Rock Garden on the Quad

I found the exploratory experience quite enjoyable. I think you will too. With 1,300 schools in their inventory, it's highly likely that you'll be able to find most of the schools you're considering. If they don't have one, then you can fall back on the school's Web site.

After my eCampus visit to Lycoming, I searched for other Lyco videos and found this one, not a 360-degrees production but a “normal" video that was quite upbeat:

Jonah's Not So Official Lycoming College Tour

This video resides on the Lycoming College YouTube channel. I took the time to watch it and found that “Jonah" is quite a talented thespian. His delivery and energy are attractive and the school looks entirely different than when I went there. Fifty years can make quite a difference.

The description of Jonah's presentation simply states, “Jonah guides you through some Lycoming College campus highlights." He gets a lot of positive feedback in the comments from viewers:

– We've been checking out tons of colleges for my son. Reviews, websites… and yes… YouTube! This is by far the best video we've come across and has definitely caught our attention. I see a drive north (from MD) on the horizon! GREAT JOB!

– my daughter goes to Lyco and this is a great representation of the school.

– I'd go to Lyco!

That last comment is music to admissions officials' ears! Ergo, the purpose of tour videos that have an effective spokesperson.

If you combine a school's Jonah-type videos (if the school offers one) with the eCampus 360-degree images, you may be able to get the most comprehensive look at your candidate schools before visiting them, or before deciding whether or not to pass them into the Gold Medal round!


So, where there's a will, there's a way to visit colleges, regardless of whether you're an accepted senior or a shopping high school sophomore or junior either here in America or overseas. This process works in reverse, too. If you're an American high school student, consider the advantages of virtual tours for shopping colleges in other countries. That's what more and more American high schoolers are doing these days. Yes, it's a big world out there, but the Internet has shrunken it down to the palm of your hand.

Compare the advantages of these various kinds of campus visits. From where I sit, though, I'll always give the nod to trod the sod.


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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