Digging Deeper with MSquared:
Guide to College Visits
Above: Visiting Wake Forest, summer 2019. All photos are from my own tour archives.
The college visit is a rite of passage in many families, as students get ready for that important life step beyond high school. It's a really exciting time in a young person's life, and can provid eopportunity for memorable family experiences.
In this overview, we’ll talk about when to visit, planning and logistics, and making the most of visit opportunities while keeping your notes straight and your stress low.
When to Visit: Big Picture
The best time to begin planned college visits is probably 11th grade, for most students.
They have high school experience under their belt to help them think about what might factors will be important in their college life, and ideally they will have begun thinking about those factors and doing some initial research before heading out.
Families may have the chance to see campuses on vacations or when visiting family before the student’s junior year. My advice at earlier points is to keep it light. Even then, the takeaway might be that a campus is really beautiful, or maybe that isn’t superficially appealing, without much further insight. There is always a temptation to see “famous” (often hyper-selective) colleges when in the vicinity of, say, Boston, or a parent’s alma mater. If you visit those early, focus on the history or your experience— the goal is for a student’s mind to stay open. It’s not particularly helpful for an 8th or 9th grader to have a “dream” college they are focused on; in reality they’re not yet ready to make informed connections to the meaningful lived experience of a campus. There is so much more they will learn in the next few years, about their interests, their learning, and themselves.
A note: I use that phrase, “lived experience,” a lot when talking about colleges. The goal throughout the college search is to pull together as much information as possible to understand what that might look and feel like. The way a campus looks, presumptions about its location, somebody you admire who went there, the selectivity rate, the winning record of the football team and the cool athletic gear in the bookstore: none of these will be part of the daily experience of waking up and going to class on a campus for about 9 months a year for four years.
If the only time you are able to visit a campus is on a weekend or in summer, when school is not in session, or there isn’t an official tour or information program, that’s the reality, so visit and inform yourself as much as possible. Just be careful to avoid misleading and biasing impressions. Grinnell College in Iowa, for example, is one of the wealthiest colleges per capita in the US, and provides an extraordinary undergraduate experience. If you visit at mid-day on Sunday, it might look pretty sleepy. Life is happening, but it might not be visible in the public areas of campus. If you visit U Michigan or UCLA on a Sunday afternoon, you’ll likely see a lot more people around, many of whom are just passing through or enjoying the open space with their family, or walking their dog. It’s easy to let these sights impact your perceptions, so be aware.
When students are ready to think about that daily lived experience, and have some self-knowledge from their high school academics and activities, visits are a powerful way to sample the atmosphere and culture of a college.
From the college’s perspective, their admission officers like to know that your application was preceded by a visit, when possible— it shows that you’re an informed applicant. I always caution folks not to let the notion of “demonstrated interest” lead to highly inconvenient or unnecessarily expensive trips, and it is also true that visiting as a more mature student before applying is a strong signal to the college that you would likely attend if admitted.
The traditional combo of a guided tour and admission information session at Elon U.
Choosing where to visit
If you’re planning travel specifically to visit campuses, there may be constraints on your time away, or on the expense of traveling a longer distance. There are a few guiding principles that can help.
Try to start your visits at colleges that aren’t among the super-selective, “high-prestige” colleges, and try not to make those the focus of a trip.
For a first set of visits, if you have these within driving distance, try out 2 or 3 visits at schools that fit into different categories. The three most common types that students looking broadly tend to consider are large public university, mid-sized research university (often private), and liberal arts colleges (mostly private.)
Early on, it’s helpful to see different sizes of institutions. Most often, what families and students miss out on are the liberal arts category. This is a bigger discussion, but with hundreds of quality colleges in this category in the US, versus a much smaller number of “flagship” public universities or “land-grant” universities, these are places that provide the largest share of undergraduate education in the US, and they vary widely in their curricular approach and campus cultures.
Related to this point about liberal arts colleges, a pitfall of college thinking and visits can be the focus on size. So often, “small,” used as a descriptor of liberal arts colleges, somehow feels like an expression of limitation. It might seem counterintuitive, but institutional size may impact access to professors and opportunities in the opposite way. On the extreme end of that picture, at some larger universities these days, you have to apply to join clubs! Impressive research facilities may not be easily accessible to undergrads. Liberal arts colleges are diverse and vibrant, and their mission is to provide a varied and deep undergraduate experience, and launch graduates into jobs or graduate school. They might not be the right fit for you, but don't completely overlook the possibility.
One important lesson, that I believe can be experienced with just about any 3 campus visits, is an understanding of what messages and experiences overlap among many campuses, and what the points of differentiation are in terms of curriculum, daily life, hands-on opportunities, mentorship, etc. Students can learn a lot from that small sample set that can help them begin to feel some connection to what you’re looking for.
Once the college search has started, and you have some of the critical information that helps you understand a little about a student’s high school record and other future application data to compare to colleges’ published admission data, use that to plan. As I hope is the case with your eventual application list, an effective visit focus targets primarily the places where it feels, based on data, that you have a reasonable chance of being admitted. So many college application experiences I’ve witnessed over the years have taken an unhappy and unhealthy turn because of fixation on places that are statistically improbable for every applicant.
What if you can’t visit?
Realistically, time constraints, school attendance policy and costs might limit visit opportunities. That doesn't mean there aren't great opportunities to learn more without traveling. Since 2020, colleges have put a great deal of effort into sharing information online. Many now maintain a continual schedule of virtual information sessions.
These can serve two great purposes— helping any student learn more about the institution as a potential fit, whether or not they are able to visit, and preparing a student to be informed when they do visit. Make use of them— and honestly, they are probably a better place to start college exploration in the early high school years than physical visits.
Good advice for all students:
Be sure to get on the prospective student mailing lists for any college that’s even remotely on your radar, to be notified of learning opportunities that you can take advantage of from home. Taking advantage of the kind of virtual sessions I mentioned above is an important step in research and prepping for a physical visit.
Logistics: planning and scheduling
When possible, plan to visit colleges when you can catch their program for prospective students— usually, this is about two hours in mid-morning or mid-afternoon, and consists of an information session and a tour. If your travel schedule doesn’t allow for this at every place you want to see, get as much information as you can prior to a self-guided tour with those online sessions, and general research through the college website and other sources.
Plan in advance.
Generally you’ll want to make plans with at least a few weeks’ notice. Ahead of holidays and popular spring break weeks, you may need more advance notice to be able to reserve an official visit with the admission office.
Call the admission office, if possible, to set up a visit— or use their online or email request form.
By the way— making some of these arrangements themselves is a great opportunity for the student to practice some adult skills!
A general note: given that most colleges have twice a day visit schedules, chances are you’ll only be able to complete two visits in a day— however, that’s plenty to absorb, and a lot of walking. I recommend keeping a manageable schedule that allows plenty of time between destinations, and time to take in campus surroundings or an unexpected detour.
No matter what your schedule allows, be sure to reach out by email to the assigned admission officer for your region, and let them know that you are planning to visit— or that you did visit, if you had more of a self-guided tour.
A college counselor may be able to help you add some overlooked options to a region you’re traveling to. I keep a (now priceless!) copy of a now-out-of-print College Atlas on my desk for these conversations.
When I worked at an international school in China, my colleague and I put together this list of popular colleges grouped by region (below), to help families planning overseas college visits. It lists frequently applied to colleges that could be useful anchor points for a visit trip, and also places you might add to a list. Some of these regions are fairly spread out, and of course, it’s not a comprehensive list, but it might help you begin to lay out a plan. A knowledgeable college counselor can help you fill in a visit plan with other places that might be right for you.
When you’re setting up visits, as an 11th grader, you’ll probably just have access to the standard tour and information session. As a senior, you may be offered some additional options like sitting in on a class. It’s a great opportunity to sample the academic culture of a place, and as with everything else, one example doesn’t necessarily represent the whole experience. Talk to students after the class. Say hi to the professor if you have the chance. You’ll find that current students and faculty generally are very welcoming and helpful to visitors.
A Preview Day at U Richmond brings crowds, a presentation by the Dean, and special interest tours
Special visit days
Many colleges have special visit programs on the calendar on weekends or holidays like Presidents Day.
These usually will take up a whole day, but offer the chance to take in much more than a standard visit— they might include special facility tours, information sessions on majors or departments led by faculty, academic fairs where every department is represented by a professor, the chance to eat campus food, and more.
Keep in mind that some colleges also offer programs like this in the spring, specifically for admitted seniors.
Most colleges don’t require interviews. Some colleges will offer the opportunity for an interview, typically for older students in grades 11 or 12. In the overwhelming majority of cases, these interviews are not “evaluative” so much as they are, in effect, individualized information sessions. Sometimes you have the chance to connect with the admission officer assigned to your school, other times you may talk with a current student who has been trained as an admission ambassador.
My general advice is to start your first couple of visits in junior year as a participant— take in the tours and info sessions, and listen to questions asked in those group sessions. After a couple of these experiences, I think you’re more ready to make the most of an interview and the chance to ask your own questions— once again, identifying both the shared attributes of colleges and their distinctive programs and features. Generally, an interview is a friendly conversation with someone who is interested in your perspective and eager to share insights into their school with you.
There’s more to say on the topic, but the most essential interview advice is: take a deep breath, relax and be yourself, while engaging and holding up your end of the conversation. Make eye contact and remember the name of the person you’re meeting with. Think ahead of time about how you would describe your interests and how you spend time, your school, what you’re looking for in your college experience and what interests you about the one you’re visiting.
While parents may remember staying over in residence halls with a current student, or hosting, that seems to have gone out of fashion with the pandemic and changing ideas about privacy and liability.
However, if you have the opportunity, it's your chance to ask lots of questions, and get a feel for that "lived experience" I talked about. It's also one more experience that needs to come with the reminder that while it can give you great insight, a not-great fit with your host can impact your perception unduly.
If you have a friend or know of someone from your school who attends a college you'd like to visit, it's a great idea to reach out and see if spending time with them could be an option!
You can learn a lot by checking out the bulletin boards on a campus.
What to do on a visit
Let’s start with a frequent topic of tension between students and their parents: what to wear. The answer is— not too formal, and not excessively casual. The clothes you wear to school are probably just fine, but maybe not those pajamas and slippers you sometimes wear, or a uniform if your school has one.
You certainly don’t have to dress up in blazer and tie or formal dress, and you should be yourself.
A casual dinner out with friends is probably a good standard for how to dress if you’re going to be in meetings along the way.
If it’s warm out, be comfortable.
You’re going to be walking— comfortable shoes that you can stand to walk in for an hour, up and down stairs, etc, are the main requirement for a full visit experience.
Be sure to send a thank you note or email to any individual you have a meeting with when you get home!
Above all, make use of the opportunity to explore a campus.
The most basic advice is to keep an open mind and a positive mood, and learn what you can. Listen, engage, ask questions if you have them.
Divide and conquer— if students and parents are visiting together, it’s not a bad idea to split up and compare notes later. This is especially helpful during visit day programs when there is a lot to take in. Navigating the experience independently and asking their own questions is great and empowering practice for the student, who will be the one heading to college in a year or two, despite how compelling the experience might be for their adult companions!
Try to get information from beyond the admission office’s planned visit experience. Give yourself time to walk around. Visit the student life centers and look at what’s going on. Be sure to look at any bulletin boards around campus to get a sense of the kinds of activities taking place. Pick up a copy of the campus newspaper. You probably carry a camera in your pocket on your phone. Don’t be embarrassed to snap photos of things you want to remember.
You can learn a lot by talking to current students. They may even approach you if they can tell you’re visiting. Don’t be afraid to ask them about their experience.
A little extra time on campus might give you the chance to sample the food offerings. These food courts can be found at Duke, left, and Richmond, right.
Everyone has their own priorities, and the more you research and visit, the more you’ll know what’s important for you.
Some things you might want to do:
Visit any walkable neighborhoods around campus where students spend time. You might be surprised at the vibrancy of student-serving areas in college towns, if you think you need to be in an urban center for college.
Find out about local transportation options. Can you get around the area, or get to stores to buy essential items easily? What about airport transportation? If cars are allowed, and you might be bringing one, what is parking like and how much does it cost?
Some things you want to avoid:
Letting any one person or experience shape your view of a whole institution. So often, tour guides make or break an experience. They are one person out of a community! If they are just like you, or nothing like you, try to look past that to the collective experience.
Making a quick judgment that shapes your day. Give each place its due consideration; stay open-minded.
Letting the weather on that day impact your overall impression of the school.
Visiting without any prior research or context to shape your time there.
Overdoing it. There’s a lot to take in. Jamming a schedule with too many visits over too many days takes its toll. It presents more opportunities for crankiness, conflict or just disengagement for students and parents as each person gets more tired or overwhelmed.
Finally, make sure you record your immediate thoughts after each visit.
Parents, if you're along for the visit, give students a little time to reflect and take some notes before you prompt them with your questions and thoughts.
Students, keep some simple notes on your phone or in a notebook.
Basic categories might include: Facilities and physical impression, student life and connections to your interests, academic observations— what your areas of interest look like and how teaching and learning take place, then an overall impression and any details you want to be sure to remember.
Keep track of these notes-- it's a great idea to keep a real or virtual notebook or spreadsheet with your ongoing notes on colleges that stay on your list!
Try out campus rituals that are open to the uninitiated. A drink from UNC-Chapel Hill's Old Well is said to bring good luck for the academic year ahead!
Don't be surprised if you come face to face with a friendly (or hungry) campus squirrel. (U Richmond)
A final note for students: in my own experience, visiting two colleges I had been admitted to on the same trip in my senior spring— I didn’t do a lot of the above.
I thought the tour guide at the school I ended up attending was super cheesy (see below...) and just not someone I would hang out with. That colored my experience.
I also admit that back then some superficial suggestions of prestige difference between the two schools impacted me, as well as my general embarrassment in putting myself out there and talking to people. I ended up going to a school I had some doubts about given the nature of those visit experiences.
It turned out that my college experience is something I wouldn’t trade for anything, and looking back as a college counselor, I don’t see a quality difference between the schools. The place I attended provided exactly the kind of individualized attention and mentorship I need to thrive and explore areas I never might have otherwise.
For parents and other adults: it’s a good approach in these experiences to be supportive and let students draw their conclusions. Help keep the mood light, let your student ask the questions, help with the planning, and provide a supportive sounding board when they’re ready for it.
Pro tip: the more you indicate your own enthusiasm for a specific place, the more likely your teen might be to push back (I was definitely that teenager...). Play it cool— and don’t buy the sweatshirt just yet! In later processing of the trip, you can remind students of things that made an impression along the way, and help them begin to make some decisions about key priorities in their application list.
I wish you safe travels, sunny days, and the most relatable of backward-walking tour guides!