I have a senior in high school, and he’s in the thick of applying to colleges now. As a traveler, I have loved exploring colleges and crisscrossing the country with him. We’ve discovered new areas of the US that never interested us before, and it’s been fantastic.
If your family is diving into the college search soon, here are 5 tips to make the most of your college visit:
Narrow down your options
As you can imagine, researching and applying to colleges now is a different process than it was before the internet. Today it’s a world of online applications, virtual tours, and Instagram.
And with thousands of colleges in the US, how do you whittle down the overwhelming choices? College counselors provide expert guidance, so if your high school doesn’t employ this specialist, it might be worth hiring one. Many will work remotely if you don’t have one in your hometown.
Valuable statistics such as college retention and graduation rates are readily available. My go-to guidebooks are Princeton Review’s The Best 384 Colleges and Fiske Guide to Colleges. Additionally, US World Report and Niche are good examples of the plentiful resources online.
If you are just beginning the search, perhaps first visit local colleges to determine a few preferences. A small college or a big university? Urban, suburban or rural setting? Snowy winters or mild climate? Camping or big-city culture at your doorstep? Maybe drive through a college campus while on vacation.
But why visit colleges? Not only will a visit refine what a student desires for those future four years, but a school that seems perfect on paper may clearly be wrong once seen in person. Or vice versa.
Preparing for a college visit
We have driven through campuses and walked self-guided tours. But nothing can replace an information session and guided tour. Open houses are infrequent but wonderful too.
The information session with a tour tends to run about 2 hours and can be scheduled online. Information sessions are led by admissions staff who not only explain what sets their school apart from others but may share golden nuggets about what they are looking for in college essays. Next, a team of college students guides visitors around campus and answers questions.
Sure, most campuses look beautiful cloaked in autumn leaves or springtime blossoms. But the school year spans the winter season, so if a college of interest is located in extreme climate, visit it then if you can.
You’ll get a more accurate feel for the campus on a weekday when school is in session. Campuses appear empty on weekend mornings (students sleep in) and summer break.
Spend the night in the college town, if possible. Admission websites often suggest places to visit, including favorite local hangouts and restaurants.
Lastly, have your teenager read about the college about an hour before the visit so it’s fresh in his/her mind. Jot down potential questions.
During the tour
Campus visits tend to blur together so take detailed notes and ask questions. Grab all the available literature which will be handy when answering the prompt “Why do you want to attend our school?” in the future.
Make an effort to see the cafeteria and recreation center if not included on the tour. Notice if most students are social and sitting together in the cafeteria or sitting alone.
After the visit
We immediately sit down in the car or in a coffee shop and write down all the pros and cons of the school. My son scores the school out of 5 stars. He comes up with follow-up questions he can include in his thank you note.
But most importantly, do more than just look at the college. Make the trip fun and relaxed. That is why our college search has been a blast. We’ve seen ducks walk through a hotel lobby and have dined overlooking the Mississippi River.
We visited Paul Revere’s house and toured Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory. We drank hot chocolate in one of Taylor Swift’s hangouts and attended a few big college football games.
I know when we reminisce about these last years with my son at home, the college tour season will definitely hold some of our fondest memories.