The Basics of the College Visit

Summer is a great time to add a college visit or two to your family’s travels. This summer, after over a year of mostly being closed to visitors, colleges are opening again to in-person visits. Virtual tours and webinars are just not the same as standing on the quad of a campus and seeing firsthand how students, faculty, and staff interact at the college, then imaging if you can see yourself as a student there.

When I went through the admissions process for my Ph.D. program, I asked a mentor how I should decide which school to attend among the offers I had received. She told me to go visit the campuses and that I would “know the right place by the feeling I got while I was there.” She was right. Visiting campuses, taking tours, and meeting with faculty and current students helped me make the tough choice about which college felt like the right place for me.

When Should You Start Making Campus Visits?

College-bound students should begin visiting schools by their junior year of high school, and some students may be ready to look at a school or two prior to that. To start, you might consider visiting a campus that is close to home. Even if you are not interested in attending that school, you can start to understand the way college visits work and get a feeling for different types of campuses such as a large, state school versus a small, private liberal arts college. This is good data that you can use as you consider crafting your college list.

While summer is an easy time for you to visit schools since you are on break from your high school work, it will not give you the full picture of campus life since most college students are also on summer break. Even the town around campus can appear sleepy and quiet when all the students are gone. Therefore, you should plan to visit at least a few schools while school is in session so that you can see the campus when it is alive with students, activities, and classes.

Why the College Visit Matters

The college visit is your chance to imagine yourself on a variety of different campuses. The more you see and learn on the college visit, the more data you will have to make good decisions throughout your college admissions cycle.

Your visit to a campus will accomplish the following:

  • Help you get a sense of the campus vibe, the students who attend there, and if it is a place where you can see yourself for 4 or more years.
  • Allow you to ask specific questions about the school to students, administrators, and sometimes even professors.
  • Show the school that you are a serious applicant who is indeed interested in attending. In admission office terms, this is “demonstrated interest.”
  • Provide an opportunity to create special memories with your family as you travel and explore campuses together.

How Many Schools Should You Visit?

While I was touring Rhodes College in Memphis with my oldest son, I still vividly remember a woman on the tour with us telling anyone who would listen that she had visited over 80 colleges with her daughter (who was only a rising junior at the time). I thought then – and still think now – that 80 is a bit of a ridiculous number of colleges to visit as a high school student. It indicates to me that you have not done enough leg work to begin to narrow down the colleges you might be interested in attending. Even more important, I wonder if that family had a system for keeping track of what they saw and learned about each college – if they didn’t, I doubt seriously that they could keep 80+ campuses straight in their memories.

On the flip side, visiting just one or two campuses may not be enough to inform your college list building.

Like Goldilocks, you need to plan for just the right number of college visits for you. If you are trying to hold down expenses, try to visit enough schools from your list that you feel confident you would be happy to attend any school on your list should you receive an offer letter from them. Some students might visit every campus where they apply; others may be confident in their list with a visit to about half of the schools where they plan to apply.

You might also save some visits for after your offers arrive. Having an offer in hand before a visit really focuses your attention on the good, the bad, and the ugly on a particular campus. A campus visit after an offer is received can seal the deal that the college is a perfect fit for you.

Be Prepared

Before your college visit you should:

  • Spend time studying the college website. Take note of things of interest to you that you would like to know more about during your visit.
  • Create your list of questions. Print it out and have it ready.
    • Do not ask questions that could be easily answered on the website. For example, don’t ask an admissions officer if the school offers a study abroad program. That is easy enough to find out on your own and makes it look like you have not done your homework. Instead ask something like, “What do students who participate in your study aboard program say is their biggest take away from the experience?” Now you are going to get some information that isn’t on the website.
  • Take a notepad and pen so that you can record your impressions of the visit both during the visit and afterwards.
  • Plan time after your visit to reflect on what you liked and didn’t like about the campus.
  • Think about what you are going to wear. Don’t feel the need to dress up like you are going on a job interview, but don’t be so sloppy as to leave an undesirable impression. Wear clothes that are comfortable and casual like you would wear to school and avoid t-shirts with writing all over them (particularly writing that might send the wrong message). Be remembered for how awesome you are, not the outfit you wore. Wear shoes that are very comfortable and easy to walk long distances in. There is A LOT of walking on a college tour; blistered feet from the wrong shoes can make for a long day.

A Special Note to Parents

As parents, we want what is best for our child, and there are things you can do on campus to pave the way for your student’s success. The biggest pitfall for parents is talking for your child. Avoid speaking for your student in any interaction on campus. This is your child’s time to shine and be independent. You are in the supporting role here. Colleges want to know that your student is mature and ready to function independently. Speaking for or over your student will not leave a good impression in any campus meeting. Talk to your student about what this will look like ahead of time – from signing in at the campus tour to meeting the admissions officer so that your child is prepared to be in charge.


The college visit should be fun! You have worked hard through high school with your eye on college. Now is the time to enjoy what you have worked to achieve and to celebrate the excitement of dreaming about college with your family. For more help with all the steps for a thoughtful college admissions process, contact me for a free consultation at [email protected].

Enjoy the journey!