How College Visits Work

Campus tour
The campus tour, like this one of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., is standard on a college visit. Is that guide saying how many books Juniata has in its library?
AP Photo/Carolyn Caster

Choosing a college is a big deal. It's not just the place where you'll be living for the next four or five years. Your college experience can influence what the rest of your life will be like. For many people, it's where you'll educate yourself, form lifelong friendships, and decide on and make steps toward your career. The course of your life can dramatically differ just by choosing one school over another, so it's not a decision you should take lightly.

With the cost of tuition for four years at a public U.S. university averaging around $30,000, you'll really want to make sure you get the most out of your money [source: CollegeBoard]. Would you buy a car without first taking it for a test drive? Just like any major purchase, choosing a college is an investment in your future. While you'll most likely apply to more than one school, it helps to know more about the schools you're applying to. That's where college visits come in. Going to see several colleges before you send your applications can help you to make a better, more informed decision, just like buying a car.


You don't have to -- and probably won't be able to -- visit every school you plan on applying to. But even if you can't see all the colleges you're interested in, dropping in on a few is an excellent idea. There's a lot you can learn by making college visits that will (hopefully) make your decision much easier. A school might look good on paper, but how is the food? Is the campus safe? Do you feel comfortable there? What does the school have to offer you? So many questions can be answered by taking the time to see a school in person.

So what happens when you visit a college? Is there anything you should look for (and look out for)? And how can you plan ahead to make the most out of your time on campus? Find more about sizing up potential schools in the next sections.



Planning a College Visit

Ohio State fan with face painted
If you want to brave the Ohio State campus on game day, go ahead. But be prepared to run into guys like this.
Danny Moloshok/ALLSPORT/Getty Images

Timing is key when planning your college visits. Of course you'll want to start looking at colleges sometime before you begin the application process, but how soon? Applications for most schools are due about a year before you would begin classes; you'll want to start visiting schools well before the application deadline, so that you're prepared to decide where to apply. For most high school students, this means starting to look at colleges during your junior year of high school, or even as early as the end of your sophomore year. During your senior year, you'll be knee-deep in the application process, so it's best to plan your visits before then. If you're going to do early decision (applying early and committing to a school), you'll need to begin even sooner.

Another part of timing is knowing when the best times to visit the campus are. If the point of a college visit is seeing if you'd like to go to school there, then you'll want to go when classes are in full swing to get the complete experience. It's important to pick a time when students are on campus, so go during the week when classes are in session. Of course, stopping by during a holiday break isn't a good idea either, because not many students will be on campus.


Other times to avoid include the first day of a new semester (when most classes will just be starting up), the last few days before a holiday break (when classes will likely be slowing down) and during finals (when students will be taking tests instead of attending regular classes). Also, don't go during the midst of a major sporting event, unless you want to encounter crowds, competition for parking and lodging, and the mass chaos that school pride can bring on game days.

The best times to visit are all about the middles -- the middle of the week, the middle of the semester, the middle of the day -- because it's during these times that you'll get a true sense of how the school functions on a day-to-day basis.

Now that you know when to visit, step two is scheduling your trip. What, did you expect you could just show up and walk around? Think again. In the next section, we'll discuss why organizing your time on campus helps you to head off problems, and how to schedule college visits.


How to Schedule Your College Visit

University of Michigan campus
Before you go wandering around campus on your own, take the time to arrange a tour, an interview -- whatever the college can offer prospective students.
Andy Sacks/Getty Images

Even though most college campuses are open to the public, and you're free to walk around if you wish, it's a good idea to let the school know you'll be coming. Even if the staff can get you on a tour if you show up unannounced, you have a better chance of getting the most out of the trip if you do some planning. By doing so, you can take full advantage of campus tours, department and general information sessions, overnight stays, admissions interviews and any other special opportunities the school has for prospective students. If you don't schedule your visit beforehand, there's no guarantee that someone will be available to answer your questions.

Luckily colleges try to make it very easy for interested students to visit. A good place to start is the school's Web site. Most have a section dedicated to providing information to prospective students, including information on tours. Some schools even allow you to schedule tours online or over the phone. If you live nearby, you might consider arranging it in person, but it's just as easy to do it over the phone. Whatever method you choose, make sure to line up the tour at least two weeks before you visit the campus to be certain you can get into the tours and sessions you want.


If the school you're looking at is far from home, and you plan on doing an interview, then go ahead and sign up for one during the time you'll be visiting. It's OK to have an interview with the school before you've applied. In fact, most interviews take place before the school has received student applications. Try to set up the interview for some point after you take a campus tour, that way you'll be able to ask more informed questions about the school. If you do decide on an interview, set it up at least a month before your visit to make sure you can get a time that works for both you and the person who will interview you.

Plan to spend more than one day at each college you visit, if possible. That way you won't feel rushed to see everything in one day, and you can better account for the unexpected, such as bad weather or missing a planned tour.

Scheduling ahead isn't the only way to prepare for visiting a college. In the next section we'll give you some more ideas for making sure you'll get the most of your visit.


Getting Prepared for Your College Visit

College visits can be time-consuming, so it's wise to narrow down your choices ahead of time to the schools you're most interested in. It's impossible to visit every school, and you don't want to waste your time traveling to a school that you have no real interest in. Doing some legwork in advance can save you both time and money.

Begin by checking out some colleges you're interested in online. It's easy. Browse their Web sites, explore the pages for the different departments and become familiar with their admissions processes. Request an information packet in the mail -- they're free, so order away.


Start asking yourself questions about what you're looking for. Get a feel for whether you prefer a large school or a small school, a school in a rural area or in a city (if you can't decide, plan to visit colleges in different places to see which you like better).

Spend some time thinking about what your deal-makers and deal-breakers are. Is there anything that a school absolutely must have, such as Greek life or a pre-med program? Is there anything you absolutely don't want, such as being too far away from home? You don't have to know the answers to all these questions, but if you can answer a few of them beforehand, it can really help to narrow down your options.

You also should start thinking about the questions you would like to ask during your visit, parts of the campus you would like to see and any special tours or sessions you would like to attend.

If you're planning on doing an interview, make sure you prepare yourself for that as well. Read up on the school and don't ask questions that could be answered on their Web site or in a brochure. Practice articulating your goals and interests. Prepare a list of questions you'd like to ask. Bring appropriate clothes -- you don't necessarily need to wear a suit or a dress, but you should look presentable and be comfortable for your interview.

Now that you're fully prepared, what will it be like to visit a college campus? What can you expect from tours and interviews? We'll examine the ins and outs of your visit in the next sections.


What to Expect: The Formal Tour

One of the easiest things to do on a college visit is take a guided tour. Most schools offer both group tours and private tours, and both are excellent ways to start your campus visit.

During the tour, a tour guide -- usually a current student -- takes you on a walk to different places on campus that are important to see, such as the library, some of the class buildings and often a dorm to see what those are like. You'll learn some of the basic information about the school, such as the number of students, the size of the classes and any historical tidbits the guide mentions. Tours usually last a couple of hours.


Tours are a good time to ask questions about the school from someone who's trained to answer them. Don't be shy. If something concerns you, or if there is something you want to know, ask about it. How else will you get the answers you need?

Some schools also offer overnight stays in the dorms or an opportunity to shadow a current student, both of which offer you a feel for the living conditions and what the school is like from a student's perspective. For an overnight stay, you might be paired up with a current college student or another overnight tour-taker.

Colleges may hold departmental information sessions and open houses, too. These events provide an opportunity to get more detailed information about departments you're interested in, including the classes they offer and what their programs are like. You might even have a chance to speak with faculty members and ask more specific questions about the majors and courses you're interested in.

Speaking of asking questions, you may also have lined up that interview we just discussed. Interviews could be with an admissions officer, an alumnus or even a current student.

Another great way to learn about a campus is simply to walk around. In the next section, we'll explain why it's important to take your own, informal tour of the campus.


What to Expect: The Informal Tour

While formal tours, information sessions and interviews can give you the facts about the school, one of the best ways to get a feel for a campus is to wander around on your own. Pay attention to the people, the places and the things you see and hear. Guided tours are designed to highlight the best parts of the campus, so you really can't get a true read on the campus culture from a tour alone. Are students complaining about professors or classes? Are they talking about fun upcoming events? You can learn a lot just by keeping your eyes and ears open.

Think about what a typical day on the campus would be like and analyze the school from that perspective. Is it easy to walk from building to building? What's the food like? Where might you go to study? To hang out? What is there to do in the area? Is the cost of living high? Would you be able to find a part-time job? Is the line at the advising office long? Of course, academics are the most important consideration, but liking the school you attend can go a long way toward making your time in college successful.


If you can, talk to students about the school. Ask them questions that would give you information you can't find in a brochure, such as what the class workloads are like, what they really appreciate or don't appreciate about the college or what it's like to navigate the various administrative processes.

Lastly, take notes. Snap a few pictures. Bring a notebook and pen with you and write down your impressions of the school -- the good and the bad. Write down any unanswered questions you have. If you don't, it's easy to forget what things you saw where, especially if you're visiting more than one school.

Think of a college visit as a chance to interview each school. You want to know the positives and negatives, and the more information you can gather, the better. For more information on college visits and preparing for college, take a look at the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • CollegeBoard. "College Visits." (Dec. 30, 2009)
  • CollegeBoard. "2009-2010 College Prices." (Dec. 31, 2009)
  • Diehl, Chris. "Plan Your College Visits." (Dec. 28, 2009)
  • GoCollege. "Making the Most of School Campus Tours." (Dec. 29, 2009)
  • GoCollege. "What Students Should Look for on a Campus Visit." (Dec. 29, 2009)
  • Gross, Jennifer. "College Visits: A Planning Checklist." National Association for College Admission Counseling. (Jan. 1, 2010).
  • Gross, Jennifer. "The College Sleepover: Overnight Visits." National Association for College Admission Counseling. (Jan. 1, 2010)
  • Gross, Jennifer. "The Truth About College Interviews." National Association for College Admission Counseling. (Jan. 1, 2010).
  • Kuh, George D. "Tips for Campus Visits: Getting the Most Mileage Out of the College Campus Tour." College Confidential. (Dec. 29, 2009)
  • Williamson, Anne. "Questions for Your Visit." (Jan. 4, 2010).