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How & When to Visit Colleges & Universities


We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files; We’d like to help you learn to help yourself; Look around you, all you see are sympathetic eyes; Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home.

Simon and Garfunkel didn’t have college visits in mind when they sang these lyrics in the 1960s, yet they capture the facts and feelings of visiting prospective colleges these days.

Why Visit Colleges? 

The cost of four years of higher education can be approximately that of a new home, and who buys a house without checking out the bathrooms? Houses and bachelor’s degrees are, among other things, investments, and any substantial investment requires thorough research and “boots on the ground” to “kick the tires.” While it might be necessary to buy or sell a house on short notice, the college search is usually spread over a longer period of time. That’s why it makes little sense for the college shopper to wait until learning admission results before visiting the prospective college “home.” Aside from all the college qualities that can be measured by numbers, there is the intangible spider sense or gut feeling that reveals when something is right or not. This feeling can’t be gleaned from a website or a drive-by of the campus. Here’s what a visit can do for a student: 

  • Dispel vague impressions with facts about academic and co-curricular life.
  • Transform a first-choice college to a fifth-choice, or the other way around.
  • Establish a satisfying destination should the first-choice college not offer admission.
  • Uncover a community surrounding the college that fascinates, educates, and employs.

Be prepared to make a second visit after admission. Student perspectives and goals can change considerably from March of junior year to March of senior year, and a college can feel different when viewed through admitted eyes.

Keep An Open Mind.

When asked why a particular college visit was unappealing, students often reply, “It rained,” or “The tour guide wasn’t cool.” These responses are signs of a mind already made up before setting foot on the first grassy quadrangle. As the saying goes, “You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist.” The solution is to keep an open and curious outlook that affords each college the respect it deserves. Students pondering far-flung colleges and considerable travel expenses can start smartly by visiting nearby schools that represent various types: public and private; small, medium, and large; highly selective and accessible. Having a sense of what each is like could save considerable time and money in travel.

When to Visit Colleges.

High school students may visit colleges as early as freshman year, although some colleges prefer they wait until junior year. The only downside for younger students happens when parents try to make more of the visit than an easygoing overview, e.g., “This is what you’ll miss if you don’t get your grades up.” Most colleges welcome visitors year-round, though they are usually closed on major holidays. It’s preferred but not required to visit when school is in session. Planning starts with the undergraduate admissions website. Consider the wonders of this site: The information is current, accurate, free, available 24/7, and easily navigated, including the handy little link called “Visit” to arrange an information session and tour. But there’s much more to the undergraduate admission website: academics, financial aid and scholarships, co-curricular options, career advising, and sometimes virtual tours. Hint: Admission personnel tend to be more impressed by students who arrange their visit themselves, and who step up to introduce themselves and their parents upon arrival rather than being passively or reluctantly pulled forward.

Make the Visit Your Own.

It’s almost impossible to experience a college in less than three hours. Nervously blasting in, continually watching the time and checking emails, and making a jackrabbit exit make for an unproductive experience. It should come as no surprise that visiting more than two colleges in one day is probably not a good idea. With mind and calendar cleared, check with the admission office well in advance about viewing particular facilities or sitting in on a class. Bear in mind that the ability of colleges to accommodate these special requests will vary. Always visit the first-year residence hall because that’s literally where you live. (The laundry dryers in one residence hall will text when the cycle is done—how did we ever manage without that?) Ask to speak for a few minutes with a campus specialist such as a financial aid counselor, professor or upper level student in an academic department of interest, career planning expert, diversity and inclusion administrator, or coach. A conversation with any of these helpful people could end up profoundly affecting your college choice. The alert visitor collects the expert’s contact information in order to send a thank-you email or ask follow-up questions. Keeping a journal of impressions can help clarify and prioritize later on when it comes time to make final choices. Sometimes the very act of visiting the college is seen by admissions personnel as “demonstrated interest,” a quality a student shows that can increase the chances of admission or scholarship. A student who not only visits but goes the extra mile by arranging, engaging in, and showing gratitude for the visit is doing everything possible to boost admission prospects.

The Campus Tour.

The tour is pointless if you can’t hear the guide. Situate yourself near the guide so you can hear what’s going on and ask questions; this can be accomplished by a simple flanking maneuver that places you at the edge of the group closest to the speaker. Guides often know more about student life than admission officers and can be quite illuminating. You may hear answers to such questions as “What helped you decide to attend this school?” or “If you could change one thing about your school, what would it be?” Here’s a tour tip that’s seldom used: If the groups are large enough to split into more than one group, students and parents should split up as well. Doing so enables the student to encounter the campus as an independent young adult rather than a tag-along. Compare impressions when you reconvene at the large commemorative fountain. A student who wants to feel even more like a college student could conduct the visit alone.

The Parent’s Role.

Perhaps it is presumptuous to advise on parenting, but please accept these words from one who has witnessed uncomfortable family scenes on college tours. While parents play vital roles in the college search, they do well to be reserved during visits, allowing their student to emerge and engage according to personal preference. If the student is quiet or seemingly aloof, parents should let that be and not try to force a reaction or participation. Trust that the student knows what’s what and allow participation to emerge, or not, organically. Aside from open-ended questions such as “What do you think?” or “Where should we have lunch?” parents should assume a calm and supportive background persona, resisting any inclination to pass judgment on the college or its particulars. On the subject of lunch, try to plan such that you have 45 minutes or so at tour’s end to grab a coffee or lunch in a busy campus spot and just soak up the scene, giving both your thoughts and veggie wrap time to digest as you read the college’s newspaper or magazine. In this way you learn vital or interesting tidbits (such as the fact that Furman University’s dining hall waffle-maker imprints the School Seal on each tasty product).

Enjoy Yourself. 

Visiting colleges should be fun. Allowing adequate travel time between destinations is key, and you can include a free day in the itinerary to relax, visit loved ones, hit the beach, see Rock City, spelunk, or bungee jump. Talk about things other than colleges along the way. Quality family time is such a rare treat these days, so make the most of it.

Homeward Bound.

As you pull into the driveway, wise and energized for having made your grand college tour, Simon and Garfunkel are again warbling on 60s Sirius Radio. The lyrics seem just for you on the verge of a college adventure:

Your time has come to shine;

All your dreams are on their way;

See how they shine.

8 Tips to Rock the College Interview

  1. Many colleges (especially public universities) do not conduct interviews; colleges will readily share their interview policy, which could include Skype or alumni interviews. For colleges that conduct them, interviews usually take place sometime between spring of junior year and January of senior year.  Interviews are usually 30 to 45 minutes in length and informal.
  2. The interview itself is not a make or break test, but failing to avail oneself of an interview offer shows lack of interest, and this could be harmful to admission. Prepare and do your best; this is an excellent preview of future interviews for jobs or professional schools. Be ready to describe your school community and speak with enthusiasm about your academic and co-curricular life, possible plans for the future, and what specifically attracted you to the college.
  3. A few days before the interview, visit the college’s website and make a few notes on: the college’s history and mission, academics and co-curriculars that interest you, and the career placement in your preferred areas.
  4. At the beginning of the interview, hand your interviewer your one-page resume with a smile. Look him or her in the eye, shake hands, say your name and that you are pleased to meet them. Trust and engage your interviewer in conversation; show you care about their community and what you would bring to it.
  5. When invited to ask questions, don’t ask obvious questions such as “How many students are here?” Instead, ask open-ended questions such as “How might I combine my interest in neuroscience and pre-med?” or “What kinds of internships do history majors conduct?” or “What do you like most about this college?”
  6. Know your standardized test scores, give full answers to questions without talking on and on or trailing off inaudibly. Be proud of your accomplishments and honest about any shortcomings, but don’t brag or blame others.
  7. Smile, relax, look your interviewer in the eye, and be friendly.
  8. When the interview is done, thank the interviewer by name, shake hands again, and ask for his or her business card. Within days, send a thank-you message mentioning some of the topics you discussed and reaffirming your interest in the college.


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Bryan Rutledge

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