College Visits: Tips for Making the Most of Your Trips

 August 31, 2021
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College visits can be the most exciting part of the college application process (apart from getting your acceptance letter, of course). You get to visit schools, chat with students and figure out if you can picture yourself enrolling in the fall.

But these campus trips do cost money, and even just planning the logistics of your college visits can get tricky — especially if pandemic restrictions are in place.

From how to schedule college visits to how to save money in the process, these college visit tips will help you navigate the process.

Tips for your college visits

Before we look at how to save money visiting your prospective schools, let’s examine some things you can do to make the most out of your time on campus:

1. Visit when school is in session
2. Sign up for a campus tour
3. Spend some time wandering around on your own
4. Meet with an admissions officer
5. Stay in the dorms overnight
6. Sit in on a class
7. Take notes on your impressions

1. Visit when school is in session

You’ll get the most realistic experience of a college if you visit while school is in session, rather than during a school holiday when the campus feels deserted. College holidays don’t always match up with public holidays, so check each school’s academic calendar before you visit.

If you can see the campus while the students are there, you’ll get a much better sense of the atmosphere and energy than if you go while everyone’s traveling or home for the holidays.

2. Sign up for a campus tour

Colleges typically offer campus tours for prospective students to learn about campus life. These tours are often led by a student volunteer.

Campus tours are a great way to see the school’s facilities, such as academic buildings, dining halls and dorm rooms. Plus, you can learn directly from your tour guide about what it’s like to go to school there.

Try to show up with some prepared questions, such as:

  • What do you like most about this college?
  • What was it like transitioning here from high school?
  • What do you do in your free time or on the weekends here?
  • What do you wish you’d known about this school before enrolling?

Asking a student about their personal experience is an excellent way to learn about a school beyond its promotional materials.

[Note that campus tours were restricted during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some schools only offering virtual tours or asking students and their families to drive through the campus. Other colleges are providing in-person tours, though they might not let you inside the dining halls, dorms or other buildings.]

3. Spend some time wandering around on your own

Outside of the official campus tour, it’s worth taking some time to wander around on your own. Take in the sights and sounds, and get a feeling for what it’s like to be on campus.

If possible, check out some facilities that you weren’t shown on the campus tour. And remember to check out the surrounding community, too.

Even though the college is the main attraction, you also want to enjoy your surroundings. Exploring the local community can help you determine whether you want to go to school in an urban setting, rural environment or something in between.

4. Meet with an admissions officer

As you’re scheduling your college visits, find out if you can meet with an admissions counselor.

Setting up a meeting is a great way to get expert insight on the college community. Plus, the admissions officer might be able to shed light on what they look for in a college application. You could get valuable intel that helps you put together an effective application.

If there’s a list that tracks visiting students, make sure to add your name. Some admissions offices keep track of who has visited and shown what they call “demonstrated interest” in the school, a factor which could potentially help you get accepted.

5. Stay in the dorms overnight

While it wasn’t often an option during the COVID-19 pandemic, some schools have programs that allow prospective students to stay in the dorms overnight.

These programs are a great way to get a taste of college life, as well as to hang out with current students and get their perspective. If such a program is available, it’s sure to help you figure out whether the school would be a good fit for you.

6. Sit in on a class

Before your college visit, find out if you can sit in on a college class. If you have a sense of what you’d like to study, search for a class in your target major.

This class observation will give you a sense of what it’s like to be a student at the school. Plus, you might chat with the professor afterwards for even more insight into the school’s academics.

7. Take notes on your impressions

If you make college campus visits, be sure to record your impressions of each school through notes and photos. College visits are a lot to take in, especially if you’re visiting multiple schools in a short period of time.

Your college visits might feel like a whirlwind as you’re doing them, but once you’re back home, your notes and photos can help you sort through your impressions and choose your favorite schools.

How to save money on your college visits

While college visits can help you decide on a school, you also don’t want to go broke visiting campuses. If you’re not sure whether you can afford to visit schools outside of your immediate area, consider these college visit tips for touring schools without spending a lot:

1. Establish your budget from the start
2. Narrow down the list
3. Check out virtual tours first
4. Talk to local alumni
5. Work around your vacation plans
6. Plan your flights and accommodations carefully
7. See some schools on your own

1. Establish your budget from the start

First off, it’s important to figure out your budget from the start. Determine how much you can afford to pay for campus visits without breaking the bank.

Once you have your budget, you can choose which schools to prioritize and which ones to leave off your list.

If, for example, you can visit five nearby schools for the same cost as one college that’s located across the country, it might be more worthwhile to stay local.

2. Narrow down the list

If you have a list of schools you’re considering, slim it down by thinking about what is most important to you.

Consider the difference between public and private schools, especially since private schools can be more expensive. Some other factors that may impact your decision may be climate, location, school size, athletics, extracurriculars, Greek life and majors.

If you love the beach and the tropics, checking out Syracuse University in New York, which often gets several feet of snow, might not be worth it, no matter how good the school is. Similarly, if you want to live in a bustling city, going to Grinnell College in central Iowa might not be ideal, either.

Create a profile of what your must-haves are and which areas you are flexible about. That approach can whittle down your list to about five to 10 schools.

3. Check out virtual tours first

More and more schools are offering virtual tours of their campuses and classrooms. eCampus Tours is a site that provides online tours of over 1,300 schools. While it’s not the same as seeing the campus in person, going through the virtual tour can help you get a feel for the school and its culture.

For example, if you plan on majoring in science and technology and the online tour features an outdated lab, you can write that school off your list.

4. Talk to local alumni

Before booking trips to your schools, talk with local alumni, ideally those who graduated with your major. The colleges and universities on your list can often put you in contact with alumni for phone conversations or in-person meetings. You can also look for people who graduated from that school on LinkedIn or Facebook.

Having an honest conversation about their experiences at school, both personally and academically, can help your decision. Alumni might tell you they had a great experience, had an easy job search after school and took on minimal debt. Others may tell you they felt ill-prepared for employment and had thousands in student loans.

Their experience can give you unique insight that can help inform your decision. Aim to talk to a few different alumni from each school before touring to give you a well-rounded perspective.

5. Work around your vacation plans

Have a family vacation coming up? Try to combine your college visits with the trip.

If you’re flying to Florida and are considering the University of Central Florida, you can spend a day at the school in the middle of your vacation. That will save you money, since you won’t have to go on a separate flight and book another hotel for more college visits.

If your vacation includes a road trip, make a small detour here and there to include schools on your list. While it may add a day or two to your trip, it will save you money in the long run since you’re already on the road.

6. Plan your flights and accommodations carefully

When you travel can greatly affect what you pay. If you book mid-week and get an early flight, you can save hundreds on airfare. When possible, avoid flying on the weekends, as those flights tend to be much more expensive.

Also, check out pricing on one-way flights rather than round trip. You may be able to save money by flying one airline to your destination and using another carrier on the way home.

When it comes to accommodations, be creative. Many schools will let you stay on campus overnight for free as part of your college tour (see above). If that’s not an option, or if you have family with you, check out discount hotel sites. You may be able to snag a cheap room on Airbnb as well.

7. See some schools on your own

If you’re comfortable traveling alone, try visiting schools without your family. While they can provide helpful advice, bringing relatives along can greatly add to the cost of college visits.

Seeing the school on your own can also help you evaluate the school objectively, without someone else’s opinion influencing you.

College visit FAQs

When should you start visiting colleges?

The College Board recommends visiting colleges in the spring of your junior year. Waiting until senior year might be too late, as that’s when you’ll need to focus your energy on finishing and submitting your college applications.

Of course, you don’t have to wait until the spring of junior year if you’re interested in visiting colleges earlier. But remember that your preferences might change, so even if you found a college you loved as a freshman, it’s worth visiting again a couple years later to see if it still makes your list.

You’ll also get the best feel of a college campus while school is in session. That means visiting during the academic year, rather than over the summer and planning around college holidays, such as winter break and reading periods (usually the weeks before midterms and finals).

How do you schedule college visits?

You can typically schedule a college visit on the college’s admissions website. There, you can find information on campus tours, information sessions and other events for prospective students. If you’re having trouble finding what you need, you can also give the admissions office a call.

Some high schools also organize group tours to college campuses. Check with your school counselor to find out about any opportunities to visit colleges with your peers.

What do you do on a college visit?

College visits usually involve a campus tour led by a volunteer college student. They might also involve an information session with current students and/or admissions officers.

You’ll get to tour campus, check out facilities and ask questions. Some schools also offer programs for prospective students to stay in a dorm overnight.

Plus, you might also be able to schedule an interview with an admissions officer or meet with a financial aid counselor.

Note that most colleges have COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in place this year. You might be limited to a virtual tour or a socially distanced outdoor tour.

What should you take on a college visit?

Pack light if you can, and make sure to bring something to record your trip, whether that’s a notebook to take notes in or simply your phone to take pictures with. Jotting down your thoughts and impressions will help you remember what you liked — and didn’t like — about each college.

Before you visit, you might also choose to set up special meetings, such as an interview with an admissions officer, a meeting with a financial aid counselor or professor or a class observation.

What should you wear to a college visit?

While college visits typically don’t have any clothing requirements, you might want to dress nicely if you’ll be meeting with a professor or an admissions officer. You might go for a button-down shirt, dress pants, a skirt or dark jeans and nice shoes.

At the same time, you want to be comfortable, as you might be walking around campus for an hour or more. Wear shoes that won’t hurt your feet, layers in case of a change of weather and anything else that won’t distract you from your tour.

If you’re setting up an admissions interview, you’ll likely want to dress up a little — think business casual. Choose an outfit that will help you feel confident and show that you’re taking the occasion seriously.

But if you’re simply touring the campus on your own or with a group, feel free to dress casually and comfortably.

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