Many high school juniors and their families are planning to visit colleges during spring break. College visits are an important part of the application process. No college website, online review, or Snapchat story can substitute for an in-person campus experience. As veterans of over 70 college visits, we have some advice for your spring break college tour.
1. Tell them you’re coming. Check the website of each college you’re planning to visit. Most require you to register online, and most offer an information session and a campus tour. Some offer specialized info sessions and tours for engineering, the arts, or other areas.
2. Sign in when you arrive. Many colleges track applicants’ contact with the school, including visits. These contacts demonstrate your interest and can affect your admission decision: colleges are more likely to admit students who have demonstrated interest, and the best way to do that is to visit. Of course, colleges understand that distance and travel costs may prevent some applicants from visiting. But if you live within reasonable driving distance and can afford to visit, you should.
The information session will provide an overview of the college, often including its history, academic programs, and extracurricular activities, as well as information about the application process and financial aid. In addition to the content, pay attention to the vibe. You may find yourself in a cozy parlor, a visitor center conference room, or a historic campus theater. You may view a video or a PowerPoint presentation. The college is marketing itself, so consider the image and message being conveyed.
Tours vary widely in size and audibility. It’s important to get close enough to the tour guide to hear what he or she is saying. Also pay attention to the grounds and facilities. Is the dining hall clean and well maintained? Is the library empty or overcrowded? Is anyone actually using the rock-climbing wall?
3. Visit different types of colleges. You may be surprised at what you learn about the range of colleges and your own preferences. For example, if you’re interested in engineering, you might visit a tech school, a public university, and a liberal arts college that offers engineering. Each of these schools could provide a great education, but the intangibles are vastly different and can be assessed only by visiting. For example, our tour guide at the University of Maryland was sure she wanted to attend a small, private college until she visited UMD, which became her first choice.
4. Don’t stress about the competition. Spring break isn’t just the most convenient time for you to tour colleges – it’s the most convenient time for your entire class, nationwide. Expect large crowds, especially at the most selective and popular schools. Sitting in an auditorium with 500 other prospective applicants at, say, Tufts drives home the low odds of admission. Don’t be distracted by your fellow visitors. Focus on whether the college is a good fit for you.
5. Take notes and pictures. College visits tend to blur together, especially if you visit two campuses a day for three or four days. Record your thoughts and impressions while they’re fresh.
6. Account for the weather. If you tour a campus in a heavy downpour, remind yourself it won’t rain every day. Try to picture the campus on a sunny day. But if you visit on a beautiful day and don’t like the school, take that reaction seriously.
7. Talk to students other than your tour guide. College tour guides are a self-selecting – and well-trained – group. Most of them effectively convey information and enthusiasm. Make an effort to talk to your tour guide. Ask questions. But talk to other students as well, for these reasons:
Tours are scripted. Talk to other students to get the unvarnished truth. For example, we witnessed a tour guide struggle to field questions about drug culture at her school when parents pressed her about the substance-free dorm she’d just pointed out. Conversation with other students, or an overnight visit, would yield a more candid assessment.
Your tour guide may not be representative of the student body. Some colleges admit a wide range of students; those in an honors program or receiving substantial merit aid may be quite different from the college’s median student. If your tour guide is an honors/merit student, especially at a public university or a less selective private school, you should make a special effort to meet more typical students so you get a complete sense of the school.
8. Eat in the dining hall. This is your best chance to observe and meet students. It can be difficult to approach strangers, but the payoff in information can be huge.
9. Ask our favorite question: What would you change about this school? Red flag answers include difficulty getting into required classes and poor academic advising.
10. Ask yourself: Can I picture myself here? This is the fundamental question you’re trying to answer. Enjoy the process and find your fit along the way!