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What you need to know for your college visits

Applying to college is so instinctual. You have to trust your gut every step of the way. No step is more important than visiting colleges. It’s all about seeing for yourself how the college’s glossy brochures and interactive website live up to the reality. One of the best memories I have from my college search dates back to the campus tours I took with my dad in the summer of 1992. I’s a lifetime ago. But one thing hasn’t changed—visiting campus is the best way to know if a college is a potential “match” for you.

Trust Your Instincts

I remember the extensive college tour my dad and I took. There were colleges where I refused to get out of the car when we arrived on campus. I could just tell. Then there were colleges that I was in awe of—probably because they were out of my reach. And then, there were the colleges that gave me butterflies. There was one college in particular that was on a hill—“The Hill.” When we began the ascent up The Hill, I couldn’t see around the many bends. I felt those butterflies in my stomach, and a bit nauseated as well, not knowing what I was about to see. But, I also felt like the college was a hidden and magical place for me to explore. That’s what you have to wait for. You have to wait for the butterflies.

The butterflies, the awe-inspiring emotions, and the adverse reactions only come to you when you visit colleges. Your instincts are ALWAYS right. You will know in an instant just by visiting a college if you want to apply; and sometimes you will know from the moment you step foot on that campus that that’s where you need to be for the next four years of your life. So, carve out time during your summer vacation; bring along mom or dad, or both. Explore. And, wait for the butterflies.

Along the way, you will begin to see the differences between the colleges you visit—not just the obvious differences like size and location, but also the “magic” that lies within. Finding that “magic” will help you when it comes time to apply. You’ll want to tap into that “magic” when you start filling out your applications and the supplements that go along with the applications. 

Seeing is Believing

You'll find that most selective institutions will ask some questions or offer essay prompts that are specific to their institution. You could scour the website or pick up those glossy brochures one more time to answer these questions. But how good will your responses really be? When I worked in the Undergraduate Admissions Office at the University of Pennsylvania, I could tell which students had visited campus just by reading one of their required essays about why they were applying to Penn. There was a special quality and a deeper connection that came through in the essay if the student visited campus.

Visiting college campuses will help you get a better sense of whether you see yourself as a student there. It will help you when it comes time to write those influential answers and essays on the application and supplements. But it can also give the colleges a reason to admit you. Yes, it’s true. At most institutions, visiting campus is viewed as a way to show the college you are interested in them. It’s called “demonstrated interest,” and it’s similar to a “like” on Facebook or “favoriting” a tweet on Twitter. But the effects of your visit extend well beyond a fleeting tweet. That’s because if you end up applying, and you visited their campus before you applied, you will be seen as a more invested applicant. Colleges know that a student who visits their campus is much more likely to enroll if admitted. So, if you visited, that could be part of the reason you get admitted. The college visit is like the tweet of all tweets. It can change your admissions decision just like that. 

"It’s true—visiting campus shows the college you have "demonstrated interested" in them" TWEET THIS

Summer Rite of Passage

Some families worry about visiting colleges during the summertime because there are fewer classes in session and not as many students on campus. That’s true. However, summer is sometimes the only time when working parents and involved students can step away from the daily routine of life and explore college campuses in a thoughtful and productive way.

The good news is that the power and impact of a college visit has the potential to transcend the relative quiet on a college campus during the summer. If you think about it, the most important office to be busy over the summer should be the admissions office. If it’s not, then you should worry.

  • A vibrant college or university should have many visitors during the summertime.
  • They should have plenty of tour guides on hand to greet you and chat with you before and after they give you a tour.
  • There should be an admissions officer with passion and genuine love for the institution answering your questions or giving an information session.

This makes your long drive well worth it in the end. Even in the dead of summer, colleges need to help you imagine yourself on their bustling campus. The right match can do that for you. 

"Your visits should be done when school starts so you can narrow down your list of colleges" TWEET THIS

Once senior year starts, it’s like you're on a mission to an unknown land. You’re not sure where you’ll end up, but you absolutely know every free moment is accounted for. You’ll be filling out applications, retaking standardized tests, and studying hard in your classes. If you’re lucky, you might be able to take a long fall weekend to squeeze in one last round of college visits. But the bulk of your visits should be done by the start of the school year so that you can begin to pare down your list of colleges to a reasonable number.

Visiting colleges is transformational to you and your college search. You begin to imagine yourself in college or on that campus. If you are lucky, that moment will make an impression on you. When I think back to my summer college tour many years ago, it was all crystal clear. The colleges I refused to get out of the car for dropped off my list faster than my dad’s u-turn. The colleges that made me drool, I got waitlisted at. But that college that gave me butterflies took a chance on me, and I was smart enough to take them up on that offer. 

The top ten “musts” for college visits this summer:

  • Register in advance, as some institutions require notice for your visit.
  • Reserve a half of a day to a full day per college visit. 
  • If you have limited time on campus, at least do the campus tour. If you have more time, attend the information session led by an admissions staff member.
  • Reserve some extra time to explore the campus on your own without a paid tour guide telling you what they’ve been told to say.
  • Sign in with the admissions office no matter what.
  • If you visit campus on the weekend or after hours and the admissions office is closed, look for a visitor box outside the office. There’s usually a self-guided tour and a form to fill out to let them know you visited.
  • Take notes after each visit. You’ll forget details that stood out to you that could help you with the application or supplement months later.
  • Look for tour guides and students who remind you of yourself.
  • Take in how the admissions staff treats you. It says a lot about their admissions philosophy and their ethos as a community.
  • Let your parents come along for the ride. They’ll be more valuable and forever appreciative of this rare moment with you than you’ll ever imagine.