When Should Your Student Visit College Campuses?

When should we begin visiting college campuses?


This is a great question, and one that many parents neglect to ask. It’s never too early to start visiting potential college campuses. But before you hop in the car or jump on the plane to check out your child’s new home and learning environment over the next four years, a couple of preliminary steps should be taken to save both time, money, and headaches.

First off, sit down with your student and make a list of what you’re both looking for in a college. Write down everything you want in a college or university, beginning with the most important aspects, (such as academic major, religious affiliation, location, etc.) and ending with the smallest of details (cafeteria food selection, campus aesthetics, etc.). Leave nothing off the list, no matter how small the detail. After you feel everything you could possibly want in a college is listed, arrange this list numerically in order of importance, with 1 being the most important criteria, 50 being the least, etc.

After you’ve finished, take out another piece of paper and being writing down a list of negatives, those things you’d prefer the college didn’t have; everything from major issues such as things that would absolutely keep your child from attending to smaller things, such as minor inconveniences. Many of the items written on this list may be the opposite of those on your first list. Do the same with this list as the first, arrange all the items numerically in order of importance, with 1 being a complete deal-breaker, to 50 being a minor inconvenience.

(You may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned anything about the cost of tuition in your lists. Well, it’s because the actual cost can vary considerably, depending upon public or private school, in-state or out-of-state, amount of scholarships won, expected family contribution, and grants and loans awarded. Since all these variables will not be known until after your student has applied senior year, look past this criteria for the time being.)

Once both lists are completed, you should have a pretty good idea of what qualities to both look for and avoid in a potential university for your child. Now it’s time to research. Hop online and begin searching for schools that meet your criteria. If location is important, you can perform a radius search by location. If religious affiliation matters, you can search for schools using this criteria. A couple of resources you may find helpful are the University of Texas list of U.S. Universities, the Wikipedia list of American Institutions, and the NCES college navigator. Use these resources to find potential schools, then navigate to their websites to learn more about each school.

There are several websites that offer virtual campus tours. Although not a substitute for a physical, on-campus visit, they can be another tool to use narrowing the list of possible choices. A couple of good options are You University TV and Collegiate Choice. These are two of the most popular options for virtual tours, filmed by outside companies, so there is less of a subjective bias in the presentation.

Another great option to learn more about individual schools are college fairs. These are events where college admissions representatives from various schools across the country set up a booth or table in a large venue to provide information on their institution to potential students and their families. I have personally attended hundreds of these events, both large and small. Since there are typically multiple schools represented at these fairs, it’s best to make a list of questions to ask the admissions representative before arriving. That way, you can systematically evaluate each school based upon your predetermined criteria. The National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) has a list of these events across the country.

There are now virtual college fairs being offered, where you never have to leave home to learn about possible schools. check out Virtual College Fairs.com to learn more about this up-and-coming alternative.

These resources should help you to make a list of potential colleges and universities to consider. With this new list of possible candidates, you and your student should begin visiting them at the very latest during junior year. Freshman or sophomore year is ideal for a first-time visit, since if a college visited during this time meets your criteria, you’ll want to schedule a return visit during senior year to confirm its viability.

setting1There are several ways to visit a college campus as a potential student. The first one is an unofficial or self-guided tour. You and your student may decide to visit the campus sporadically by yourselves, asking questions of passers-by and taking in the scenery and campus activity to get a feel for the university. This can be done both during the academic school year and during the summer, although the benefits of doing so are higher during the school year, since most college campuses are drastically different places when school is out of session.

The second type visit is a school preview day or open house. During this type of event, which is usually hosted on the weekend, the student and family may be invited to participate in several campus activities, take a guided tour of campus, meet with the admissions staff, professors and students, attend a sporting event, concert, or theatrical play, eat in the cafeteria, etc. This may or may not be an overnight event, depending on the school.

The third type of campus visit is an official overnight stay in a dormitory with another student. This is usually scheduled on a week day, so your student can attend a class or two in order to gain a feel for collegiate and academic life. Your student will also eat in the cafeteria, attend campus events, work out in the gym, etc. Often times overnight campus visits are scheduled in conjunction with preview days or open houses.

The last type of campus visit is an unofficial overnight stay where your child stays in the dorms with a friend or relative already attending the college. Since it is unofficial, there are no scheduled events to attend, therefore, your student may get a more realistic idea of just what the university is all about.

When should you not visit college campuses? Holidays, fall and spring break, exam weeks, and other dates that the college might be closed. (It never hurts to call the admissions office and ask when the best and worst times to visit are.)

Well, originally this question was about WHEN to begin visiting college campuses, not HOW to go about it. Hopefully though, by answering the how, I’ve made the when easier to understand!

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  1. A couple more resources to use. The College Board website offers a tips section on choosing a college. There’s even a college matchmaker guide you can use to search through 3851 schools across the country according to your selected criteria. Check it out here.

  2. This is such an awesome article. I’m going to sit down with my 10th grader and start really making our lists of potentials with pros and cons.
    Thank you for the nudge!

  3. Please don’t take this the wrong way. I think your overall ideas are fine but you might want to put a little more thought into your next posts. I say this becuase it seems like your writing style has gone downhill a bit as opposed to your previous posts. – C.

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  5. great post as usual!