By Jonathan Piliser
Director of College Counseling
Do I have to visit?
The short answer is “no” — with students routinely applying to 15+ colleges, it’s simply not realistic for families to get a chance to tour every school on their list. Admissions officers are also sensitive to the fact that expecting all applicants to schedule a visit would put low-income students at a disadvantage as the travel costs could quickly become overwhelming.
That being said, some colleges may find it conspicuous if you live in (or very near) their school and don’t bother to see the campus. So if you one of our top choices is within a reasonable driving distance, it’s a good idea to plan a visit at some point before you apply.
If you’re looking to learn more about a school for your own information, many colleges are implementing technology to make remote visits more feasible. Everything from an online tour hosted on the college’s website to a “virtual reality” session are increasingly available as colleges look to expand their options to market their campus for students who would find it challenging to visit in person.
When Should I Visit?
Ideally, you’ll want to visit your colleges before the fall of your senior year. That way, your observations and experiences can play a useful role in the essays that you’ll be writing for your college applications. Your experiences can also help shape your list — you may end up removing a college that seemed like a good fit on paper, or perhaps elevating a school that you were only marginally interested in before seeing the campus.
It’s also a good idea to schedule your visit for a time when classes are in session. This gives you the opportunity to get a sense for the campus dynamic, as well as the chance to sit in on classes or speak with current students and faculty. If you do have to schedule a visit during the summer or another time when school is not in session, keep in mind that you may not be getting a complete sense of what life as a student entails.
How Many Schools Should I Visit?
This can depend on your schedule and what you hope to learn about each college on your list. In general, it’s a good idea to limit yourself to visiting no more than two colleges per day. While it’s tempting to try to hit as many schools as you can during a trip, it can be very challenging to differentiate your visits if you’re squeezing in too many in such a short frame of time. At some point, your impressions will start to become a blur.
If you’re not able to see most of the colleges on your list, it can be helpful to visit a range of different kinds of schools that are nearby. For instance, touring a liberal arts college can give you a general feel for the size and philosophy of other smaller, undergraduate-oriented schools that you’re not able to see.
You should also give priority to schools to colleges that will value your expressed interest. Most — but not all — private schools will at least register your interest if you schedule a tour or attend a formal info session. But many great schools, like the University of California campuses, do not keep track of your interest level. Your visit can still be helpful in getting a better sense of what the schools have to offer, but otherwise they have no bearing on your chances of being admitted.
Finally, you should consider prioritizing colleges on your list that will require essay supplements that ask you about your interest in the school. Some colleges, like Stanford, have no such essay topics. But others, like Cornell, will give you up to 650 words to convey why you believe their school is a good fit.
What Should I Do During My Visit?
Aside from taking in the campus scenery, you want to obtain as much information as you can that may help to shape how you see your “fit” for each given college. You’ll want to sign up for an official tour and/or info session, as this will give colleges a formal record of your interest. These opportunities can also be helpful to ask any questions you may have.
It’s also a good idea to look for moments where you can get a better sense of what makes each college unique. Sitting in on a class or chatting with a professor, for example, can be very illuminating. Even informal conversations that you strike up with current students can give you a more firsthand account of the overall college community, less colored by the more overt “marketing” that tends to influence the official tours and sessions.
Later that day — perhaps back at the hotel before you go to bed — it’s a good idea to jot down any notes that you want to remember from your visit. This can help to keep your different school visits from blurring together. When you end up working on your college applications, you’ll be thankful that you’ll have resources to pull in specific details, moments, and conversations into the essays that you’ll be submitting.
While visiting colleges can be very helpful, it’s important to keep in mind that you can only learn so much from spending an hour or two on campus. Your impressions may be influenced by anything from the demeanor of your tour guide to the weather on the day of your visit. So while you can obtain valuable impressions from exploring any given campus, you should balance those impressions with other research that you conduct on the classes, student organizations, student culture, and overall academic philosophy of that school before drawing any definitive conclusions.