College Guy: Get the most out of campus tours

Published: 5/17/2021 5:15:59 PM

Question: I am finally going to be able to visit colleges this summer. What should I know and do to make the most of this?

Answer: As more and more colleges open their campuses for tours and information sessions, it is exciting that some students will once again be able to visit in-person. While the robust virtual programs that expanded due to the pandemic have made researching colleges more accessible, many applicants, still feel that there is no substitute for experiencing a campus community firsthand.

There will, no doubt, still be restrictions on college visits depending on institutional, local, and state regulations, so be sure to check each admission website carefully before you go. Register for a tour and information session and if they offer interviews, absolutely take advantage of this opportunity. There are other steps you can take in advance and while you are there to make the most of your time on campus.

Plan ahead: If you are seeing multiple colleges in one trip, do not overdo it and schedule visits so closely together that fail to allow time for a full and thoughtful experience. More than two schools in a day will feel rushed. If you are traveling with a parent or other adult, be sure to talk beforehand about what their role will be so they don’t dominate the conversation (or embarrass you).

Ask your questions: Before you show up on campus, determine what you want to know about that school that you cannot learn online. They will work hard to share the messages that they want you to hear, but you may have specific interests or questions to which you want answers, so write them down in advance and ask them to different people you meet on campus (students, faculty, staff).

Be a scavenger: Have fun with the visit. Make yourself a scavenger hunt list that you can use on each campus. Possible items might be a branded pen, a photo of a campus landmark or the school mascot, a student newspaper, etc. Personalize the experience and be creative.

Hack the visit: The campus tour is going to take you on the route that they want you to follow. You will hear the admission office’s crafted spiel and learn about the highlights that they think are most compelling. Don’t accept everything at face value and simply be spoon fed the party line. Spend some time discovering the campus on your own terms. Customize your visit with the places you want to see and loiter, appropriately. If you are visiting when students are on campus, go sit in the student center or wherever community members congregate and observe the interactions around you. Pull aside a random student or professor and ask for their perspectives on the school.

Beyond the gates: The area surrounding the school might be just as important to your college experience as what happens on campus. You could find yourself working, volunteering, playing, and/or living in the larger community. Allow time during your visit to explore the town. Have coffee in a coffee shop near campus, talk with locals about the “town/gown” relationship – how do locals and students get along, and ask for perception of the college. Some families like to stick with a theme for all of their college visits, like finding the best burger joint or diner near each school.

Take note: Trust me, after visiting three schools, you will start to forget which was which and what you liked – or didn’t – specifically about each school. If you have gone through the trouble to make a trip to a campus, be sure to jot down a few notes right after your visit. What were the strengths and weaknesses about the school and what are your initial reactions? This will make it easier, not only for you to remember, but to debrief with your counselor or other supporters as you refine your college list.

There is no right or wrong way to visit colleges. By planning ahead, being intentional about your approach, and personalizing the experience, you will come away with a better understanding of programs, campus culture, and opportunities that exist at each school.

If you want to learn more about campus visits, essays, testing or anything else college admission related, join me this Thursday at 7:30 p.m., as I host a free webinar “Straight Talk with Admission Leaders.” In this live forum, deans from Middlebury College and the University of Florida will answer any and all questions. You can register at: collegeguidancenetwork.com/event-details/cgn-live-straight-talk-with-admission-leaders.

In the meantime, happy planning and happy visiting!

Do you have a question about college admission, the impact of the pandemic, and applications? Submit them to

Brennan Barnard is the Director of College Counseling and Outreach at The Derryfield School and the College Admission Program Advisor at The Making Caring Common project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is co-author of the book, “The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.”


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