Tips for Every Stage of Your College Tour

by Mark Stucker, March 7, 2022

Daffodils are blooming, robins are starting to sing… spring is in the air and for high school juniors, that means one thing: it’s time to start planning college visits!  After two years of being relegated to virtual visits via laptop or school computer, colleges are starting to reopen their campuses for prospective students to tour.  But making the most of your limited time on campus takes a good bit of planning. Here are some tips to help you get started.

Families often wonder where to begin their college visits and the simplest answer may be to get started with colleges that are convenient to your hometown.  You may be planning to go to college as far away from home as possible (Sorry, Mom!), but you can start your research locally to get a sense of what different kinds of colleges are out there and what your ideal “type” might be.

You can also choose colleges to visit on the way to another destination you were going to anyway (grandma’s house, a family reunion, tagging along on a parent’s work trip) or one you’d like to see (younger siblings will be more likely to come along willingly if there’s an amusement park at the end of this wild ride). Wherever you are headed, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Two-to-four weeks out from the visit

  • Go to the admissions section of each college’s website and see what visit opportunities they offer.  Some schools host special open house programs in the spring and if you are ready, you can sometimes do special things like sit in on a class, have lunch with a student, or meet with a professor.  At the very least, sign up for the Tour (which is usually led by a student) and Information Session (which is led by an admissions officer).
  • Research the school thoroughly. Pay special attention to the Admissions, Student Life, Academic, and About Us sections of the website. Explore all of the virtual offerings under the virtual visit section. Explore the social media channels, particularly Instagram and YouTube to see what real students are really doing.
  • Write out at least five open-ended questions that you can’t find answers to after searching on the website that are related to your interests and hopes for college.  Need help coming up with questions? Start here.
  • If you are ready, you can customize your tour by requesting in advance to meet with someone from a department that will be an important factor in your college decision. Examples include: Career Center, Academic Success Center, Athletic Coach, Performing Arts Leader, faculty member in a department of interest, Disability Services, Multicultural Affairs, Health Services, a student with similar interests; Financial Aid, Study Abroad, Residential Life…
  • Do not only visit your most selective schools. Your visits should be a mixture of Reaches, Possibles, and Probables.
  • You’ll need to put some time into planning out the logistics of the visit: hotel, airfare, car rental, restaurants. Look at the distance between visits and prioritize locations where you can see a cluster of schools if you are on a multi-day trip. You should plan to spend 2-4 hours on each campus.  This is a great project for a parent/guardian to take on, but the student should have input on which schools you are visiting.
  • Check out cultural opportunities at the colleges you are visiting; many of them are free and open to the public. You could see a production from the theater department, sit in on an a capella concert, cheer for the lacrosse team, or browse the museum. 

The night before 

  • Make sure you are aware of and comfortable with the COVID policies of the school you are visiting
  • Pay special attention to parking and direction instructions
  • Plan to dress for the occasion and the weather – you’ll be walking a lot so you don’t need to be formal, but you don’t want your clothes to be distracting for you or anyone else.  Neat and clean is a good rule of thumb.
  • Check your email – there might be a confirmation email with a parking permit hiding out in your spam folder

The morning of

  •  Leave early so you arrive 30 minutes before the start time. Remember Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

On the tour/info session

  • Be personable and friendly to everyone you encounter – that person picking up trash on the lawn could be the college president!
  • Sit or stand where you can hear well.
  • Be prepared to introduce yourself – a lot of admissions people like to go around the room and have students say where they are from and what they are thinking of majoring in.  It’s fine to be undecided about a major at this point; understand that they are asking not to put you on the spot but in order to get to know you a bit and orient their examples to things you are interested in.  So, something like, “I’m not sure what I want to major in, but I really love learning about space and making art” is a great answer.
  • Parents/Guardians can ask questions, but ideally, the student will be the more vocal one. Ask the questions you prepared in advance if they aren’t covered by the tour guide or admissions officer leading the session.
  • Speak up but don’t dominate the airtime.
  • Don’t have sidebar conversations with family or friends when the tour guide or admission officer is talking. Pay attention (feel free to take notes if that helps you concentrate); eye contact makes a positive impression.
  • Be observant: watch the students around you. Do they look happy or stressed? How are they interacting with each other? Are the facilities well maintained? Jot down a few notes to capture your impressions in the moment.
  • Take photos with your camera phone. It is easy for colleges to blend together in your mind if you visit a lot of them at once so the photos and taking a few moments of reflection time before you leave campus will help you remember what you liked (and didn’t) about each school.
  • At the end of your visit, thank the tour guide and ask if they will share their email in case you have any questions once you leave.  If you have a personal interview, you’ll want to write a thank you note but that’s not necessary for a group tour or information session.
Download this handy checklist from Applerouth to use on the day of your tour!

Before you leave campus

  • Grab a school newspaper and read it later. There are often free ones in heavily trafficked areas. Check out the posted flyers to see what events are coming up and what issues students seem to be engaging with.
  • Eat in the dining hall and people watch; observe the school culture. 
  • Go to a place where students “hang out” (your tour guide will have suggestions and you will spot some highly trafficked areas while you are on the tour) like the quad, library or student center. Ask your questions of a few students who the admissions office hasn’t trained as tour guides and see if their responses match what you have heard and observed about the school. Plan to spend at least 30 minutes having brief conversations with students you happen upon. This is often the most valuable part of the visit.
  • Spend a few minutes in quiet reflection to write down your impressions, the good and the bad. Use a notes app on your phone or a journal. You can also use the recorder on your phone to verbally share your impressions. 
  • After recording your thoughts, have a conversation with the people you visited the college with to get their insights and listen to what they have to say.
  • Drive around the immediate area around campus, get a feel for the area off campus but close to campus. Do you feel safe here? Are there things you’d like to do? What questions do you still have about the college?
  • Consider asking a few current students some questions to get the inside scoop; the overwhelming majority will be happy to talk to you unless they’re running late for class. Start with the positives and ask what they like about going to that college, but make sure to get an idea of what they’d like to change as well.

image of Mark Stucker leaning against a wall with a smile

Mark Stucker is the host of the Your College-Bound Kid podcast and the founder of the college counseling company, “School Match 4u.” His bachelor’s degree is from Michigan State University in social and organizational psychology and communications, and while he studied at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, he obtained a master’s in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. Mark did Christian ministry from 1987-1995 and started working in college admissions at the Philips School in Dallas in 1993.