Campus Tours: Any Advice?


By Gabrielle. Remember this photo? It’s Ben Blair and I on the day we graduated from college. I was very pregnant and Ralph was born a week or so later.

Okay, Friends. I need some advice. It’s our Spring Break this week and as I mentioned, we are heading out on a California campus tour tomorrow morning. The whole family is going, and we imagine the younger kids will get tired of campus visits pretty quickly, so we’re calling it a campus tour/ice cream tour. We’re hoping to visit 7 universities, and we’ll seek out the 7 best ice cream shops we can find. : ) We’ve also promised to work in lots of visits to the beach!

But back to the advice. The whole campus tour concept isn’t exactly new-to-me — I remember moving back East and realizing it was almost a rite of passage for many families. But it’s something I’ve never done before and I don’t know a single person from my hometown that went on campus visits or college tours. When I graduated from high school, it seems like 99% of my fellow university bound students went to the local college. And then there were a few of us who went north to Brigham Young University or University or Utah. Virtually no one left the state for school and I don’t remember anyone thinking very hard about where they would go to college.

I imagine that has changed now, but still, I’m left with very little personal experience in this area. The good news is that we’ve always liked exploring campuses with the kids and have done so wherever we’ve lived or visited, so we’re not complete novices. Usually, we walk around campus, and maybe visit the museum or the library. We check out the student center and peek in a classroom. We eat something at a university café or cafeteria. But that’s about it. We generally don’t have a specific goal other than hoping our kids will feel at home in a campus environment.

But this trip seems different. There’s more of a definite purpose to these visits. They feel weightier and less touristy. The whole thing is very exciting to us and we want to make the most of it! So I’ve got questions for you. First of all, did you get the chance to go to college? If yes, what was choosing a school like for you? Did most people in your area stick close to home? Did your parents take you on a college tour? Did you think long and hard about where you wanted to go?

Second, if you’ve done a multi-campus tour with your own kids, what did you find most helpful? Did you take an official guided tour at each stop, or wander on your own? How much time did you spend on campus? Did your kids’ area of study affect what they wanted to see on each campus? What if your child was undecided as far as a major goes? In addition to cost, what were the biggest factors that determined college choices for your kids: area of study? geography? dorms? social life? something else entirely? Is the visit mostly about getting a feel for the campus and helping your kids imagine themselves there? Did your kids end up picking a school from the tour, or did the choose a campus they hadn’t visited before?

If you were going again, what would you hope to get out of it? What other advice do you have for us? What questions should we be asking?

I’d love to hear your thoughts! I know some of you have kids that have just gone through similar experiences, and I know other readers are still in college and can remember their campus tours like it was yesterday (because it practically was!). I can’t wait to learn from all of you.

Happy Spring Break!

P.S. — Both of our oldest kids have been getting mailings from universities for years now. So many different schools! And more than half of them I haven’t even heard of. It’s no surprise to me that people often use geography to narrow the list of choices. It’s overwhelming!

74 thoughts on “Campus Tours: Any Advice?”

  1. I toured SoCal schools when I was a senior in high school wanting to leave Illinois and do college in CA.
    1. Pinpoint areas or schools of interest to keep your plan simple (try to limit to 7/8 campuses)
    2. Visit a flavor of the options – Cal State vs. U of C schools, private, large/small, etc. Be sure to see the full variety so the kids get a good sense of where they will fit in and what they will enjoy/gain from. For example, UCSD is a great school, but I got lost on campus and determined I hated how large it was!!! I drove as fast as I could away from there. I also decided I wanted the research-based schools and loved private over public.
    3. Tours were really great and helped a ton. But if you don’t have time or can’t coordinate it, make sure you do the tours at the schools that are at the top of the list, then the others you can go on your own. Once you take a tour or two you know what to be looking for anyway.
    4. You’re great at this and will likely do it naturally, but kids know their school based on their gut. So ultimately help them key in to what they feel is their home. Some know immediately, some need to really think about it first, but really, in their gut, they know!!
    I chose USC because the minute I stepped foot on campus I knew it was my school. I went to the student union, bought a t-shirt and course catalogue and that was it. I was hooked. No tour. Just a quick drive to middle of campus and that was it. And the school was not on our list of schools to tour – we just had a little extra time between our UCLA visit and another Cal State school. Luckily we made the stop and I’ve never looked back.

    Have FUN!!! Your kids will gain so much ;-)

    1. I completely agree with visiting as many different “flavors” as possible – it’s impossible to visit every school, but especially if your kids don’t know if they want a small/rural, large/urban, or some other combo, it’s helpful to visit as many different examples of types as possible! I’m currently in college, but when I was touring, I visited Wake Forest, for example, and knew instantly that I did NOT want to be at a small, rural/isolated school. That allowed me to pretty much cross off most other small/isolated schools from my list, and I didn’t have to waste time visiting similar types that I knew wouldn’t be a good fit. I ended up at a medium sized/urban/engineering school, and couldn’t be happier!

      The other thing I’d say is how important it is for them to write down their first impressions and what you learn on the tour- especially if you do a big trip like this, the campus tours really start to blur together, and it’s helpful to write down trigger points that will help you remember the schools later. Writing down things like “funny tour guide” or “beautiful atrium in administration office” will anchor their memories- I categorized my notes on a document as “General/Campus” “Academic” “Social” “Extracurricular” in 4 quadrants, and printed out a punch of these templates to fill in on the road. Good luck!

  2. I graduated from HS in 2009, so I went on college tours not *too* long ago. I went all out of state. I preferred doing the guided tour, especially because you can talk to current students and get an insider’s take (especially if the school has fun/cool traditions). It’s nice to be able to ask a person any questions you might have, too. Wandering doesn’t really give you a good sense of what going to the school will be like.

    I highly recommend sitting in on a class or two if you can arrange that before hand, especially with top choices. It gave me a sense of both the students I’d be in class with, as well as how classes are taught (i.e. seminar vs. lecture, traditional vs. more unique).

    Also: If possible, I also recommend going to accepted students weekend for top schools. I actually decided against my top choice after having a horrible experience!

    I live in LA now, so if you check out colleges down here, my top ice cream picks are Salt & Straw, Coolhaus, and McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream :)

    1. LA is ice cream central! I’d also add that there’s a Jeni’s outpost here now (in Los Feliz), and it’s fun to try some of the offbeat options like Cotton Hi (cotton candy on top of soft serve) and Honeymee (soft serve with real honeycomb pieces) — both are in Koreatown, though the latter has other locations too.

  3. We’re sending our second off to college this fall! Technically he’s been attending college for several years at an early college high school, but he will be living on campus this fall. We spent a lot of time researching costs, programs, housing options, potential scholarship opportunities and narrowed the options to just a couple before we went on tours.

    Overall we spent several hours on each campus. We opted for guided tours – a general tour of campus (which included housing options), a tour of the honors program and tours of specific programs. It was *so* helpful to talk to the tour guides (all of them were current students at the university) about their individual experiences at each university. The tours were great for getting a feel for the culture of the school and definitely for helping him imagine himself there.

    Ultimately our son chose a university based on the quality of the programs he thinks he wants to pursue (math, biology, research), learning community opportunities, cost, and which school offered him the most attractive scholarship.

    I would suggest asking about freshman programs that aid new students in making the adjustment to college life. Also ask about learning communities – they are proven to help students be more successful!

  4. The hardest part about touring colleges with your kids is not expressing your own opinion. You want them to decide what they like and dislike so they make the right choice for them. Our eldest is a high school senior and will be attending her first choice school this fall.

  5. I worked for 3 years as an admissions representative after college for a small private university in the Midwest & gave literally hundreds of campus tours in that time, in addition to helping students with financial aid packages, move-in days, general question-answering, etc. For most of the prospective students I worked with, scheduling an official campus tour was the most helpful way to figure out if a school was a good fit – so my #1 piece of advice is schedule an official tour. Yes, you may see only the “picturesque” side of campus, but you will learn so much more with a guide than wandering around on your own. Expect to spend at least an hour on the tour, more if the school is very large. If your child has a pretty good idea of their potential major, ask to sit in on a class OR speak with a professor/TA/current student in that field. Most schools are happy to oblige, and if classes aren’t in session, talking one-on-one to a faculty member or current student is just as valuable. (For undecided students, I always tried to have them sit in on a Gen Ed class or meet with a current student from an athletic team or club they were interested in.) Definitely ask about freshman/first year social programs & activities; I’ve seen even the most outgoing students become withdrawn & homesick after parents leave, so having a built-in support group/community from move-in day is key. Mostly, I’d advise to let your child lead with questions & answers – it’s not that parents can’t or shouldn’t participate in the college search, it’s just that this process is (usually) the student’s first step to really owning their education. It’s an amazing time to witness in a teenager’s life, and on some days I really miss being part of it!

  6. I graduated HS in 2008 and went on a college tour as part of AVID. We toured around 10-12 schools up and down California. I grew up here and have had the chance to travel extensively but I knew and still know California is my forever home. I’d recommend splitting up, taking the older kids to sit in on a lecture in a huge lecture hall where they won’t notice you slip in and to the parts of campus where it’s not so “child friendly” to get a better vibe from the social POV. And, if possible, going to a special event with the one who’s college ready like a concert or guest speaker if there’s something special going on (I’ve been able to see the Dalai Lama with a special Q&A, Yo Yo Ma, BB King, and so many others for such a steal). I ended up going to UC Santa Barbara for half my college career and then transferring to a state college (two reasons: to be closer to family and save money, the loans stressed me out more than anything, thanks recession). Also if you go to UCSB on a Friday night you have to see Improvability, the college’s improv group. It was my Friday night tradition, season pass holder and everything. ;-)

  7. I am sorry to mention this, but if this tour is also for one of the girls, you should also check (on internet and on campus) about sexual assault… I know, nobody wants to think about it, but it’s important. And even if your girls are not likely to get into a dangerous situation themselves,maybe some of their future friends and colleagues may… so you should better check what are the actual and active policies of the Colleges in this… Also, check about anxiety and depression on these Colleges and if they have programs to help students cope…
    Other than that, I find it’s a good idea for them to go to lectures too, even if they just have a general idea of what they like (history, biology). I did and it was important… And check what are the first year activities and programs.

    1. I would only add the caveat that sometimes higher numbers of reported sexual assaults mean that schools are doing a good job with Title IX education–raising awareness and offering effective counseling or other support can increase students coming forward. A better indicator might be if there is a dedicated Title IX officer on campus.

  8. We are getting ready to do the same thing! I never toured colleges with my parents, but rather just applied to two. I got into one and drove across the country right before classes started – so different from what kids these days do! The advice I have been given by parents and kids who have been through it is to sign up for the official tour/presentation at each school you visit. It gives you the best feel for the school’s official stance on so many levels and allows you to ask questions to people who will know the answers. You can also request to meet with faculty or students from any departments your child might be interested in. Most important, as parents, act like Switzerland! Do not let your face or words give away your thoughts on the school until after you have sat down with your kids and made pro/con lists. This is about finding a good fit for them, not you. I know that this will be particularly hard for me, but I am determined to make sure that my opinions don’t guide the entire college search. Finally, have fun! It’s such an exciting time. Good luck!

  9. THE best two questions my 3 boys have asked every campus tour guide…

    1. What was the most delightful surprise you had since arriving on campus? ie- the food was better than you thought, faculty was more engaging and kind??

    2. What was the most bummer of a surprise you have had since coming here her school?

    We even stumped a few and a few said- wow, what great questions! Enjoy the ride!

  10. My family toured all major in state college campuses my senior year of high school. It was mostly just for fun though, because I really wanted to graduate without debt and that severely limited my options. After the tours, I REALLY wanted to go to UVA, but I’m happy with the decision to get an identical degree from a more inexpensive option. My parents wanted so badly to see me go to the school of my dreams, but in the end practicality won out. I still had a wonderful college experience, and it felt like I was graduating a step ahead of everyone else without any student loans. Best of luck on the search!

  11. I toured campuses with my dad the spring before going to college. We visited Tufts, NYU, Brandeis, because we’d already seen the Ivy Leagues, and I was only interested in city schools. Definitely super useful. I remember hating the food at Brandeis and that was enough to make me not want to go there. I found Tufts too suburban, and NYU just right (+ my father loved that they had a big library open 24/7). Of course, I ended up at NYU.

    – eat in the cafeterias. You spend so much time here as a Freshman and Sophomore it’s important to know if it’s a nice place to hang out.
    – sit in on classes if you can, see how engaged the students are.
    – visit the dorms. At all the campuses they showed us an actual student dorm.
    – talk to students! hang out on campus and get your kids to strike up conversations with the students.
    – spend time with professors from the department he wants to study at. this is KEY.

  12. Definitely try some food. And I second the suggestion to ask about counseling, etc. Working at a university, the biggest thing (besides financial aid) that has colleges scrambling to catch up, is the mental health issues a lot of college students face. Not sure if it is fear of failing, not enough independence before college, hormones, but a good counseling or mentorship program is a must!

  13. I did the college tour thing as a high scho junior and I have to say, I personally think the official tours led by a current college student are really awesome. They have so much inside information about what it’s like to be a student there. They really know exactly what the campus highlight are. If it’s a school your kids are seriously considering, a guided tour is a must. As a former middle school teacher, I always did field trips with my students to a local college and we always did the guided tours. If it’s not going to interest your whole family, you could always split up and meet up at the end of the tour. I ended up choosing UCLA, and I had a really awesome tour experience with college students who felt like they’d actually be my friends. It was the best decision for me! Have an awesome trip :)

  14. I recommend taking the official tours so you can see the dorm rooms and ask questions to a current student. Also, see if you can find out information about the types of clubs, groups & programs on campus that can help make an especially big university feel smaller and more connected. You might even be able to arrange to attend a lecture or class (at least for the older kids) in their intended major. And for the younger kids you can check out the student union building – they may have a game room or bowling or some sort of fun activity in there.

  15. We are sending our oldest off to college this fall. We live in the midwest and toured colleges locally, within 5 hours of home, and in New England. We toured public, private, small and large, city and country. His siblings (12 & 15) were along for most of the tours, too. When we started, he had no idea what he wanted to study or where he wanted to be but by the end of touring (spread over a year) he had a better idea. He pretty much knew where he wanted to go by the end — one campus in particular felt like home to him and he felt like the mix of students there was best for him. His interests have moved toward International Relations and languages and the university he liked best is one of the top ones for this major. Then, came the application process and hoping he’d get in to his very competitive top choice. That was very stressful! He did get in and we’re proud to say he’s heading to his first choice just outside of Boston. Fortunately, we also got financial aid that made it possible (he had a full tuition scholarship offer to our state university — the financial aid grant from his first choice was comparable to this). So there’s the financial aspect, too — which is another piece of the puzzle — find one you like, get in, figure out how to pay for it.

  16. This is more of a “what not to do”… but if there are schools that you really, truly do not think are realistic for your kids– whether it be due to money, location, limited degree programs, etc– DON’T go on a tour there. I teach senior English at a high school and I can’t tell you how many kids come back from tours heartbroken because they’ve found “their” school, only to have their parents then say it isn’t an option. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be some stretches on your list– maybe schools they’ve written off sight unseen, or ones that, with financial aid, could be feasible… But if a school really is out of reach, or seems like a bad fit from your perspective, avoid it and the potential ensuing drama :)

    1. I’m going to politely disagree with you on this one. As parents, it’s our job to let our kids know if and how much we are able to contribute to their college education. If a child falls in love with a school and it is beyond the means of their family then they can take out student loans, work, apply for scholarships, etc. if they really want to go.

    2. My family faced this issue when I was applying for schools. I wanted to apply to a prestigious private school which my family could not afford. I also was applying to a great in state school that they could afford. My parents let me apply to both and we had a very honest talk about money- not just loans and jobs but what else money would impact like whether I could study abroad, go on to grad school, and what the atmosphere at the school would be and whether I’d feel like I fit in. It was bigger than just “how will we pay for this” and I’m grateful that my parents respected me enough as an 18yo to have such a frank conversation with me. I ended up choosing in-state and the resulting lack of undergrad loans has been a blessing- I have been able to travel, attend graduate school (with loans) and choose jobs without student loan repayment being a deciding factor. I’m also able to save for my own children’s education because I had 30k in debt instead of 130k

  17. We did an official tour at almost every college we visited (except for the campus we literally drove on and then right back off — sometimes you just know!), and one thing that surprised me was how much the tour guide affected my impression of the school! If he/she was someone who seemed smart/friendly/helpful/fun/etc., I generally came away with a better impression. If for some reason the guide rubbed me the wrong way (arrogant/dismissive/less friendly), that school usually dropped a few notches. Just something to be aware of!

  18. My career is in higher ed and I started off in undergraduate admissions, so my life is colleges. I would recommend doing a formal tour, but also combining that with some wandering on your own. Definitely eat a meal in the cafeteria. It’s important to try out the food, but also just do some people watching and take in the culture a bit. You can really sense that from sitting down in the caf and eating a meal. And ask to sit in on a class! One professor and one class will not truly be representative of all classes at that college, but it gives you a feel for the classroom structure and what student behavior is like in a class based on their questions and participation. Also, see if you can find out the full list of student activities happening that week – it can give you a good sense of student life and what kinds of clubs/activities are regularly happening. All colleges have a list of clubs, but some fluctuate between being active and inactive, so checking out a good, full list of events for a week or two gives a better snapshot of campus life.

  19. If it’s not too late, bring scooters for the little ones? Easy to fold up in the car, but fun for them to do as you trek around some the of larger campuses! It’s been a long time since I did tours, but I would suggest checking out the off campus life surrounding the school at some point. Is there a town to shop in, restaurants etc. Depending on the location it adds a lot to the experience & vibe especially if the college is not in a big city! have fun!

  20. It’s been a while since I went on tours with my children. Here’s what I remember. We spent a few minutes after each tour (parent and child) making a list of what we liked and didn’t like. Impressions jumble together very quickly. I discovered that first impressions really matter….Also look at the faces of students. Are they smiling? happy or sad looking? The most useful tour was the one at a college they didn’t like. They figured out what they wanted as well as what they didn’t want. Find out what students do on weekends and whether they stay on campus or head home. I hope this is helpful.

  21. To start – I was a tour guide/student ambassador for my college, but it’s important to note that I did not at all fit the standard peppy personality of most college tour guides. I’m a bit cynical and I don’t pep when it’s not called for…I feel that made me a more reliable guide than some others that sugar-coated things. So my advice:
    1) Take the official tours – you learn a lot about campus and you will see the areas that students actually feel are important (and yes, areas the college wants you to see). Here’s the trick to the campus tour: ask your tour guide where he/she spends time, favorite cafeteria, favorite meal, which spot on campus they go to be social, which spot they go to hide when they need to study, where they hide when they just want to be alone.
    2) If there is a school your child is very interested in OR once you’ve narrowed your choices to 2 or 3 schools, definitely talk to the admissions office about setting up an overnight with a student ambassador – especially if your child has an intended major already in mind. Most colleges are able to arrange for your child to shadow a current student in the intended major (or at least the same department) through a day of classes and, possibly, sleep over in the dorm room. They will eat on campus, as well. These students are usually tour guides, freshman peer counselors, or alumni ambassadors, so they are on their best behavior while also providing an excellent perspective on the school. Just be sure to arrange well in advance.
    3) Lastly, make sure you are spending 2 full days in the college town. Campus is great and can provide all your child’s needs, but the town is going to be a huge part of their college years. Don’t be afraid of city schools – campus police often make the adjoining areas extremely safe. Look at areas in about a 1hr radius of campus for weekend trips and learn about transportation options. Your child will eventually want to get off the campus and will need a way to do that. As your child enters the last year or two of college, he/she will likely have an apartment and will need easy access to shopping. It’s really important to get out of that tunnel vision of the first few months of freshman year and figure out what this campus will look like for a junior or senior.

    Hope that helps!

  22. I’m a fan of approaching the college search as a “move” rather than just a search for a school. Mental health, physical health, and general happiness have much more to do with a successful freshman year than any college ranking. Also, try the dorm food. Bad food is such a bummer.

  23. I was an admissions officer at a private college. One bit of advice; let the older kids do the tours without parents and younger sibling s. Take the little kids out to play. Parents can arrange a time to ask questions and get information on financial s but this is an important step for the students to make .

      1. Me too! Maybe have one parent take the younger kids somewhere while the oldest two and a parent go on the official tour. Though she loves her younger siblings dearly, my daughter, who is a senior this year, DEFINITELY wouldn’t want them tagging along on college tours!

    1. I definitely second not having the younger siblings there during the tour. We were in college tour mode for the last year and a half. We either left the 3 younger kids at home, or if we dragged them along either my husband or I would take the official tour with our daughter, and the other parent “hung out” with the other kids on campus. It was actually fun this way-the boys loved being on campuses and going to the various Starbucks or coffee shops for snacks, and spent a lot of time passing the football on college lawns.

  24. In-state schools generally offer more financial aid to in-state residents. Consider if your child likes and thrives in a large university with a plethora of choices (good if the student is very undecided on a major) or a smaller close knit college community. (I chose a relatively small business college in a Boston suburb, which was out-of-state for me. But, it was perfect *for me* because when the school felt too small, I could escape & explore a larger city.) I’d definitely recommend the guided tour, especially by students; get them chatting – you’ll learn lots!! Sit in on classes. My particular pet peeve – professors who still use blackboards exclusively. (Think about it. You would never think a public speaker was good if he turned his back to his audience (disengaging) all the time to use a blackboard. So, why is it acceptable when paying thousands of dollars to do so to your students? I find it inexcusable with so many other options available. Although I think it’s okay for an occasional on-the-fly or ad-hoc comment/illustration.)

    Also, when choosing a major, find out if professors in your field of study are dedicated professors or have real world experience to share. (Again, this preference may differ between areas of study.) Is there a “publish or perish” rule at the university? (i.e. If professors have to publish, you may have to use the professor’s book that he wrote (boosting his sales or meeting a minimum requirement for another book); which may or may not be the best book to study.) Are any classes taught by professors assistants? (NOT what you’re paying for.)

    1. A way to ask this is number of adjuncts vs. tenure-track faculty. More TT means people who are invested in the college, know more about resources, and can mean there are more opportunities for things like working with faculty on research, co-presenting at conferences…even as an undergrad.

      1. As a college professor I agree that these are important questions. I would also mention that ALL universities have a flavor of publish or perish. You do not get tenure these days without scholarly activity – it is just a different bar depending on the type of university.

        Depending on the field, if there are graduate programs that may bring in resources, however the undergrads may not get access to these or the professors. Undergraduate only departments often provide many more opportunities for students such as independent projects, research etc. The only way for me to get my research done and meet that publishing requirement is to involve my undergrads. They get travel opportunities, research experiences and time that I would never be able to give them if I had graduate students.

  25. I would try to give your older kids some time alone to explore campus or meet with a student from the Institute (Mormon college kids group) for lunch or dinner. When I was visiting colleges I found it really hard to balance parents and siblings while trying to see if I fit in. Some alone time really helped.

  26. My brothers and I each did our campus tours over the spring break of our junior years in high school. Our parents split the week – half with mom, half with dad – and no other siblings came along. Aside from it being an informative trip, it ended up as one of my all-time favorite travel experiences, because it was quality time between me and one parent at a time. My trip started in Maine and ended in Philadelphia–we stayed in B&Bs and ate at diners and drove through snowy landscapes that were nothing like my childhood in the Bay Area. It was magical.

    As far as tactical recommendations, the campus tour and cafeteria meal were super helpful. I also spent an hour or so at the end of each day writing notes about each one – pros/cons/what we did – so I could remember everything at the end. But like others have said, it was such a gut reaction. And without a particular subject area I was interested in, the gut reaction was all I really needed.

    The thing I would do differently next time is in how I constructed the list of schools to begin with. I set my sights a little too high and a little too narrow, which meant I didn’t end up in the best place for me. But the week of touring was wonderful, and I can’t wait to do it with my own kids when their time comes!

  27. I just graduated from a private university on the East Coast. When I was touring, I toured about 6 schools and applied to 8, but not all the same ones. I agree with another reader who says to leave the little kids out. One kid and one parent is best– it’s already super overwhelming for the kid going to college. At most schools, I did the official campus tours– the BEST ones far and away were the ones lead by students. It seems obvious but make sure to ask when you schedule it if the school is on spring or summer break– the tour will not be nearly as good without a student leader. It’s ok if you don’t know your major, especially at the beginning the biggest factor is just walking around and seeing if you could imagine yourself there. I always looked for a girl who I could imagine to be me. I also realized during the touring that I wanted a school with an impressive library and significant green space. Once your son gets into the school, that’s the time to do the re-visit to talk to professors or administrators in an admitted students day, and do an overnight. The first visit could just be the guided tour plus maybe another 45 minutes walking around, to the campus bookstore (for a shirt with the school name) and wandering into buildings. He can also approach random students sitting around a student union and ask them what they think– but this should be lead by future student, not parents. I ended up choosing a school that I hadn’t toured in my first round because it was too far away. Once I got in and chose my major I realized it was one of the only schools that had my area of study that I had applied to. So I went to an accepted students day and fell in love. I also always recommend the overnight visit if you can. One question that I always asked was how often students leave campus. This is a good way to figure out if it’s a commuter school (not what I wanted), a school where people often visit the city (good), or a little college bubble (not what I wanted).

    Private schools cost more on the pricetag but often can offer more scholarships, which made mine the cheapest choice of what I had applied to. I also considered the programs within my major, and the conversations I had with/vibe I got from the university students and staff. The geography was also a huge draw. I realized after applying to colleges that were rural, suburban and urban that I really needed to be near a city. Being near a city also helps a lot for the all-important internships. Don’t underestimate those.

  28. Ahh, cue the nostalgia! Coming from a cut-throat northeast public high school, I applied to 11 schools and visited roughly 8 (this was in 2004-2005). I enjoyed the organized tours and any opportunity to speak directly to a student and pick their brains about campus life and extracurriculars, especially if they had a similar major or interests to me. The setting was also a huge factor for me… my favorite schools were both in DC as I loved the feel of the city and was interested in studying political science.

    Overall, I’d say campus visits were fun and informative, invigorating, and helped me rule out a few schools I didn’t connect with. The tours also solidified my desire to attend college in a city. I also think its good to visit a range of schools – not just dream schools or colleges that might not make sense financially. I LOVED my safety school, which was a huge reassurance with all the pressure tied to where I might get into. I wish I had given more serious consideration to less expensive options – at the time, the cost (and my subsequent student loans) was quite abstract to me. I wish my parents had been a bit more realistic/direct with me regarding the cost benefit analysis of my dream, prestigious brand name degree.

    But the most decisive research and interactions came after acceptances. I’d suggest holding onto contact info from the tours in case your kids have questions they want to follow-up on later in the process. And I also agree the accepted student visits are hugely informative, if you can attend!

  29. This sounds like a wonderful idea. I hope you share your ice cream finds! I remember my grandparents took me on my college tours. I only went to two! One in my home state and one in Philadelphia. They were portfolio review days at art schools plus tours. I was in charge of finding a cool place to eat for dinner and my grandparents were very cool and liked doing new things. How fortunate I was to have them. I don’t think I would have gone to college if they had not offered to take me on those tours. My mother was busy with my sister who was 10 years younger than me! I loved my choice too. I chose Philadelphia. What a great town and not too far from home. I remember I really liked the school stores with all the school swag and supplies, and the libraries! You may check out for your younger children what the libraries offer.

  30. In addition to the tours (and if not all family members are enjoying the tours consider splitting up) have the prospective students do some wandering by themselves just to observe the climate. Plan on the students having follow-up overnight visits to the places they like the most.

    On the tour, have specific questions to engage the tour guide. Maybe the parents and siblings can hang at the back of the tour while the older students are walking with the tour guide.

    Is Santa Cruz on the list? I recall having delicious ice cream there with marshmallow sauce on top.

  31. My most vivid memories of college visits were bailing in the middle of tours when I realized these are NOT my people! Ha! You can’t discount that gut feeling when you’re trying to picture where you’re going to spend four (or more) years!

  32. I remember my parents dragging my brother and sister along on (many!) college tours when I was a junior in high school (I am the oldest, but we are all within 3 years of age). Their thought was that if my siblings loved/hated a campus, then they wouldn’t have to go back in the following years! It ended up working well for them – my sister only toured 3 additional schools when it was her turn, and my brother toured none (he applied early decision to his top choice).

    My top three takeaways are:
    1. Try to schedule a visit with the department/college that you want to pursue a degree from (i.e. College of Art, Liberal Arts, etc). There was one campus I completely fell in love with (it was small and gorgeous and the students were very friendly) BUT the program was…. Unimpressive. We talked with several current students and faculty and they just didn’t seem as organized/driven/purposeful as other programs I was interested in.

    2. Trust your gut! There were a few colleges where I could immediately tell upon arrival that they were not for me. This instinct and first impression matter! You’re going to be spending lots of time and money at this institution – you should be comfortable there!

    3. Try the food/find out where the students eat/hang out. Particularly, the upper classmen (I found that they often didn’t frequent the same dining halls as the freshmen). Ask them about living on campus (Do most students commute or live on campus? What are the dorms like? Are you required to live on campus for a certain year(s)? How is the food?) about student organizations/clubs/events (what’s the biggest student organization? What do people do on the weekends? Etc) ask what they love the most and hate the most… You get the idea :)

    Enjoy your trip! Such a fun time – the future holds so much promise.

  33. I second the idea of finding an institute program and talking with students there. My husband is a phd student and when we were making decisions about which school to go to, we talked on the phone with a couple of students we found through institute. They were helpful with lots of advice including best places to live and take public transportation. Also, institute is important! ;)

  34. Like most comments suggest, I’d take a tour. I ended up taking one school in Minnesota off my list because my tour guide was raving about how awesome their underground tunnels were for getting to class in the winter. As an Arizona native, that horrified me!

    I also think it’s important to go into whatever town surrounds the college and see what food and fun are offered. I ended up transferring after my freshman year at a college in central Massachusetts. I had never visited in person and the town was way too small for me.

  35. I graduated HS in 95 so it’s been quite a while for me but I did visit several schools with my parents when I was a senior. We checked out 2 in state schools and 1 out of state, all on separate trips. I had applied to other schools as well but they were too far away to visit. I’m so glad we made those visits as it was the deciding factor for me in where I would go! (Virginia Tech!) The majority of my HS class went to Penn State.
    Besides the fact that VT was the cheapest option of the schools I was looking at, I fell in love with the campus from the moment I stepped foot on it. I don’t remember taking an official tour at the time but I know we visited the school for my future major (architecture) and checked out the honors program (who gave partial scholarships to out-of-state students with a certain GPA – bonus!). We ate in the local restaurants and just walked around to get a feel for the place.
    I also heard an excellent piece of advice – bench test it. Sit on a bench in the middle of campus and just observe.
    Good luck and have fun!

  36. The thing that stuck with me most about the college tours was the dorms- it helped me imagine what that first year on campus would look like. When they accept an offer, they’ll likely have to choose or rank their preference of dorms on the acceptance paperwork and it really gets the wheels turning about life changing, etc.

    Exciting times! Good luck!

  37. I’m a senior in college, so I’ve been in that place pretty recently. I think college visits are very important in finding the right fit for students. In my family, we narrowed down our college options based on a variety of things before we started visiting colleges: number of students, student-to-faculty ratios, distance from home, specific programs offered, etc. Then, we each chose maybe 5 or so colleges that we visited. I think I visited 5 colleges, maybe 6. I felt it really helped me decide which colleges I DID not want to attend. There were two colleges that I visited and immediately decided to cross of the list. I could tell after only a few minutes on campus that I didn’t want to spend four years there. They were good colleges, and I ended up having friends that went to both and that loved their experiences there, but they weren’t a good fit for me. That left me with three colleges that I really loved. I definitely recommend taking a guided tour at each college- you’ll usually get to walk through parts of campus that aren’t as open to the public, including the dorms. The rest is really up to you- overnights can be a good way to get a better feel of how things actually are at a college, as well as sitting in on a class or two. Meet with someone with admissions, and come prepared with some questions. If you are comfortable doing so, hang out for a bit on campus after the tours and such and ask some random students any questions- they’ll usually be more honest than the people in admissions. Honestly, I think that it mostly comes down to whether it “feels” right. If your child has a particular area of study that they are sure they want to pursue, see if you can schedule a meeting with one of the professors in the department. Finding a department that is great is sometimes more important than a college that is great. When I was looking at colleges, I made a list of what I knew I wanted from a college: really small, within 3-4 hours from home, good education program, no or few big lecture halls, pretty campus, and friendly people. In the end, I narrowed it down to two colleges that I really loved. I chose Elmira College (it was slightly closer to home, and it was smaller- 1,200 students compared to about 6,000). The other college, SUNY Geneseo, was a great school with a great education program, and I’m sure I would have loved it there as well. My sister is actually a sophomore there now. Good luck!

  38. We went on tours only to schools we were accepted to. It saves a substantial amount of money, and you also don’t get attached to schools you won’t get into. Definitely recommend taking a tour.

    1. I have mixed emotions about this. In California it’s easy to drive and see a lot of schools to focus in on what kind of school a child likes (public vs private, large vs small, parochial vs non-religious). Some of those college apps took my daughter more than 20 hours to fill out. One school had 8 essays for the program she applied to. Had she seen the school in advance she would have known she didn’t like it and not wasted all the time plus the application fee.

  39. I have not read all comments and apologize if this was already mentioned. Getting In is a podcast from Slate magazine. It is all about the college admissions process. I am not close with my kids (6th grade and preschool) but still find it interesting and informative. Great host and experts who weigh in on all aspects with a focus on finding the right fit for the student as well as the family.

  40. I went on a few official tours, but I didn’t find them to be terribly important. Sure, I learned some facts I might not have otherwise, but I felt like my time spent wandering the campus helped me get a much better pulse on the campus. The most helpful thing I did on my search was to contact the department I hoped to join. They were able to set me up with a student who was able to really answer my questions, tell me more about the program than I could see online, and gave me their honest feedback about their favorite points. I found that some of these students had looked at all the same schools I had, so they were also able to tell me why they chose School A over School B. Their opinion was really helpful as a way to gain knowledge, but it also helped me see my own opinions that I didn’t even know I had.
    Good luck on your search! What an exciting time!

  41. Also, don’t be afraid to leave mid-tour if it appears to be a waste of time or not to your kids’ liking. We toured a Boston private school a year ago and the presentation was so bad (bad video, speaker ignored questions from the audience, lighting in the room was poor, heat wasn’t on, read directly from the slides) that my daughter whispered to me, “If they treat prospective students and families like this when they’re making a first impression then I can only imagine how they treat students once they enroll.” We exited after the presentation and before the walking tour.

  42. Lots of really great advice already given so my suggestions are to have a cross section of campuses (big / small / private / public / etc). Definitely take the tours at a couple – especially to see the dorms. They are where the students will spend a lot of time and you both should check it out. Sometimes it’s a deal breaker. If you just go to visit make sure you let the college know you are there so they can get you listed as having visited. After you have taken a couple of tours you get the feel and they have a predictability – but you do get little gems of information, some of which are invaluable – about funding, philosophy, inside info on the application process and so on. Keep a notebook and jot things down – after the first 4 they all blend…..and if you take several days of visits you get really confused. Take some photos of the campuses – that really helps in your memory. I think that if you are going to do tours (which each take 2 hours minimum) you really can only deal with 2 days of it – it is exhausting – they walk you so much. But you do learn a lot. I think at the outset just getting on a campus to see what it is like helps the prospective student start to sort out the environment. Do they want a city or rural? Big or small? When you are getting your list down somewhat you absolutely have to visit and do the tours – you are going to be sending your child there for several years….and making the most significant investment of your life, outside of buying a house. You need all the information to make the right decision. And wear comfortable shoes.

    1. I also forgot to mention one of the really key things you get on a information session / tour is information on internships and post-graduate statistics on employment. Schools that take their jobs seriously in terms of preparing your child for the work place give you the specifics on exactly how they do this. They will highlight connections to specific companies, provide you with places their graduates go, what their alumni association offers, what they do to secure internships for students, and what priority this has. You won’t get this information so easily just visiting – if at all. Internships are key for experience and pushing doors open. Having done a large variety of tours the schools that impressed me the most were the ones that actively presented what they were going to do to help and prepare the students for after college. You do also get very good anecdotal information hints / tips from the student tour guides on their experiences in the college – what to know / what to avoid/ what was great and what wasn’t.

  43. My dad took me on a few college tours in Utah and Arizona. We would always go find a few student apartments and just knock on the door. The students were usually pretty surprised but we just introduced ourselves and explained that we were visiting and just trying to get a vibe of the campus. Lots of times the whole apartment would get excited and give us a tour of their place and share cool things with us like good restaurants, favorite teachers, etc. If anything it made for some fun memories :) have fun!!

  44. We have three children in their 20s, and I think that by the time the youngest went off to school, I must have toured at least 20 colleges and universities. (All three wanted a different type of school, so there wasn’t much overlap!) I actually loved going on college tours. (vicarious thrills!) I think that both listening to the admissions official give his or her spiel and going on the student-led tours are extremely valuable. Just wandering around a campus doesn’t really give you the flavor of a school. Also, I think it really helps to see inside a dorm room, hear the perspective of the tour guide regarding all aspects of life at the college, etc. I know we learned something important at each and every school we went to see, and that helped us as we went forward with the process.

    Have fun! I suspect you will all have a good time, and the ice cream idea is brilliant!

  45. I’ve been on many tours with my children – after awhile the tours all seem alike. We started having my son set up appointments with a professor in his chosen field of study. Most of the schools were happy to have someone sit down with him and walk him through their program. He also tried, when possible to sit in on a class.

  46. Read the student newspaper. It will tell you what the student body is interested in and you’ll also find out about the good and bad things happening on campus that faculty, administrators, and students might forget to tell you about, or might not want you to know about.

  47. What a fun trip you will have! We just did a mini version of this (UCLA and UCSB, with a quick wander through Occidental to confirm that our kids like big and public rather than small and private). Being in California means there are so many great options, including community colleges with UC transfer agreements, the CSU system (which serves a wonderfully diverse population, including many first-generation college students—just being on a CSU campus is a great education in itself), the UC system, and lots of private colleges.

    It can be overwhelming to have so many options fairly close to home, but I keep reminding myself and my kids that people transfer colleges all the time. Choosing a college is not the equivalent of getting married!

    Our oldest is at Cal right now and loves it, and between us, my husband and I went to community college, a CSU, and a UC. Don’t get scared off by low 4-year graduation rates; well-prepared students get out in 4 years (fewer for some majors if the student goes in with enough AP credits).

  48. I apologize if this has already been said, but if your child is interested in something very niche- say an instrument, or a particular interest where there may be only one faculty member who will meet those “niche” needs, make sure your child meets them. If not possible, maybe a quick chat by Skype or email? If they end up going there, it will be really nice to have even such a minor connection, and if the faculty person takes to your kid then that’s always a plus during application time. They really have so much say. And that person is most likely to set the tone for their college experience, and life as a new professional.

  49. Hi Gabrielle, I don’t have any experience or advice to offer here; I just wanted to thank you for making your first question ‘did you get the chance to go to college?’ – recognising that it is a privilege for us who did.

  50. The UC system is the best! Such a high quality education that Costs a lot less than private, out of state schools. Plus you get to move away from home while still bring relatively close. We’re a UC family. My parents met at UCLA 50 years ago. I went to UCSD. My twin brother went to UCLA. Our younger brother attended undergraduate and graduate school at UC Berkekey. My 10 year old is convinced UCLA will be the school for him because he wants to cheer on an elite basketball team. Another reason to be grateful to get to live in Califirnia!

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