I’m a strong believer that visiting the campus is the best way to learn about a college. But with so many potential campuses to visit, when should you start? How many should you go to? And what should you do while you are there?
What’s important here is remembering that every student is different – some are raring to go in freshmen year and want to visit early and often, while others need to limit their visits to avoid overwhelm. Some families have ample time and resources for visiting schools all over the country; others have to be more strategic to maximize a limited number of visits.
Here’s my suggested strategy for timing your campus visits:
Beware of visiting too early
For many freshmen and sophomores, college seems long way off and a campus visit won’t have much meaning. When I ask students about visits they made before junior year, they often have vague memories of random things (“The food was great and we saw deer outside the dorms!”). It’s natural – at this age, students are learning to navigate high school and aren’t yet thinking about college in earnest. So while you may be eager to start researching early, think twice before taking your student to a bunch of campuses before they are really ready.
That being said, some students are genuinely ready to start visiting early and have the maturity to make sense of what they see. Furthermore, a few strategic visits to enticing campuses can do wonders for getting freshmen and sophomores excited, giving them the motivation to keep their grades up. Ultimately, parents know their own children best and can decide the ideal time to start campus visits.
First half of junior year
Junior year is a great time to start visiting campuses, and the first half of the year is best for “whetting the appetite.” During this time, most students are just beginning to figure out what sort of college they like, and seeing colleges in person will be tremendously helpful for refining their preferences. I recommend planning ahead to use Thanksgiving, Winter Break and any 3-day weekends to check out colleges that are already on your radar, or those that are most convenient. Local colleges can easily be visited on weekends; use the longer breaks to visit groups of colleges further away from home. And if you’re taking a family trip for other reasons, try to combine it with a visit to any nearby colleges. Aim to visit between 3 and 6 colleges during this time.
Second half of junior year and summer before senior year
This is when the college search gets more serious, so you’ll want to visit any schools the student is considering in earnest. Spring Break is an ideal time to visit multiple schools, and the summer should be utilized as much as possible. If you have to travel out of the area for a school, try to visit others nearby while you are there. At this point, it’s especially important to make your visits more focused in order to make the best use of the time. I recommend trying to visit another 3-6 colleges before you start your senior year.
Fall of senior year
By this time, most students should have finalized their college list and will be submitting applications. Use this time to visit any remaining colleges that you’re interested in but haven’t seen in person yet. And since these are the colleges you’ll almost certainly be applying to, definitely make the visits count! If you’ve used your junior year for visits, you should only need to visit a few more during this time – best to spend your energy on applications!
After acceptance letters have arrived
You’ll begin to receive acceptances and financial aid offers as early as February, with the majority arriving in March. With all your choices on the table, you may find yourself torn between multiple colleges. If this happens, I recommend doing everything you can to visit each campus that is still a contender. If you didn’t get a chance to visit previously, then it’s certainly critical to go before committing. If you’ve already been, sometimes a second visit can reveal things you didn’t notice before – positive or negative. So before you make that final decision, make every effort to go back to each campus you’re deciding between.
When scheduling your visits, be careful to first check that when the school is in session – an empty campus is certainly not very interesting. This can’t be avoided if you visit during the summer of course, so simply be aware that the campus will be livelier when school is in session.
It’s also helpful to be aware of temporary circumstances that may affect your perceptions. True story – a student I worked with once rejected a college because he said it felt “like a retirement home.” I later learned from his mom that the local retirement home was holding an event next to the admissions office at the time of their visit. No wonder it felt like a retirement home! So be aware of any circumstances that affect the vibe of the campus: bad weather, finals week, special events, etc.
You can contact me directly or advice about strategizing your campus visits. I offer a 30-minute consultation to all students and parents, completely free of charge.