Why college visits matter – and which are worth your time

Applying to College, Building Your College List, College Visits, Uncategorized

Working college visits into busy student and family schedules can no doubt be challenging. And some students may be less than enthused at the prospect of missing class or using their school breaks to spend hours trekking around college campuses with their parents. (Note: Some high schools consider college visits an excused absence. If you’re not sure, ask!)

But the fact is, visiting colleges is one of the most valuable things you can do to inform not only your admission choices but actually improve your admission chances.

Why? First, there’s nothing like actually being on campus to see if a college would be a good fit for you, and to learn what matters to you writ large. But there are also some practical admissions considerations. 

Many colleges (especially smaller private colleges) give an admissions boost to students they know are seriously interested, something known as “demonstrated interest.”  And nothing shows interest like making the effort to visit.

Secondly, a visit is a great way to get inside information on what schools are looking for in their applicants (leadership, for example, or loading up on advanced classes.) Speaking with admissions officers and even attending those sleep-inducing info sessions can yield valuable intel you might not otherwise be able to get.

Finally, many colleges ask applicants to respond to some version of the “why us” question. Visiting can give you the little details and insights to help you write a killer response.

In short, college visits are well worth the time and the cost, if you plan and use them wisely. But not all visits are created equal. Here’s what to think about when planning a trip.

Colleges to prioritize:

  • Colleges within driving distance: Many admissions officers go by the three-hour rule – if a school is within a three hour drive, they generally expect students to visit. For schools that track demonstrated interest, if you live close-by (or even within an easy weekend visit) and haven’t set foot on campus, admissions officers may not view you as a serious applicant. And even if you don’t plan on applying, visiting a variety of colleges close to where you live can give you a taste for different experiences – liberal arts versus research university, small and large, urban versus suburban, etc. – that can be useful in guiding your college search.
  • Colleges that are especially far, culturally distinct or have an unusual curriculum: Schools in Vermont and Maine, for example, may need some additional evidence to believe a student from, say, the West Coast is actually willing to go that far from home. (And if you’re a California student considering living somewhere with eight month winters and six feet of snowfall, it’s probably worth the reality check yourself.) Additionally, schools with a unique or unusual curriculum, like Colorado College or St. John’s College, may want to know students are familiar with and down for their approach. 
  • Small colleges. Beyond the importance of demonstrated interest, small schools only have space for a very limited number of students. They tend to prize not only merit but fit – how well a particular student’s accomplishments and interests align with that school’s focus, mission and values. When you visit these schools, pay very careful attention to (and ASK the admissions reps about!) the traits they especially value. Then make the pitch in your application as to how you exhibit and hope to nurture these qualities.
  • Likely or “safety” schools. These are the schools where you have a solid shot at admission, so there’s a direct benefit to getting a real sense of the place, and what it’s like to live, study and be a student there. Many students fall in love with one of their “likely” schools – and that takes a whole lot of pressure off the rest of the admissions process!
  • Schools that are close to one another. When it comes to planning college visits, Google maps are your best friend. Structure visits around where you’ve got the most schools within reasonable driving distance of each other. (Depending on the length of your visit, this could be up to three or four hours’ drive.) Just make sure you leave ample time to get a sense of each place. And make sure you meet with admissions folks when you’re on campus!

Colleges you can skip:

  • Large universities that are unpredictable in admissions. Large public universities don’t track demonstrated interest, so if you have limited time and resources, a visit can probably wait until after you’ve applied. For schools like the University of California and some California State University (CSU) campuses that are unpredictable in admissions, it usually makes sense to apply more broadly and see where you get in rather than getting attached to a specific campus. 
  • Extreme reach or moonshot schools. Tens of thousands of families begin their college visits touring Stanford, Harvard or MIT. And yet, given these schools reject more than 90% of applicants, those visits are not likely to yield information that is relevant to the vast majority of visitors. (The schools also don’t track demonstrated interest, since any applicant is likely seriously considering them.) Before visiting a school, consider whether you have a shot at admission; In general, you’ll find your time is better spent focusing on more likely targets.

Ready to start planning? Here is more information on how to make the most of each visit, and here is our advice on the best timing for campus visits. Now bust out the maps and travel snacks, and get ready to hit the road!