Center of campus at the University of California, San Diego

6 Key Tips For Visiting Colleges

If you are going to visit colleges or universities with your children, here are the key six tips to ensure a smooth visit.

We recently spent a week visiting potential colleges with our sons, who are in the 11th grade. We learned a lot from visiting seven colleges and universities in a week. 

1. Schedule Tours / Guided Visits

Having a guided visit of a school is significantly better than doing a self-tour or walking around the campus. Most guided visits take about 2 hours. The first hour is often a short presentation of around 30 minutes in a lecture hall or auditorium. Then, you break off into groups of about 10-20 people with a current student who is your tour guide. You walk around the campus with this student guide, stopping every 4-5 minutes for the guide to point something out and talk about the school. You also have the opportunity throughout the tour to ask questions. This is the best way to discover why the school is unique, and get ideas for what your experience at the school might be like. 

Image of a campus tour and the UCSD Library
A campus tour at UC San Diego.

2. Book Guided Visits Far in Advance

Since COVID and because of the dramatic increase in college applicants, many schools have restricted the number of tours. Some colleges don’t even offer tours unless you have already been accepted. Many private colleges are more likely to have available tours. However, when we planned our trip, we were able to make guided visit reservations at 4 of the 7 schools we visited, and for one other guided tour, we just showed up at the right time and were lucky that there was available space.

Our sons are applying to all five of the colleges where we had guided visits but showed little interest in visiting the two colleges where we just walked around the campus or took a “virtual tour”. A college virtual tour is not nearly as compelling for potential students. In a college virtual tour, a student at the college hosts a Zoom meeting and shows a slide presentation of various buildings or locations on campus, and talks about them and the school. It’s better than no tour at all but not nearly as useful as an actual campus visit.

3. Have Lunch on Campus

Since this may be the only time you will visit the campus before you decide on whether to attend, we tried to make the most of each visit. Many guided visits start either at 9 am or 1 pm. If we attended the guided visit at 9 am, after the visit we would ask for a recommendation from the student guide and have lunch on campus at the recommended eatery. If we attended the guided visit at 1 pm, then we would arrive early, and have lunch at one of the campus restaurants before our tour. This was a really great way to get a feel for the campus.

Image of a the campus tour at the University of San Diego
Touring the University of San Diego.

4. Plan Extra Time For Parking

Coming from a small town, we were used to being able to park nearby to our destination. However, for most of our tours, finding parking and navigating to the start of the guided tour took 30-45 minutes. In one case, at a very large university, we had to park 20 minutes from the tour location and take a shuttle to the campus. Most of the guided visits start in the center of campus, so we tried to arrive about 1 hour early for each tour. If we arrived too early, we would go to one of the little coffee shops or stores in the center of campus and get a drink or a snack. This also helped us to get a feel for the campus.

5. Visit When Classes Are In Session

Nothing is more depressing than visiting a deserted campus. Avoid planning your guided visit when the college is on spring break. We found that most colleges have different spring breaks from the high school our kids were at, so we used Spring Break to visit schools. If the college you are visiting has a large population of commuting students (students who don’t live on or near campus but commute to campus), then consider visiting on a weekday when most students are around.

6. Try To See The Area Around The Campus

It’s tempting to just visit only the beautiful college campus. However, to get a more accurate feel for what life will be like, it’s useful to see the area around the campus as well. Sometimes, this may just be driving around the campus. When possible, we stayed in a hotel or RV park nearby to the college. Ask the tour guide about a few off-campus restaurants popular with students, and try to visit one of these for dinner.

Image of the Santa Barbara beach at UC Santa Barbara
Getting off the campus to visit the beach at UC Santa Barbara.

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