Finding the right fit.
For high school students in the process of researching a variety of colleges and universities, admissions professionals recommend scheduling campus visits to get a better feel for the schools. Considering how the coronavirus pandemic has upended the daily operations of colleges nationwide, the campus visit may look a lot different this year with limited in-person tours adhering to social distancing and other safety requirements; an abundance of virtual and guided campus tours online; and even narrated drive-thru options for prospective students and families. Here are 14 tips for how students can get the most out of college visits.
Start planning early.
As students get closer to the final year of high school, their schedules are filled trying to balance school and a social life — all while exploring potential college campuses. To ease the stress, students and families may want to make visits sooner, ideally before senior year. The College Board recommends spring of junior year as a good time to visit campuses for students who have already done the research on those colleges. College visits are a good use of downtime over spring break. Late summer and early fall before senior year are also convenient times, the College Board website notes, adding that classes may already be in session, allowing prospective students a glimpse of campus life.
Know what to expect from an in-person tour.
Students heading to campus should expect certain limitations due to COVID-19 safety protocols. The size of tour groups may be limited, visitors may have to fill out a form asking about COVID-19 symptoms, and certain areas such as residence halls may be off limits. “I think the best way to make the most of the tours is to accept that this is a little different than what a normal tour would be, but ask a lot of good questions of the tour guide and the student panel,” says Satyajit Dattagupta, vice president of enrollment management and dean of admission at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Establish a budget for college visits.
Trying to plan extended road trips to a long list of schools can be laborious and expensive, particularly if a student is interested in colleges far away from home. That’s why it makes sense to set a budget for college tours. “You don’t want to spend so much money on college tours that you are pulling away from valuable money that you’re earmarking to pay for school,” Peg Keough, a college financial planning consultant and founder of Washington-based college planning firm Way to the Quad, told U.S. News in 2016.
Check out other campuses nearby.
When visiting a college in person, prospective students should consider visiting other campuses nearby. Many major metro areas are home to multiple colleges, and even rural areas may have colleges that are surprisingly close together. As students plan their college visits, families should take note of other options near the schools they intend to visit. “If you’re going to spend some time traveling, whether it be across the state or across the country, you might as well try to maximize that and investigate other opportunities that are close and convenient,” says Collin Palmer, director of undergraduate admission at the University of Toledo in Ohio.
Explore various virtual tour options.
Some colleges may be too far from home for students to make an initial visit. Online tools allow prospective students to take virtual tours from the comfort of their couches. Students can take self-guided virtual tours or sign up for more interactive options such as “Tours From Your Sofa,” an offering from Hamilton College in New York. Alexa M. Ray, assistant dean of admission at Hamilton, describes this option as “essentially a virtual tour, using selfie sticks and iPhones” that is led by current students. The personalized tour leads prospective students across the Hamilton campus and through classrooms and other facilities with a guide to answer questions along the way.
Consider drive-thru visits.
Some schools, such as Randolph College in Virginia, have launched drive-thru tours for students and families. “Our thought process was how can we get students on campus, but in a socially distanced and safe manner?” says Travis Carter, dean of admission. “We’re lucky our campus has roads that go right through the heart of campus.” Visitors follow a pilot car through campus and call in to hear a narration on their phones as they pass campus facilities and landmarks. The drive-thru tour is followed by a socially distanced question-and-answer session as well as a chance to see inside a residence hall, though participants must abide by certain COVID-19 protocols and have their temperatures checked.
Learn about the local community.
While the college is the main attraction, students shouldn’t overlook the surrounding community where they may live and work when off campus. “Find opportunities to engage or investigate the city in which the college is located,” Palmer says. “I think that’s a key part of the college search process. And that’s going to really inform a student on whether or not that campus and that college is the right fit for them. So often, we focus solely on the university. Think about the community that surrounds it.” He adds that students should also consider whether they’re looking for an urban or rural experience, or what size city they prefer.
Get student perspectives.
The largest contingent on any college campus is the student body. Given their collective experience, it’s likely they’ll have opinions to share on academics, facilities, dining services, student life and more. College officials say that prospective students still have the chance to ask questions of their future classmates, even with coronavirus restrictions in place. In-person visits are typically led by student guides, as are certain virtual options such as Hamilton’s Tour From Your Sofa, which gives applicants direct access to current students. Ray also points to online events such as Hamilton’s Continental Chats and Major Meetups as ways applicants can connect with current students.
Explore academic departments.
Along with being comfortable with the campus environment, students should explore academic departments that interest them. A great way to start can be touring facilities, sitting in on a class and meeting professors. “I think there’s this sense sometimes that high school students or prospective students would be bothering the faculty, or that it’s really too much to ask to do that,” Tiku Majumder, a physics professor and director of the science center at Williams College in Massachusetts, told U.S. News in 2017. “But I don’t think that’s true.” If campus tour restrictions mean applicants are unable to meet with faculty members, prospective students should check with the admissions office for other options.
Visit a dining hall or student center.
In a normal year, students could get a feel for the school’s atmosphere by observing current students in a cafeteria or student union. Traditionally, this offered a chance to experience what it might be like to be a student at that college or university. Different types of college visits can give applicants greater exposure to a campus and include opportunities to sleep in the dorms and eat in the dining halls, though prospective students shouldn’t expect such opportunities in 2021. Instead, they may have to adjust their expectations because in-person tours of dining halls and dorms may be off limits at some schools. Students should check with individual colleges about what’s covered on a visit and consider a virtual tour to check out spots unavailable to see in person.
Ask about campus safety.
With the amount of time traditional college students spend on campus, feeling safe on school grounds is an important factor to consider when exploring colleges. Prospective students should ask tour guides about campus safety policies. In the absence of an in-person visit, students can ask virtual tour guides or the admissions office for more information. Federal law requires colleges to release information related to crime on and around campus. Families can check annual security reports to see recent incidents on campus. If anything stands out as a cause for concern, ask the school for more information on campus safety.
Get financial aid information.
Along with understanding the culture of a school and the academic options it provides, students should also research financial aid opportunities at a college. Being on campus provides applicants with an opportunity to do just that. Philanthropic organization Scholarship America advises applicants to meet with financial aid officers, negotiate for the best deal and seek out school-specific scholarships related to student interests and activities. Students unable to visit campus should ask college officials about other opportunities to discuss financial aid.
Explore college through the lens of campus media.
Student newspapers can be a valuable source of insight into what’s happening at a college. But don’t stop there. The College Board’s checklist also recommends tuning into the campus radio station and reading other campus publications such as literary reviews and department newsletters. And don’t forget to check campus bulletin boards, which can give applicants a sense of what’s buzzing on the college’s social scene. While campus bulletin boards may be hard to replicate online, students who can’t make it to campus can still seek out most of these resources, considering most college newspapers and radio stations are available online.
Document and share your visit.
College campuses often sport many of the same features: brick buildings, bell towers, well-manicured quads and statues of famous alumni and founders. One way for prospective students to keep track is to document the visit as they go. Sharing details on social media may be an admissions bonus. “Post (pictures) on Twitter or Instagram and have something positive to say about the university,” says Judi Robinovitz, a certified educational planner and founder and co-owner of Score At The Top Learning Centers & Schools in Florida. Considering that admissions officers may already be checking social media, applicants should give them something positive to look at.
Learn more about colleges.
Get more advice about how to choose a college and check out the complete rankings of the Best Colleges to find the school that’s best for you. For more tips on selecting a college, connect with U.S. News Education on Twitter and Facebook.
College visit tips
— Start planning early.
— Know what to expect from an in-person tour.
— Establish a budget for college visits.
— Check out other campuses nearby.
— Explore various virtual tour options.
— Consider drive-thru visits.
— Learn about the local community.
— Get student perspectives.
— Explore academic departments.
— Visit a dining hall or student center.
— Ask about campus safety.
— Get financial aid information.
— Explore college through the lens of campus media.
— Document and share your visit.
More from U.S. News
Update 03/02/21: This slideshow has been updated with new information.