Best Advice for College Visits

The rite of passage that is the college visit is one of the most important influences in determining where students will eventually apply. Walking across a campus, grabbing a cup of coffee in the student union, buying a sweatshirt at the bookstore… For students, these experiences offer the chance to try on a college and see if it fits and, for parents, these trips can be an important step in the letting- go process. At this point in the year, many juniors may be planning spring visits to campuses and seniors may soon be thinking about return visits as they make decisions. So this month, we asked our high school counselors: "What is your best advice for college visits?" Here's to road trips!

Carolyn W. Clark
Director of College Advising
The Brearley School
New York, New York

College visits start with dreams of ivy-covered walls but often end in total confusion about what you saw and what you thought.   Yet there is no better way to learn about a school than to visit—if you do it right. 

Remember your goal—In junior year you should see diverse schools (big, little, urban rural, etc).  As you hit summer and fall of senior year, see schools with an eye to building your college list and making a decision about applying early.

Take it slow--No more than two a day—it’s impossible to schedule anyway and it’s also too much to do in more than a few consecutive days.  Make sure you take a tour, attend the information session and interview if you can. 

Dig deep—Walk around and see what the tour doesn’t cover. Grab a coffee, see the town, pick up the newspaper, read the bulletin boards.  If you go with your parents, send them out with a different tour guide if possible to get multiple opinions.

Be attentive— I know, the information sessions can get repetitive, but put your phone away (your parents, too).  You are making a big decision and you need to hear this information.

Process it—When you get back in the car, jot down notes about what you thought, before you discuss the visit with your traveling companions. 

Ask questions and consider follow-up—Ask for the business card of your local representative, consider a follow-up email if you really loved a place.  If you have an interview or a really small information session, you should write a thank you note.

Have fun—This is your time to figure out where you might fit, to learn as much as you can and to enjoy thinking about the incredible adventure ahead! 

Safe and happy travels!


Alice Kleeman
College Advisor
Menlo-Atherton High School
Atherton, California

Since many of my students cannot afford to visit faraway colleges—or at least not until they’re admitted—I often suggest they start by making informal visits to nearby campuses, simply to learn what they like and what they don’t.

If you visit a nearby campus, you might notice, for example, “I’ve seen the same people over and over again.” That could mean this college might be too small for you OR it could mean that it's just right --   a cozy, intimate environment that’s not overwhelming, where it’s easy to meet people.

You might think, “We’ve been walking for hours, and we haven’t crossed the whole campus yet.” That could mean this college is perfect because you’ll never exhaust its resources, OR you might feel it’s just not as “comfy” as a small, self-contained campus.

You might observe ivy-covered red-brick buildings arranged in a square, a quad where kids are throwing a Frisbee—and think, “This is the way I’ve always imagined college!” OR “I would prefer to be someplace that feels more like the ‘real’ world!”

You might react to the students you see: “What’s wrong with this picture? Everybody looks the same!” OR you realize that there’s more than one kind of diversity, and the students you’re walking past may be from different religious backgrounds, speak different languages. come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and hold diverse political beliefs. 

You might notice, “It’s Saturday and no one is here.” Dig a little further and you may find this is a "commuter campus" and not for you OR you may find students are all enjoying great outdoor adventures nearby and you’d love that.

Get the idea? Visits to college campuses—any college campuses—can help you zero in on what matters to you.

Finally, my favorite tip: spend time reading bulletin boards all over campus! In public areas, these boards will let you know what’s going on—concerts, speakers, art shows, drama productions, political events, opportunities for jobs and internships. And in classroom buildings, bulletin boards often highlight student research, so you’ll learn about your future academic opportunities.

Most of all, have fun visiting colleges!


Marisa Ferrara
Director of College Counseling
Vail Mountain School
Vail, Colorado

Campus visits are often noted as the fun, yet critical part of the college search process.   It’s a tangible exercise, unlike the research you’ve done online or in guidebooks.  It allows for a full sensory experience with a definitive goal to “feel” whether or not a school is worthy of a spot on your list.

It’s not uncommon for the tour guide to walk backwards effortlessly in flip-flops for an hour or more.  Naturally, you will ask yourself if you could be friends with this person. But while your tour guide will be a valuable informant often as a first point of contact, don’t assume they fully represent the entire student body.  I encourage you to think broadly about the culture of the college community and take inventory of your surroundings.  Pick up a free college newspaper, read postings by student clubs and organizations. As you continue to explore, take mental notes and ask the tour guide clarifying questions.                                                          

After the formal visit -- usually an information session and tour -- give yourself additional time to explore campus and forge your own investigation so you can answer completely your questions and later make sound decisions.  Sit in on a class. Participate in an interview.  Take a seat along a campus thoroughfare.  Eat at the dining hall or student center.  Eavesdrop on conversations.  If you find the community welcoming, speak with random students and faculty.  All provide an ideal setting for observing a day-in-the-life at the college.

Finally, ask yourself: does what I observed during my visit match what I’ve read and heard about the college?  Now that you’ve discovered more than what initially compelled you to visit campus, add, keep, or remove the college from your list.  If it’s a keeper, record your visit in detail to later assist you in writing a supplemental essay.   


Our experts' responses reflect not only the wisdom of their experience, but also their schools' philosophies and policies. There is a great deal of diversity in American education and some of that will be on display here. Make sure to check with your own school about their policy on any particular subject discussed here.


We would like to extend a special thank you to the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS), who partnered with us on this post, and in particular counselors Marie Bigham of Greenhill School, Jody Sweeney of William Penn Charter School, and Sarah Markhovsky of Severn School.



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