The college tour is a rite of passage, an opportunity for parents and students to visit a campus, talk to students and admissions officers and explore a college in greater depth. College tours can also be fun, a family bonding experience, a shared moment as your student embarks on their college journey. But sometimes the college tour does not go as planned – students hate their parent’s alma mater (remember the branded onesie you bought them when they were born?), love a college that parents intensely dislike, or announce that they prefer to do their next college road trip with friends! I hope this guide helps you make the most of your time visiting college campuses with your student. 

Do You Have To Take A College Tour?

Of course not, and, for some, visiting colleges may not be possible. Fortunately, if families are unable to visit colleges in person, there are excellent resources available online that can help students get to know a school. But if visiting is possible, here are some reasons why it’s helpful:

  • College information sessions and campus tours allow students and parents to ask questions. Answers from students who attend the college are often the most honest. 
  • College tours (if visiting when college is in session) allow students and parents to get a sense of the campus “vibe,” energy and character. 
  • College tours allow students and parents to see if the campus is well-kept or a little threadbare. 
  • After the “official” college tour students and parents can visit areas of particular interest (e.g., sports facilities, art studios, science labs). 
  • Students and parents can go beyond the campus and check out the neighboring community. 
  • Colleges love students who show real interest in them, and visiting is one way to demonstrate this.

Some Tips For Parents On A College RoadTrip 

  • Take a different tour than your student (some colleges even ask families to do this!). 
  • Let your student share their opinions before you share yours. 
  • Remember that your student is choosing a college for themselves, not for you. 
  • Try not to expect a “perfect” college road trip – some days may be great, some may be mediocre, and some may be downright bad. 
  • Use the college road trip as a time to learn about your student’s preferences – some like it hot, some like it cold, some like it big, some like it small. It’s a lot of fun to discover what excites your student! 

The “Purpose” Of The College RoadTrip 

There are over 4,500 colleges and universities in the United States alone, each of them unique. The idea is to find the colleges that are a good fit for your student.

Here are some of the qualities that students can consider when deciding if a college is a good fit for them:

Of course, students should do more than attend an information session and go on a tour to determine if a college is a good fit for them. Grabbing a bite in the student dining area is an excellent way to get a feel for the student body and a great time to ask a few more questions. Students also need to dig deep into the college website and check out books such as The Fiske Guide and online resources such as BigFuture/CollegeBoard in order to build a college list. 

Students should remember that there is no “magic formula” for finding good fits, and sometimes what is initially important changes after a few college visits. It’s always a good idea for students to visit a variety of colleges – one big, one small, one urban, one rural – and pay attention to what they like and dislike. For students, knowing what they do not like can be as important as knowing what they do like! Students should also understand that often no college will have all the characteristics they want. For this reason, it can be useful to sort the qualities a student wants in a college into categories such as “must have,” “would be nice,” “must not have,” or “don’t care.” If a student can choose three to five “must have” characteristics, that may help them find colleges where they can be happy.

When To Go

The best time to visit colleges is when students are on campus – a long weekend during the fall and spring break are ideal (high school breaks are often at different times than college breaks). However, more and more college students are remaining on campus over the summer, either to take classes or engage in research, which works well for many families who have more time to visit colleges during the summer.

Before You Go 

A campus visit, even to a college close by (or even in your hometown), requires some “pre-planning.” Students should start by checking the “Admissions” or “Visit Us” section of the college website to know when information sessions and tours are offered and whether pre-registration is required. Where possible, sign up for both an information session (where an admissions officer will provide information about the application process and financial aid) and a student guided tour. Schedule an interview. Many colleges offer on-campus interviews, either with an admissions officer or a student interviewer. These interviews are usually available after May 1st of the student’s junior year. Do pre-visit research. Students can explore the college website to get an overview of the college. This may help them prepare questions to ask when visiting. Students and parents can also do a pre-visit virtual tour, either on the campus website or on a site such as College Scoops or YouVisit. If a student will be interviewing as part of the campus visit, pre-visit research is especially important!

Questions To Ask On A Campus Visit

  • Why did you choose this college? 
  • If you could change one thing on campus, what would you change? 
  • If someone gave you a million dollars to spend on campus, how would you spend it? 
  • What do you love about this college? 
  • What is your favorite class? 
  • Is it easy/hard to get into the classes you want? 
  • Can you meet with professors after class? 
  • What do you do on the weekends? 
  • What are the most popular clubs and organizations? 
  • Are the dorms nice? 
  • Is the food good?

Depending On How Long You Have 

Here are some other things to add to the college visit, time permitting:

  • Attend A Class 

Many colleges will allow prospective students to sit in on a class. This is an excellent way for a student to get a sense of what the academics are really like at a college. 

  • Check Out The Student Center 

Grab lunch (or coffee) at the student center to get a feel for the student body. Are people studying alone or hanging out in groups? Try talking to one of the students – what do they like most, or least, about the college? 

  • Survey The Gym 

What are the facilities like? Is there a special section for varsity athletes? Is there enough equipment? If your student is considering playing a sport in college, they should arrange to meet with a coach (NCAA rules permitting). 

  • Talk To The Doctors 

The Student Health Center is an important campus resource. Does the college staff the health center or does it contract with a third party to provide care? What about mental health – a growing concern among college students. Does the college offer free counseling services? If so, how many appointments are included and how easy, or difficult, is it to schedule a session? 

  • Meet With Disability Services 

If your student has any learning issues and needs accommodations, they should visit the disability services office. If possible, schedule an appointment with a staff member before you arrive. Some disability offices have a policy not to speak with prospective students – the college may still be a good fit, but it’s information your student should consider. Other disability offices are available to discuss policies and procedures, although they probably will not be able to discuss the specific types of accommodations a student can expect to receive until they see relevant documentation. 

The Bookstore

The bookstore is always a fun stop – sometimes they also have a café or place to get a snack. And they almost certainly sell swag! 

  • Beyond The Campus 

Students may also want to venture into town or the surrounding community to get a feel for where they would be living for the next four years. Is this a safe, welcoming environment where they feel comfortable? 

Keeping It All Straight 

After a few information sessions and campus tours, colleges can seem to blend together. Pro tip: Try to visit no more than two colleges in one day. This is why the campus visit is one of the few places where students are encouraged to use their phone! Take pictures and use a note-taking app to help keep thoughts and impressions organized. Many colleges ask applicants why they want to attend that particular college, so these notes can be useful for list building and essay writing!

Talk To Students 

One of the best things about being on campus is the chance to speak with current students. It can be a bit intimidating for a high school student to start a conversation with a stranger, but college students usually love to talk about their experiences on campus. These spontaneous, unscripted conversations are among the best ways to really get the dirt (or as Gen Z puts it, “the tea”) about what that college is like. 

Things To Bring Home 

In addition to the branded water bottle or college sweatshirt, check out the campus media. Pick up a copy of the student newspaper. Many colleges also have “alternative” newspapers, literary magazines and other publications that can provide insight into campus life. Families may also want to bring home financial aid forms, brochures and fact sheets from the Admissions Office, Career Center, or Disabilities Office. If an admissions officer, student tour guide, coach, professor or staff member offers a business card, be sure to keep it so that your student can contact them later if they have questions.