Campus visits are a grand tradition in the American university-shopping experience, and for good reason: They’re crucial to a future freshman’s college selection and application process. College tours offer valuable firsthand insight into practical matters such as an institution’s facilities and aesthetics as well as its loftier, more intangible traits – its history, ethos and vibe. So, in short, don’t skip the campus visit!
Although most schools boast websites brimming with information and photos, seeing really is believing. A campus tour is an opportunity for prospective students to experience not just where they might soon be studying but also where they’ll eat, sleep and play for four future-shaping years. And when multiple schools appear equally attractive on paper, campus tours can be a tie-breaker.
“Campus visits are certainly the best way to gain an understanding of what a particular college environment may be like,” said Laura Kalinkewicz, director of admission at Pepperdine University.
When it comes to the tour, timing is important. Generally, it’s best to make these visits toward the end of sophomore year and during junior year of high school.
“It is OK to start earlier, but students – and parents – need to understand that their own priorities and perspective can change quite a bit in this short period of time,” said Armen Sarkisian, associate director of admission at Chapman University.
Considering the cost of visiting sometimes far-flung colleges, students should limit their tours to schools where they are fairly confident they will apply (or maybe even wait until an acceptance letter has arrived). And although summer is usually the most convenient time for students to tour colleges, there’s much to be said for visiting a campus when classes are in session.
“[During the academic year] you get to see the university as a real living, breathing organism,” said Gary A. Clark Jr., director of undergraduate admission at UCLA. “It really gives you a sense of picturing yourself in that college environment.”
Kalinkewicz recommends scheduling college tours in reverse. “Tour colleges that may be lower choices or ‘safety’ schools before touring schools higher on the priority list,” she said. “With each subsequent visit and tour, [students] get better at understanding what to glean from a campus visit.”
Researching and registering for campus tours can be done entirely through schools’ websites (some of which include “virtual” tours), but this doesn’t mean the process should be impersonal.
“Contact all schools of interest and establish a relationship with an admissions representative,” said Hasani Gorden, director of admissions for Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. “During this time, the admissions representative can schedule a campus tour that works best for the prospective student and their family.”
Schedule a tour at least a month in advance – some schools get booked to capacity during peak visit times – and hold off on making travel arrangements until your tour reservation is confirmed.
When you get to campus, allow ample time to locate parking and the admission office – and to relax a bit. “Use the extra time to get a coffee or a bite to eat and then pick a spot on campus where students gather and see if you can picture yourself as one of them,” advised Joy Oaks, USC Admission Center director.
Bring along directions and a campus map, but don’t be shy about approaching students or faculty for help. “Sometimes that’s a nice kind of impromptu meeting as well,” said Clark. “Ask them how they like and why they chose to attend that school. Sometimes those interactions can be a really memorable part of the visit.”
College tours are normally preceded by a group information session at the admission office – don’t skip that. “These serve as the initial navigation through the application process, and oftentimes students can get great tips on how to present themselves in their application,” Sarkisian said. “Information sessions are also used to disseminate important scholarship and financial aid information.”
The campus tour itself, conducted by a student guide, usually takes between 30 and 90 minutes.
“It gives you the student perspective on the various academic departments, research, living on campus, athletics, school spirit, involvement, history, traditions, etc.,” explained Amanda Borland, head tour guide at the USC Office of Admission. “It definitely has a different feel than the information session because it is coming from a student versus a full-time staff member.”
If you’re planning several campus tours, snap a few photos or take brief notes for future reference, but try not to spend the entire time staring at your cell phone. You might be missing good stuff.
“You’ve got to pay attention; you’ve got to try to work your way to the front of the group; you’ve got to really be attentive and ask questions,” Clark advised.
A meeting with an admissions officer, scheduled in advance, is an opportunity for more detailed and nuanced inquiry about the admission process itself. Indeed, it is interaction between visitors and college staff, students and faculty that can make the difference between just seeing a campus and truly getting a feel for what it is like to live and learn there.
—Paul Rogers, Brand Publishing Writer