How to get the most out of your college campus visit
Oh, sure, students (models?) are all smiles in the brochure. But what will you really see on the college tour?
March 13th, 2013
05:00 AM ET

How to get the most out of your college campus visit

By Donna Krache, CNN

(CNN) – This spring, high school students and their parents will descend on college campuses, maps in hand, to see the sights and get a “feel” for the educational experience.

It’s exciting but overwhelming. What can you really know about a college after a walk through campus or an overnight stay?

CNN spoke with Peggy Hock, the director of college counseling at the Pinewood School in Los Altos Hills, California. Hock works with high school students and parents who are delving into the all-important college-decision process.

Hock says that she typically starts the college conversation with students by asking students to develop a vision for what they want in their college experience. She asks students to write down five things a college has to have to be a good place for them.

Then, she tells them to do some research into what colleges meet their criteria and plan to visit a short list of small and large schools that fit their vision. She recommends the College Board’s new “Big Future” site, especially for students who don’t have access to college counselors. The site’s “Find Colleges” section lets students indicate whether an aspect of the college is a “must have” or a “desirable” and matches those preferences to colleges that fit. Then, decide what colleges you’ll visit.

“It’s important to have some idea of why you are visiting that college,” Hock says.

If you have a counselor, she has something to say: Listen. She once had a student who narrowed down his college list to a few large universities in his home state of California. Based on what she knew about him, she suggested he check out another college - in Pennsylvania. He visited, and during a walk across campus, was stopped by a faculty member who asked whether he had any questions.

“These are my people!” the student told Hock. One year later, he’s a happy freshman at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.

Here are some tips from Hock for getting the most out of your college visit:

Plan accordingly
Work geographically, scheduling no more than two visits per day to different schools in the same area. Register for the campus tour in advance.

Take the official tour and attend the information session
Sure, you’ll get the canned speech, but you will also get some important facts about the college and its physical layout. And many times, some of your questions will be answered in these presentations.

Ask questions that can’t be answered by canned responses
You want to get as true a picture as possible of the academic and social culture of the place. Hock says that some of her students ask questions such as “How much do you study?” and “Have you ever gone to a professor for help?” A question such as “Do you find study groups helpful?” will give you some insight into whether a campus is competitive or cooperative. Ask your guide, “What did you do last weekend?” and “What surprised you most when you got here?” to get some authentic, first-person insights about living at and attending this university.

Pick up a copy of the campus paper
Hock says this is a great way to get a feel for the college community and to learn about the hot issues on campus.

Don’t base your impression of the campus on the guide, good or bad
Like everyone else, tour guides have bad days. “One tour guide does not define a college,” Hock says. She knows a student who went on a campus tour during the summer and was turned off because the guide gave the impression that it was a party school. The student returned for another visit when classes were in session, met some other students on campus and got an entirely different impression. The student is very happy at this university and glad she gave it a second chance.

Parents, show up and shut up
This one actually comes from some of Hock’s students. Yes, parents, you are paying for this, and probably making great sacrifices to do so. But if really you want to help your child become an adult, let him or her ask the questions. If you have pressing questions, e-mail them or ask the guide after the tour. There’s nothing worse than a parent at the front of the tour group, bombarding the guide with questions and monopolizing the talk.

Be observant and take notes
Look around and take it all in. Look at the postings and flyers in common areas. Write down those things that struck you about your visit, good or bad.

Compare your notes to your vision for your ideal college
What did the campus “feel” like? Hock says your intuitive feel for the campus is “highly credible” and should be a critical piece of information as you make your decision. Hock asks, “Did these feel like people you’d like to be friends with and live among for the next four years?”

Talk about the experience and what you think of the college. Hock advises parents to let their student do the talking first, because some students are less likely to contradict their parents if they feel differently about a campus. Engage in a candid dialogue about the pros and cons of each place.

And one more thing: Hock reminds students that they shouldn’t skip a college visit. She even recommends an overnight stay on campus, even after you’re accepted. One of her students did just that after she learned she’d been accepted to her ideal college. An overnight stay made her realize that the party atmosphere and social life there made her uncomfortable, and she decided to attend another school.

Better learn now than suffer for four years or go through the process of applying again and transferring somewhere else.

“Attending a college you’ve never visited before is like a four-year-long blind date,” Hock says.

What are your tips for an effective college visit? Which questions do you wish you'd asked? Share in the comments, or tweet us @CNNSchools!

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Filed under: College • Counselors
soundoff (47 Responses)
  1. Eric

    To start off I graduated 4 years ago so I have a relatively fresh view on this process.

    First of all going to visit colleges too early may be a waste of money if you haven't already determined what field of study you want to go into. I would want until at Junior year as by this point the student should have a feel for what they want to do and where they could be accepted. I personally did not visit any schools until after I was accepted and was not hurt by it, but I did end up spending an extra $150 applying to schools I wouldn't have attended.

    I would also recommend you never skip applying to a University due to price. Some of the more expensive and prestigious schools offer a lot of grant money and could potentially be cheaper than a school with a much lower sticker price. Harvard, MIT, and Stanford all have basically free tuition if the parents are earning under $100K a year. I went to a school with $45K/year tuition and came out paying less than $20K total (counting housing, food, books, and travel).

    March 15, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  2. g

    you need to google student debt crises before your kids commit to college, these days unless the parents are paying for it for the student its not worth the lifetime sentence of debt just for a degree.

    March 15, 2013 at 6:53 am |
  3. Former Tour Guide

    The tip about asking questions that don't have canned responses is a joke. To start with, if it's a generic tour, the person giving the tour is unlikely to have the same major as the applicant, so questions about study time and study groups are useless. If you do get a good tour guide, be aware that almost everything is a canned response, but it just may not seem like it. I used to give tours to students, and I had a canned response for everything. If someone asked me a question that I hadn't heard before, I gave a generic response but made darn sure I had a better prepared response in case the question ever came up again. Please don't think that tour guides aren't reading the same articles and tips that parents and applicants are reading.

    March 14, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
  4. Martha

    Early (9th or 10th grade) college visits and family talk of the expectations of going to college may help pave the way by helping young teens realize that by taking the "easy classes" they might be shutting doors or adding time and expense to the college experience. Pushing to get better grades in and taking an aggressive sequences of classes in math or science, may mean bypassing some college level classes or NOT wasting time on remedial level classes before hitting the college level courses. Also, there seems to be more and more high schools partnering with local community colleges to give students dual enrollment opportunities, which might include the high school paying for college math, science or english classes and the student getting credit from both the high school and the college. That would save time and expense for the student. However, if the jr high/middle school and high school course load up to that point was full of fluff classes or not really challenging or certain subjects were avoided, it might mean the student isn't prepared to take college level course.

    March 14, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
  5. mkjp

    Here's a novel idea. Only apply to colleges you have a chance at affording (unless you are absolutely just taking loans in which case find a reasonably priced school). I am one of three kids and my parents thankfully planned to pit us through college. We did not apply to schools that are outrageously expensive. We chose whoch school to attend based on academics, social aspects and what my parents could afford to pay each year. Obviously with the extreme cost of college this is ever increasingly difficult. But it is so stressful for a 21 year old to have to pay back hubdreds of thousands of dollars. And people old enough to have twenty year old kids also shouldn't have to be buried in debt.

    March 14, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
  6. Peter

    A few things we have learned from our first child – who got into his top choice – and now working with a college advisor with our second

    1) If your child is really interested in a school, you must visit! Schools open up a file with every contact and a visit carries a lot of weight
    2) The more interest you show in a school the better. The percentage of applicants who are accepted and actually go there is known as their 'yield'. This is like a credit score for a consumer. A school like MIT and Harvard will be close to 100%. So if a school doesn't think you are interested, you are less likely to be offered a spot.
    3) Gut feelings are important. It might be a great school but if your child doesn't have a good feeling about it, there is a chance they will be miserable (learned this from friends of our kid's)
    4) Alas, SAT or ACT scores are important. Definitely take a course or use a tutor to boost scores.
    5) There are different opinions on when to take the SAT. You can't just delete a test if you score poorly. But taking it again and improving looks good.
    6) Visiting as a freshman which was suggested is questionable – a student doesn't have much context at this point. But don't wait until beginning of senior year either

    March 13, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
    • Leslie

      Small schools track visits;large schools lack the capacity.

      March 14, 2013 at 1:20 am |
  7. Ellen

    Parents are to show up and shut up? Please, colleges, mean every word of that – do NOT take tuition and room&board money from these pariahs, do not use their finances to determine the Expected Family Contribution (so high a number for most professional parents that there are zero financial aid dollars avaialble), and all you prospective college students, please oh please do not accept their tainted money for you to use in attending the college of your choice. All that "me me me" sound needs to be backed up your own willingness and ability to pay your own bills, like any adult should do. The customer is the one who is paying.

    March 13, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
    • Greg

      Let me guess, you're one of those parents who calls professors if your child gets a bad grade and shows up at his first job interview.

      March 14, 2013 at 8:02 am |
      • crocostimpy

        Let me guess. You don't have college age kids.

        March 14, 2013 at 8:34 am |
      • mumu

        guilty, but because my kids were too shy to ask some very important questions and no I never did call up a professor after a bad grade, but encouraged my kids to find out why when they did. If I'm paying the bills, my kid is accountable to me and so are his grades.

        March 15, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  8. Kevin Preis

    Thank you for the thorough and insightful article! I manage Go See Campus (, a free website that provides high school students and parents with tools for planning their college campus visits online. Part of the reason I created Go See Campus is because of Ms. Hock's point about the importance of getting to the colleges. Whether visits take place before or after a student is accepted, the experiences can help cement the student's decision and give him / her the confidence that they have selected the right college.

    March 13, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
  9. bryan

    Also, parents and students should look at the local community colleges. I know Florida has what is called the 2+2 program. You graduate out of a community college with your AA and are then guaranteed admission into one of the many Florida state schools. For those students or parents who are paying out of pocket, this could be a huge savings.

    March 13, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
    • Lynne

      My daughter is a junior in high school. We are soon starting to visit colleges. She has told me that a lot of her friends are going to our local comm. college (Bucks County) which she has heard is a very good college, and would be a great way for us to save money. For some reason, I keep thinking that a comm. college will not provide as good an education as most of the other universities. We are not in a great financial position...have no clue on what we can "afford" since nobody knows what our retirement needs will be. Can you give me your opinion on this?
      Thanks so much.

      March 14, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
      • deep blue

        The quality of community colleges vary. The small class sizes are a plus. 4 year colleges don't give many scholarships to transfer students, so if your child qualifies for merit scholarship, going straight to the 4 year school might be better.
        Look at the majors your child is considering. Some degree programs, i.e. engineering, have a sequential curriculum. At my 4 year school, getting your core credit out of the way probably only saves you a year because you still have to take the engineering courses in order. A math degree is much less sequential, only a few prerequisites, so it doesn't matter when (or where) you take what.

        March 14, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
  10. OMG123

    Take your kid to visit a college when he or she is in ninth grade. Don't wait until junior year. A visit while a HS freshman will make the notion of college very real to them ands help them see what college offers both in terms of education and social life. It will help the kid to understand why you are always encouraging them to make better grades. Explain that colleges decide admissions on grades from 9th, 10th and 11th grades. That 12th garde marks are basically too late to influence decisions. If a kid slacks off through 9th and 10th grades, that kid has shut himself out of all the best colleges no matter how hard he works in 11th and 12th.

    March 13, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
  11. PsiPhi

    2 years at ASU, 2 at Phoenix CC, 2 at Portland CC, 2 at University of Phoenix.

    What have I learned?
    College is a business. I learned more (information technology, data modeling and business intel) on the job than I ever did in college. I learned more at the community colleges than I ever did at ASU. UoP is a giant joke.
    I work with 4 people with BSCS from PA, France, Stanford, and UCLA. One of them says cashay (cache) one didnt know what DDoSing was or a star schema is, one is lost in RDBMS, and one (Stanford) doesnt know anything about the current trade.

    Degrees dont mean anything, I am sure everyone here knows people who slept through a 4 year degree or are just naturally dumb.

    March 13, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • Cerres

      while that may be true, you still need that piece of paper in many cases to get your foot in the door for the interview

      March 13, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
      • mumu

        Agree! As Hiring Mgr, who am I gonna choose to interview, Stanford grad of U of Phoenix grad w. experience?

        March 15, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  12. Beentheredonethat

    My daughter attended a private university (ranked among the top 20 in the US) and finished her degree in 3.5 years. I paid the same for her to go to this private university as I would have paid for her to go to our state school because she got scholarships from the private school. I encourage parents to NOT take private schools off the table. Apply and let them decide whether to accept your child. You might be surprised – like I was.

    March 13, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
  13. FinallyFinished

    Some kids have definite ideas about what they want to study, and the program they want may not be available at the most obvious (state) schools. My daughter went to school in Ohio although she had the Florida prepaid and Bright Futures, and it was more expensive, but she got the best education in her field. She was employed right out of school and still working, so that's the payoff. She just would not have received the same preparation at a state school because there is no comparable program.

    March 13, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
  14. Danny

    Things you should know before you visit and before you even apply.

    Is your student going to be accepted?
    Is this college the right fit?
    Are they going to pay you to go there?
    If so, how much?

    Without those answers don't even waste your time visiting.

    March 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • Rob

      Other people, please ignore this character. It's worth it to visit; it's never a waste of time to visit.

      March 13, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
      • Ellen

        It could absolutely be a waste of time and money to visit. If your student has little or no chance of admission, it's just a vacation trip. We have told our high school student that we will visit colleges that are near us, a couple of his top wish-list schools, and other than that we will wait to see who accepts him, and if it is private, how much they would like to pay to have him come to their school, instead of an in-state public university. The money that you spend flying/driving to places that don't want your kid – it's a waste.

        March 13, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
  15. Lou sinks

    I would highly recommend that you start early and look at as many schools as you can in person..You maybe spending over 200k and it will be 4 years of your child's life learning and growing, so it's important. My daughter has already eliminated 3 schools that we thought were a fit. Also i would cast your search as wide as possible. look at local schools as well as private schools out of your area. State schools are under a lot of funding pressure, so they may or may not offer the cheapest education. Small schools with large endowments may offer you a better package and it might be a better fit for your child. Cast your web wide and far and look at a large range of schools. We told our daughter that the best school that is the best fit that offers the most money is where you will go. In closing, don't be afraid to appeal any package that is offered. all they can say is no and you may get some addional scholarships or work study.

    March 13, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
  16. ES71

    Do you really need to visit an IVY League to make sure it is a good school?
    If it is not one of the exhalted world-known colleges, stick with the best state school and save a lot of money.
    Going out of state to some average school and payin 2-3 times the tuition is crazy.

    And the comment about food? Really? You are there to learn, nothing else.

    March 13, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • Danny

      That is one of the biggest and persistent myths out there. State funded schools do not have the same cash reserves that a private school does. Leaving a private school out of consideration can leave a lot of money and education on the table.

      March 13, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • Adrian

      Visit to see if it's the right school for you kid, not that it's a good school.
      A friend from high school was accepted to Harvard, went there for a summer prgram and couldn't stand it; didn't like the people.
      Noo doubt it's a great school, just not for him.

      March 13, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
  17. AndrewD

    I am a financial aid counselor at a university in south carolina. Please never send your kids out of state!! The debt levels are insane and most of that debt comes in the form of parent loans which the parent is responsible for not the student. The interest rate for the Parent Plus loan is a horrible 7.9% !!! You will ruin your kids life if you allow them to go out-of-state. Please, I beg you to send your kids to an in-state scholarship, not only is tuition lower but there are way more scholarships and grants available to them.

    March 13, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
    • Owl96

      I am shocked that such a post came from a financial aid professional. Most universities will give some good packages to low income deserving students. State schools may not give the best packages to out of state school, but the only way you find out is to apply. Never skip applying to your dream school. Apply and then see what financial aid package you get. Some familis find that non-loan financial aid from their dream school allows them to go cheaper than their local state school. Sometimes the local state school will offer almost free tution if they really want that student.

      March 13, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
      • ES71

        Low income students are not the ones touring the campuses.

        March 13, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
      • CHERR2

        Owl96 don't be shocked at the AndrewD's "real life" observations. I have already put my oldest through university. Besides the high out of state tuition's and interest rates, some students just aren't ready to be that far away from their parents and support network.
        I don't think AndrewD was referring to "low income deserving students" or universities that "offer almost free tution if they really want that student." I'm pretty sure AndrewD was talking about students who don't have a college fund or prepaid tuition, don't qualify for grants or scholarships, and who go to school on loans, (i.e. 7.9% Parent Plus loan).

        March 13, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • Lisa

      I live in DC so in-state schools aren't a choice. The "Tuition Assistance Program" offered to DC students who attend state universites in other states is a joke because 1. They only give money to the very needy 2. The funds are depleted if you don't apply early. 3. It is only good for state universities. If you want to apply to a private university, you can't apply to the assistance program.

      March 13, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • Danny

      Again...huge myth perpetuated. What percentage of your students graduate in 4 years? How does that percentage compare to the "more expensive" school? I think most parents would rather pay for 4 years instead of 6.

      March 13, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • NV

      This is a ridiculous statement. I went out of state to a neighboring state for less than the tuition at my in state school. The school offered scholarships to out of state students who had high test scores. the school I went to also waives out of state tuition for band, chorus, etc. etc.

      March 13, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
    • Ellen

      Except that an in-state school may not have the major your student wants to pursue. And that many private schools will provide merit scholarships (not aid, but based on grades/scores/talent) that will bring their high tuition down to quite close to or less than the public state universities in overall cost. Two private colleges my son is interested in will immediately cut $15,000-$18,000 off of their annual tuition for each of four years, based on high school GPA. That's to start. A friend has taken her $33,000 private college tuition tab down to $4500, due to a pricetag cut due to GPA, and two more scholarship pieces. She will borrow to cover that, live at home rather than pay room & board costs.

      March 13, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • PrincessBride

      Blanket advice is never helpful – and this is terrible advice! I live in NC, and I know kids who are going to state schools in SC on reciprocal scholarships that reduce the amount to what they would pay in-state. How is that stupid? Bama and Ole Miss offer tremendous scholarships to out of state students who are high achievers. And many private schools have significant endowments that allow them to provide merit aid that significantly decreases the cost of attendance. My "blanket advice" – don't go to a school where you (and your parents) will have to take out huge loans to cover costs. But don't limit your options, instead do your research – many schools are more affordable than they first appear.

      March 14, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
  18. t

    .......Just stay sober...........

    March 13, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  19. Josie

    Visit the community as well. What do they offer to the college near-by. How focused are the students, go on both a week day and a weekend. The area around my college looks like a dump. Many times its students who don't care and their parents are paying rent, so the landlords know they jack the price up and get the money. Look into safe areas, if the campus is in a city, ask the students there where it's safe. If it is in a small town, look into a neighborhood a little bit further from the campus and see how the places look. You do pay for what you get. Go into the campus main meeting place and library and watch the students, ask them how they like it. I am currently going to one four year university, and hopefully when done transferring to another one in a near by city. But I am familiar with both the city and the town I live in currently. If a school doesn't feel right, don't go because your family did or because it's close by and what is best for you. Oh and look into job offerings of the degree you want and see if it will be doable when you graduate in a few years.

    March 13, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  20. Johnny 5

    The visit and the attending of the college are fine. It's when you get out is when the shock begins. High tuition debt and no jobs related to your degree. Its people who create things and are able to sell them to the masses are who make it above the rest these days.

    March 13, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  21. ER

    Also eat lunch or dinner in the cafeteria. You will be there for four years and the food should be of good quality.

    March 13, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  22. streetsmarts1

    Start early! You should be doing this their junior year, if you wait until your kids are seniors in high school you are behind the curve. Yes I am a parent and I am talking about the financial curve. You need to ask about what scholarships they offer and what are the deadlines for applying for them.

    March 13, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  23. Dana

    Thanks 2Kids. I just installed it.

    March 13, 2013 at 11:58 am |
  24. 2KidsInSchool

    There's an Apple app called "U Decide College" on the App Store that I found to be very helpful when my kids were looking at colleges.

    March 13, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • jreichenstein

      Hi, I'm actually the creator of the app, U Decide College, and I'm so glad to hear you found it helpful! We have a lot of exciting new things coming up to make the app even better and a website to go along with it to search for your colleges and provide even more tools for looking at schools. We have a facebook page if you want to stay updated! Thanks!

      March 18, 2013 at 4:27 pm |