Campus Visits: When Plans to Visit Don’t Work

We’ve all heard its important to visit college campuses during the search process. I find it easier to learn about top programs, recent changes, and overall campus climate in person. In other words, my campus visits replace hours of reading a school’s website and trying to scour the internet to form an impression of a particular college.

But sometimes setting foot on a campus isn’t in the plans. Whether time, distance, finances, work or family demands keep you from taking an in-person tour, there are options when campus visits don’t work out.

Here’s what happen to me just last week. My daughter, a rising senior, and I had plans to look at a few schools in North Carolina. She had just finished a week-long psychology institute at one of the colleges on her list. The plan was to let her interview at the campus she had been at then drive to the second university where we would meet with her admissions counselor on Friday afternoon and take a tour on Saturday morning. Our plans did not work as expected.

During her interview at the first school, it began to pour rain. It was raining so hard that they canceled the walking tour of campus. (Messing up visit plans for all of those families.) I began to wonder if we’d make it to our next meeting; I hadn’t left a lot of extra time to get there and the drive would take an hour in good conditions. My daughter’s interview ran long and the weather slowed us down; we wouldn’t be able to meet the admissions counselor at the second university before they closed for the day. (Little did we know that that campus had lost power and everyone had been sent home early—more messed up plans for visitors.)

Over dinner my daughter received a text that all tours and visits for the next day had been canceled due to the rain and flash flood warnings around campus. So even our best plans to visit campus didn’t work out. Our flight home was later the next day and we wouldn’t be able to make another trip this fall.

There are things each of us can do to make up for not making an official campus visit:

Spend significant time with the college website.

Grab a notepad and look for information on

  • Admissions (standards, deadlines)
  • Campus life
  • Housing / food service
  • Academic resources
  • Core / required curriculum
  • Scholarships and financial aid
  • Your particular major or area of interest

Take a virtual tour (or self-guided tour.)

At a minimum you can see what the school looks like even if you don’t get the personalized commentary from a tour guide. I’ve seen some services that will sell you a virtual tour of campus, but you can look for free options first. YouTube is always a good place to start. Some college have significant footage online and you might be able to find a walking tour on the admissions website.

*Extra credit if you pay attention to the year and who made the video. Colleges are always making changes and you want a relatively up to date look from a relatively reliable source.

Check out the school’s videos on YouTube.

After (or while) you search for campus tour videos, check out what else the school has online. Pay attention to the activities and people. Are these the people and activities you want to surround yourself with for the next four years? Try to watch a mix of official and unofficial videos. Sometimes candid videos from current students and their parents give a more realistic view than the professionally edited promotional shots.

Review the college newspaper or news channel.

What issues are affecting students? What are the problems? The official campus tour won’t show you the problems, but campus news will include a variety of student complains from the everyday (tuition increases and food quality) to more serious (crime on campus, problems getting required courses, and equality issues.)

Seek opportunities to connect with admissions counselors off campus.

You might find them visiting your area or even your high school. You can call or email if you have questions. Admissions officers are accessible and want you to have the information you need to make a decision.

Start your campus visits early.

The more schools you visit, the better you will get at evaluating what is (and isn’t) unique. At the first three schools, students may be impressed with the Starbucks in the library or the state of the art fitness center. Even visiting local schools when a student is in 9th or 10th grade can help. Hopefully by 11th and 12th grade, students will be better at evaluating what is important. And if you can’t visit every school on your list, at least you will have a good picture in mind as you do your online research.

Our canceled campus visit was less of a disappointment because we had visited that college last summer. As my daughter and I took a drive around campus once the rain let up, she said, “Seeing all the buildings again is reminding me of the things we learned last year.” While I’m disappointed our plans didn’t work out, I’m glad we had other options for learning about the school.


Many students this fall will apply to schools they have never visited. That’s ok. You have many other resources to inform your decisions. However, before you make a deposit, visit the campus, preferably when school is in session and you can sit in on a class, speak with current students and professors, and get a feel for the social and academic life on campus. You wouldn’t purchase a car without taking a test drive; don’t make a deposit on a college you haven’t visited.

** One thing that really caught my daughter’s attention as we searched through that school’s website in our hotel room that night was the campus calendar of activities. She was impressed with the list of guest speakers, variety of creative performances, and opportunities. Even something as trivial as the calendar of events can give you insight into life at a particular school.

Strategies for Your First College Visit

University of Houston College Visit

The entire college admissions process has accelerated over the past ten years. Now you will find some state university applications due November or December 1 and a general push to complete the process before January 1. This means families can’t wait until the fall of a student’s senior year to start researching schools. And this is what drives families to start campus visits during a student’s junior (or even sophomore or freshman) year.

Over Thanksgiving week my family did our first “official” campus visit for our daughter, a current sophomore. Of course, she has tagged along on a few of my college visits over the years, but this was the first stop directed towards helping her make decisions for her college list.

We are approaching this process strategically and I’m going to share my rationale with you.

Tip 1: Make Your First Visit to a Campus Nearby

This is not the time to travel across country to see the big schools on a student’s wish list. Your goal with this visit is to start making college a reality. Start with an easy trip.

Also, high school students are often dazzled by features that are commonplace, so you want to get the wonderment out at a place you can easily revisit. It is not uncommon for students to fall in love with one of the first colleges they see and if this happens at nearby campus, you can revisit multiple times before sending applications.

We toured the University of Houston Main Campus. We brought the entire family, so this was the first college visit for my 10-year-old son. After the introductory talk where he heard there was an all-you-can-eat cafeteria that served dessert daily and multiple Pokemon gyms on campus, he was ready to enroll. Typically it takes a little more to impress high school students, but Starbucks in the library, lazy rivers in the fitness center, and redesigned dorms are big selling points and can distract students from finding out more about the university. (Features sell, so I reminded the family that we are investing in an education not a social club, or in my son’s case, a 24-hour gaming paradise.)

Tip 2: Visit a State University (In Your State)

There is a reason car sales people like to have you test drive the high end models first: first impressions matter. If your college visits begin at a school where you qualify for in-state tuition, you are setting expectations at the most affordable end of the shopping spectrum. Don’t worry, you can always look at pricier or more prestigious options later.

As I mentioned above, students often fall in love with schools they see early in the search process. Walking around campus, your student may picture him or herself studying in the quad, attending football games, and taking part in campus traditions. The next campus you visit will be compared to this first visit. Don’t drive the high-end luxury vehicle first then expect your student to want the in-state tuition model.

You do not need to visit the top or flagship university in your state either. The goal is to visit an affordable school that can serve as the basis for future comparison. We did not visit our local community college because we don’t see that as part of the college plan. We also didn’t wait until we could make a trip to the higher ranked state universities (University of Texas, Austin and Texas A&M). We started at a nearby state university that may or may not be our first choice, but is definitely worth consideration.

Tip 3: Visit a School Where Your Student Will Likely Be Accepted

This continues the theme from the first two tips– make this visit something realistically attainable. I’ve never had a client tell me they regretted keeping schools on the list where their child was likely to be admitted. These schools represent options.

Every year I have clients tell me they wish they had spent more time looking at schools that were more realistic choices. Last year I had a client take a 10-day college tour to visit most of the Ivy League universities and other top schools on the east coast. They visited all the big-name high-profile schools, most with admission rates under 20%. The student applied to two of these colleges, but after an early decision rejection, decided she needed to add more schools where she had more than a long-shot chance at admission. The rest of these big-name schools quickly fell off the list as the family scrambled to see schools with more attainable admissions standards.

Before our family visit we looked up the admissions statistics for University of Houston. Our daughter doesn’t have class rank data yet, but we are guessing she will be in the top 10%. Until we have more data from her school, we will look at top 10% and top 25%. At University of Houston, all top 10% graduates are automatically admitted; top 25% graduates need an SAT score of 1080 or ACT score of 21. Based on PSAT results, our daughter would be accepted.

You may not find the admissions guidelines as clear cut at universities near you, but take time to do some research. There are four-year schools out there for motivated and academically able students– even students who graduate in the fourth quarter of their classes. If you have a student with low grades and low test scores, you may have to do a little more work to find those schools were acceptance is likely, but this will be part of your college search process anyway.

It is easy to look past the impossibly low acceptance rates and dream when visiting campuses early on, but when it comes to crafting a well-balanced college list with plenty of opportunity for admission, visiting more realistic options is a smart way to start the process.

Tip 4: Focus on Positive Features

Every school has positives. Start the process by setting this tone and avoiding ideas like “its just a backup school.” When your family looks to highlight the good in each school, you can develop a balanced list of schools without setting your student up for later disappointment with “lesser schools” he or she had to “settle for”.

I find most students are willing to list the strengths of any school they visit. Most negatives are things they have heard from peers or family members. The sooner you set the tone for the college search in your family, the better.

My husband and I both graduated from Rice University and his family has a long history at Texas A&M. It would have been easy for us to talk down University of Houston by saying it is a fallback or safe school. We could have tainted the process early on by bad-mouthing rival schools. But we didn’t. We went into that campus tour ready to sell the experience at University of Houston just as we might talk up our own alma matter.

Be on the lookout for positive stories from friends, neighbors, and co-workers. (Really once people hear you are looking at colleges they will give you unsolicited advice just as people did when they found you were expecting a baby.) I have the benefit of working with lots of students.

On our drive to University of Houston I talked about our neighbor who is a freshman in UH’s Honors College. She had been admitted to a variety of prestigious schools and had spent most of her senior year anticipating attending UT Austin (until she found she would receive a full scholarship and a place in the UH Honors College.) We talked about all the wonderful opportunities our neighbor will be able to experience because her college education is paid for. We are already planting the idea that seeking out scholarship opportunities is a good plan.

Look for the selling points at any school you visit and take the opportunity to promote any features of importance to your family.

Tip 5: Take Notes to Refine Your Search

After your visit make a list of likes and dislikes. Try to do this as soon after your visit as possible. We worked on our list during our car ride home, taking turns mentioning things we liked about University of Houston then listing things we aren’t sure about. We did discuss the fact that UH is a large school and some classes might be large, but we didn’t have a lot of dislikes because it was our first visit. Use the feedback from your first college visit to guide future plans.

I will keep you posted on our family’s college search. Right now our plan is to visit one or two more Texas universities this spring. We are also looking to add a couple college visits onto a trip we are taking to New York in June. I’m sure after a couple more visits we will have a better list of likes and dislikes to help guide the process.




Campus Visit Must Do’s

What should I make sure to do and see on a college visit aside from the tour? 

A college visit is the single best way for you to evaluate a potential college and determine if it could be a good fit for you.  I know a lot of families that are adding a quick college visit into their summer travel plans this year.  Where do you begin?  What should you do?  Are there any must-see places?

Begin by scheduling your visit through the admissions office. Most colleges will allow you to schedule online. Often you will be given the opportunity to attend an information session, possibly presentations by particular departments or schools, and a campus tour.

Don’t try to skip the official visit and substitute a do-it-yourself tour instead.  Some colleges track “demonstrated interest” and may consider the fact that you’ve visited campus when making admissions decisions.  Additionally, the information presented in the session will help you decide whether admission and scholarships are likely, possible, or a reach at this school.

What you are able to see on the day of the tour will depend on your schedule.  Here are some of the things I do every time I visit a campus:

  • Ask questions.  Ask your tour guides and take time to talk to people you meet – students, professors, and staff.  What do they like about the school?  What would they change?  Every school has flaws— knowing them ahead of time helps.
  • Take time to see parts of campus not shown on the tour.  Does it fit in with what you were shown?  How long will it take you to travel from one end of campus to the other?  Where are the freshman dorms located?
  • Pick up a copy of the student newspaper.  Find out what issues have students talking.  Typical student papers feature complaints.  Do you see standard complaints about tuition rates and campus politics or are there bigger problems?
  • Eat in the student cafeteria.  Ask the admissions office to let you eat in the regular cafeteria, not the fancy food court they show you on the tour.  Try to experience campus as you would as a freshman.
  • Visit the surrounding area.  You may find a beautiful campus situated in a bad neighborhood.  Are there places to eat?  Could you walk there safely at night?  Is crime a problem?

If you are serious about a particular college or university, you may want to make a more comprehensive visit.  These take a little more planning, but are worth it as you try to decide which school is right for you.  On a more in-depth visit you may:

  • Meet with a professor in your department.  The admissions office can help schedule this.  Find out what undergraduates in the program experience.  If possible, talk to current students and ask what they like and dislike about the department.  Do their classes and requirements meet your goals?
  • Stay overnight.  Some schools offer weekends for admitted students in the spring and sometimes the admissions office can help you coordinate a visit on your own.  You can stay in the dorms, eat in the cafeteria, visit classes, and get a better feel in 24-36 hours than you would with a traditional visit.
  • Interview or schedule time to speak to an admissions officer.  Some colleges include interviews as part of the admissions process.  If you interview on campus, you often meet with someone involved in making final decisions.  Even if you don’t have an official interview, take time to meet with an admissions officer.  Get your questions answered and show them you are serious about the school for the right reasons.
  • Visit the financial aid office.  Usually this is a top concern for mom and dad.  Find out more about aid packages at this school.  Will your outside scholarships be applied to “your” contribution first or will they reduce the amount of aid the school offers?
  •  Explore sports teams or activities where you will spend considerable time.  If you are accepting an athletic scholarship, make sure you like your future teammates and the overall feel of the program.  If you intend to spend a considerable amount of time with any activity, you need to do the same.  Check out the program, talk to involved students, ask a lot of questions, and view it with a critical eye.  Is this the place for you?

Campus visits are your chance to test drive colleges.  Take time, ask questions, and try to get an overall feel for each school.