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.



What to Bring on a College Campus Visit

Summer is the prefect time to schedule some college visits.  Whether your student is just starting high school or trying to finalize a college list before senior year, campus visits are the best way to learn about schools and determine which ones are a good fit.

Webster UniversityIf you have an extra couple hours, you can add a college visit to your summer travel plans.  You can schedule a visit through the college’s admissions office.  Most schools allow you to do this through their websites.  There are a few things you should bring to make the most of any college visit.


Before the final college decision is made, you are likely to visit a few campuses.  They can start to blur together in your mind.  “Is that the one that had the…”  Taking pictures can help you remember details and distinguish one campus from the next.  Sometimes I bring my digital camera on visits, but other times I just use my cell phone camera.

College Visit Tip:  Make your first photo of a school something with the college’s name: a campus map, sign, or just the front of the brochure you were given in the admissions office.  This is particularly helpful if you are visiting multiple schools on one trip.

Campus Visit Checklist

Before you leave home make a list of the “must see” parts of the campus.  Potential athletes may want to visit the practice facilities or the weight room.  Film majors may want to visit the film school or campus cinema.  Often the admissions office can arrange for you to visit classes while in session or meet with professors in a particular department.  Students interested in campus athletics should consult the NCAA “Guide for the College-Bound Student-Athlete” to determine what type of visits or contact with coaches is permitted.

I have some standard places on my college visit list for families:  admissions office, financial aid office, student center, place of worship (if important to your family), and surrounding neighborhood.


If you have specific questions, write them down and bring them.  Make sure your questions are answered before you leave.  Just as you should take pictures to help remember, you should take notes to help remember key points too.  Within two days of your visit, make notes of likes and dislikes.  Save these notes for later.  Sometimes students forget what they liked or disliked about a school, so these notes may come in handy.

Documents (for serious visits only)

Rising juniors and current seniors may want to bring copies of resumes, test scores, and transcripts to a campus visit.  Some colleges host special visit days where they will make admissions decisions on the spot for students who come prepared.  Even if a school won’t evaluate a student for admission during your visit, it can pay to bring these documents.  Students who have scheduled an interview on campus definitely need a resume, but may find questions come up where it would be convenient for the admissions representative to look at a transcript or score report.  On some visits you may never take these documents out of your bag, but for the one or two colleges when you do, you will be thankful you brought them.

Campus visits don’t need to be intimidating.  I see many families with freshman and sophomores when I visit schools.  You can make the most of your visit at any age by preparing in advance and taking time to document your experience.

College Visit: Messiah College


On my tour of Pennsylvania liberal arts colleges last week, Messiah College was our last stop.  It is a Christian college located in central Pennsylvania about 10 minutes from Harrisburg and two hours OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfrom Washington DC or Philadelphia.  The campus sits on a hill and the Yellow Breeches Creek flows along one side, providing a very scenic location for a covered bridge and, according to one admissions counselor, great fishing.

A Christian Campus:

Of all the liberal arts colleges I visited on this trip, Messiah may be more limited in appeal because it is so strongly tied to Christian ideals. Messiah is home to 2800 students from a variety of Christian faiths.  Many students come from non-denominational Christian backgrounds, but all students share the belief that we are all created for service.  The school’s mission statement guides most of their practices:

Messiah College Chapel

Messiah College Chapel

“Our mission is to educate men and women toward maturity of intellect, character, and Christian faith in preparation for lives of service, leadership, and reconciliation in church and society.”

I’ve visited many colleges with religious affiliations, but sometimes the association is in name only.  Messiah is NOT one of these schools.  Messiah is not affiliated with one denomination, but the tone of the campus is overwhelmingly Christian.  While I believe students of other backgrounds would be respected and welcomed at Messiah, I don’t think they would feel very comfortable.

In accordance with its strongly Christian mission, Messiah structures the campus to reflect these values:

  • Professors and staff sign a statement of faith affirming commitment to the mission of the college.
  • Students are required to attend weekly chapel.  Chapel combines varying worship styles with guest speakers on an array of topics.
  • Students are encouraged to keep their minds and bodies pure.  Messiah is an alcohol-free campus and students are strongly encouraged to abstain from sexual activity.

Messiah students like the campus environment and many said they have learned as much about themselves and their own faith as they have about their particular fields of study.


Campus Recognition:

Yes, Messiah College is more of a regional school, but it is well recognized as a regional liberal arts college.  Here are some facts you may not know:

  • Messiah is ranked as #4 in U. S. News for Best Regional College in the northeast.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  • According to the Institute of International Education, Messiah ranks 14th in the nation among undergraduate institutions that send students to study abroad.
  • Messiah students volunteer more than 124,000 hours to community service each year.
  • Men’s and women’s soccer won the NCAA Division III championships in 2005, 2008, and 2009.
  • Messiah is recognized as an active campus offering an excellent education for Christian Colleges of Distinction.
  • Messiah is ranked in the top 100 for best undergraduate engineering programs by U. S. News. (A new major in civil engineering will be offered fall 2013.)

Messiah Highlights:

Messiah College Library

Messiah College Library

Clearly, Messiah appeals to students seeking a strong Christian environment, but there are other factors that make it an attractive school.  Like most small liberal arts schools, Messiah provides an atmosphere in which students are encouraged to work closely with professors.  Undergraduates who were good students in high school are pushed to be great students at Messiah.

Messiah is recognized for its study abroad and internship programs.  When students opt to study abroad, Messiah pays their airfare and most students can spend a semester or year abroad for no additional cost.

I was able to see the exterior of the new Center for Worship and Performing Arts.  It is impressive and will house programs such as a recording studio and a choir loft seating 160.  Messiah offers a new major in musical theater and all students are encouraged to participate in theater performances or any of the choirs (including a gospel choir.)


The campus is home to the Oakes Museum of Natural History that provides students and members of the community with learning opportunities.  Messiah students in the education department help work with visiting students from area schools to develop curriculum related to a museum visit and students in the natural sciences can learn more with hands on opportunities to study the exhibits.

Oaks Museum of Natural History

Oaks Museum of Natural History


  • 74% of students graduate in 4 years.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  • 39% of students are male; 61% female.
  • 87% of students live on campus.
  • Average test scores are 1135 SAT and 25 ACT.
  • 86% of students return to Messiah for their sophomore year.  (This is a good rate of retention.  Compare it with other schools on your list.)
  • 41% of students are from out-of-state—primarily from Maryland, New Jersey, and New York.
  • 13% of students are either non-white or international.
  • 75% of admitted students were in the top 30% of their high school class.
  • Admission is rolling, but students should apply by Jan 15 to be considered for scholarships or the honors program.
  • 64% of students who applied were admitted.

Who Would Like Messiah College?:

Messiah is a beautiful and unapologetically Christian campus.  I would recommend it for the student seeking a Christian environment with recognized academic programs. Student looking for a school specific to their denomination (Catholic school, Baptist school, etc.) may not fit here.  For students who live in or around Pennsylvania, I think it is a great option.  Students from other parts of the country may want to consider Messiah if it fits their other college search criteria.



Campus Tour Tips: What I Do on College Visits

Megan Dorsey at Duke (2010)

Megan, what do you do when you go on a college visit?

Before I visit, I go online and schedule my trip through the admissions office and spend some time learning about the school.  I like to have a picture of the university in my mind, so I know what to expect:  size, location (urban, suburban, rural), top programs, unique features, cost, type of students, and overall feel.

On the day of my visit, I try to arrive early and drive around.  This lets me see where I need to check-in and I can begin making a mental map of the campus.  At this time, I like to see the area surrounding the school.  There are some schools that are gorgeous, but if you venture two blocks from campus, the surrounding neighborhood is questionable.

I like to arrive ten minutes early for the information session, so I can begin looking over any materials and get ready to take notes.  I write a lot during the information sessions because I know I won’t remember the details if I wait until the end of the day.  Anything that seems to distinguish the university from other schools is worth jotting down.  I also like to record all admission statistics—scores, requirements, deadlines, etc.

Most information sessions end with the group moving to a student led tour.  If I get to choose my guide, I try to pick the student who is from my area, especially if I’ve traveled out of state for my visit.  On the tour, I usually put my notes away because I haven’t mastered writing while walking.  This is the time I like to take out my camera.

I take a lot of pictures wherever I go.  After a couple of college visits, universities begin to look the same.  Taking pictures helps me remember.  My first picture of every campus includes the name of the school, even if I have to snap a photo of a brochure or campus map.  This helps if I’m visiting a number of schools on one trip because I can easily tell where one series of pictures ends and the next begins.

While on the tour, I try to step back and let prospective students take a lead in asking questions. I still try to walk towards the front of the group to better hear all comments and because it lets me talk with the student guide as we walk.  This is my time to get a more candid view of the school.  I know that anyone giving the admissions tour is an enthusiastic proponent of the university, but I want to know more from a student’s perspective.

As we walk, I like to casually chat with the guide.  I have standard questions I ask on any tour:

  • How big was your largest class?  What was it?  How many large classes have you had?
  • What has been your smallest class?  How many students?
  • How hard is it to get the classes you want?  Do you have priority registration?
  • Where else did you apply?  (what other colleges?)
  • What made you decide to come here?
  • What would you change or improve about the school?  Why?  (and if they say the food, I laugh and say, “No, really, there have to be things you and other students would like to see done better,” and I repeat the question.)

As the tour concludes, I make sure I’ve had a chance to ask all my questions.  What I do next varies.  If I have an appointment to meet with an admissions officer, it is usually after the tour.  This is when you may have an interview or appointment with a particular department.  If I have any remaining questions, I ask before I leave the admissions office.

Be prepared to leave with your hands full.  Typically, I receive multiple brochures, a pen, and some type of school logo item.  Cynically, I will tell you this is where all your admissions money is going.  The admissions tour is comparable to a car showroom; they are there to impress you with their slick brochures, t-shirts, tote bags, water bottles, and rubber bracelets.  Personally, I like getting t-shirts and my neighbors can confirm that I often wear my college visit shirts when I go to the grocery store.

Some schools will provide dining credit to eat in the campus food court.  I advise my students to skip the food court and try to eat in the regular cafeteria.  Personally, I did my time eating standard cafeteria fare, so I visit the student center and grab something from the food court where I try to talk to at least a few more students.  If I haven’t picked up a copy of the campus paper, I make sure to find one, so I know what issues students are discussing.

A quick visit will take me two hours and a full visit with individual meetings can last four hours.  By the time I leave, I want a good feel for the school and the type of students who will be most successful in that environment.