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.

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.


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.