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.

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.