Strategies for Your First 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 tour, campus tour tips, college visit

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