My very first job in admissions was while I was still an undergraduate myself as a tour guide.  Very early on they indoctrinated us with some tricks of the trade.  It’s a dining hall, not a cafeteria.  A residence hall, not a dorm.  If you have to divulge some negative bit of information, sandwich it between two positives.  There were instructions for glossing over the party scene and reassuring nervous moms about campus safety.  Although I already loved my school they did their best to ensure that visiting families would have an entirely positive visit to campus.

With all of this shiny polish applied to the tours how can you get an honest experience?  Perhaps equally importantly, how can you use the visit most to your advantage?  After a few campus visits many families learn the tough questions to ask and become discerning shoppers.  There’s no need to waste the first couple visits feeling overwhelmed. A little bit of prep work and you’ll be touring like a pro!

There are positives and negatives to signing up for a regular tour versus attending an open house.  An open house is a larger event (think big crowds) but you’ll be able to accomplish a ton in one day.  Often there are breakout sessions by college or major and an activities fair with coaches and student deans in attendance.  During a tour you’re only getting a quick overview of campus but you will be able to get some more one-on-one attention.  Regardless of which you choose the important thing is to sign up!  You want to get “credit” for your time on campus, so be sure your name and information make it to a sign-up sheet somewhere!

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Campus visits are a good topic for this time of year because many families begin college visits during summer vacation.  Unfortunately, right off the bat this puts you at a disadvantage.  Schools are empty in the summer, depriving you of the opportunity to really experience the campus community.  If you are able to tour schools while they’re in session, don’t only pay attention to the tour guides but keep your eyes open for the students and community members around you.  Ask yourself if this looks like a community you could see yourself joining.  If you visit on a weekend, has it cleared out or are there plenty of students around?  Check the bulletin boards in every building you walk through.  What kind of events are coming up?  Do they look like activities that would be interesting to you?  Maybe try to corner a student walking through the halls and ask them a few questions.  You’re more likely to get the real deal from a regular civilian.

The one plus of visiting in the summer is that you’ll be able to witness all the improvements being made to campus for the year ahead.  Does it seem like the school has money to invest in infrastructure?  What’s new and exciting for the fall?

Regardless of the season, you’ll want to prepare for the visit like you’re attempting some high adventure trek.  While you should be presentable, wear clothes that are comfortable.  Layer if it’s going to be cold.  Be sure to dress lightly if it’s not.  You’re going to be walking outside for at least an hour so comfortable shoes are a must.  And pack light!  Bring a pen and some paper for notes and not much else.  You’ll be given plenty of snacks and water and TONS of papers and pamphlets, so an empty backpack or tote bag is not a bad idea.  Hitting the bookstore can be a fun activity but hold off until after your tour.  I’ve seen so many families struggling through campus with copious bags and folders in their arms they’re simply unable to focus on the tour!

The first thing you’ll do when you arrive will most likely be an information session.  An admissions counselor or visitor center staff will give you a relatively brief overview of the school as a whole and their admissions process.  Feel free to take some notes but be warned, this will go pretty quickly.  Instead of trying to write down everything you might be better off just listening and seeing what your gut tells you.  Are you starting to feel excited during the talk?  Overwhelmed? Disappointed?  There will also be a short Q&A at the end so feel free to ask a question you think the room could benefit from but save individual questions for another time.  

After the information session tour groups are divided up and sent out.  Your tour guide will introduce themselves and, if they’re coordinated enough, start walking backwards as you follow them down the sidewalk.  As with the info session, you can take a few notes and some pictures but allow yourself some time to imagine yourself on campus.  Could you see yourself living there?  Walking around or finding a shuttle?  Taking classes in the classrooms?

Once the group is returned to the starting point take a moment to ask someone who your admissions counselor will be (it’s usually based on your geographic location) and if you can speak with them.  If so, shake their hand, tell them what you enjoyed about the tour, and ask if they’ll be visiting your area anytime soon.  A thank you email after this exchange is a great idea.  If they’re not there, ask for a business card and send this in an email when you get home.  The point is to start making that personal connection with the person who will at some point evaluate your application.

The most important piece of advice I can offer is simply to visit.  So many students wait until after they’re accepted to schools to visit and see which they like best, only to find out they don’t particularly like any of them.  Visiting colleges early is essential to finding a fit and is absolutely worth the time investment.  I wish you all the best on your touring adventures!