Making the Most of a College Tour

Gather as much information as possible while on campus

Can you imagine buying a home or a used car after just seeing a photo in a newspaper ad or on the Internet? Most of us hesitate to make a major purchase or decision without some investigation.

One of the first major decisions for a young person is selecting a college, and it shouldn’t be made solely on information such as the school’s reputation, a guidebook, or a website. In order to find out what a college is really like, students should take a personal tour of the campus.

A campus visit can be exciting and informative, but not all teenagers will want to share the experience with their parents. My son insisted he visit colleges on his own, saying it was his decision, not ours. My daughter, on the other hand, permitted me to tag along on half of her campus visits.

Whether they’re heading out on their own or with you, here are some helpful tips to get the most out of the visit:

Call ahead. Most colleges and universities prefer about two weeks notice to set up a tour. Set up a meeting with an admissions counselor, with a professor or advisor in the major the student plans to study, and if possible, meet with a student from your hometown or with the same major.

Visit while classes are in session. Observe how the faculty and students interact. Are the teachers engaging and interested in the students? Are students satisfied with the classes?

Give yourself enough time and take notes. One or two campuses a day is enough. It’s also a great idea for students to carry a note pad to write down comments, observations, and questions to help them make a decision later.

Visit important places on campus. Tour a couple of dorms. Eat lunch in a dining hall. Get a true feeling of how students live. A young woman I know was having a hard time convincing her parents that a university three states away was right for her. But one visit to the hands-on journalism school, a talk with the advisor, and a journalism student from her home state convinced everyone that she had found the right school—even though it meant a more expensive plane ticket home.

Find out what services are offered to students. More than a third of the students who took the ACT in 2006 said they needed help deciding their educational and occupational plans. Ask what kind of advising or career counseling services the college offers. Many also said they need help with study skills. Does the college offer tutoring or courses to help with this?

Talk to everyone you meet on campus. Stop and talk to as many students as you can. If you go along on the tour, encourage your teenager to walk around on his own a little and ask questions he really wants answered without a parent around. Most college students will be more than willing to tell a prospective student why they love (or hate) their alma mater.

Of course, not every family has the time or money to visit distant colleges. To help students narrow down their choices, there are things students can do from home to get an in-depth look at a campus.

Take a “Virtual Tour.” Many colleges and universities now offer “virtual tours” on their Web sites, including pictures and sometimes video. Remember that the admissions offices design the tours, so they won’t always show you a complete picture.

E-mail a student or faculty member. Most admissions counselors would be happy to put prospective students in touch with a faculty member or students in their major. Don’t stop there. To get a true picture, contact someone independent of the admissions office. Look for names in an online version of the campus newspaper, or check out the Web pages of student clubs or groups.

The purchase of a car—even some homes—can pale in comparison to the expense of a college education. If you can spend the time and money to do so, a good way to avoid “buyer’s remorse” is to visit the lot and take the school for a spin before signing on the dotted line.


This article was written by Rose Rennekamp

Rose Rennekamp is the chairman of the board for the Iowa College Access Network and the former vice president of communications for ACT. She is a mom and has a Master of Education in guidance and counseling.

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