College visits give students and their family a sense of the campus and its offerings. Although students might not be able to get a true feel for whether the college is a good fit until they’re actually a student there, visiting a college is nonetheless a good opportunity to learn more about the college. Keep in mind that what you see will likely be a particularly positive version of the college, since the people involved with college visits generally are supporters of the college and are happy there.

Tips for making the most of college visits
1. Visit during the semester

Although the summer might be the most convenient time for parents to take their student on a visit, college campuses during the summer are different from during the academic year. Fewer undergrads are around, and many colleges rent out their space to external groups for summer programs and conferences. Therefore, what you see in the summer will be the least representative of the campus.

If possible, aim for college visits during the semester. Remember, most colleges have Spring and Winter break (and some also Fall break), so avoid those dates.

Your College Advisors Guide to A is for Admission

Families from a warm place, like California, who want to check out a college in, for example, Ithaca, NY, should consider visiting in the winter. A winter visit will give the student a more accurate view of the campus, since winter lasts for several months in places like Ithaca.

2. Speak with a financial aid officer

Plan ahead and make an appointment with a financial aid officer at the college.

The financial aid office at the University of Pennsylvania (a medium-sized institution), for example, is not easy to reach via phone because it receives a high volume of phone calls. The people who answer the phone appear to be customer service representatives, rather than financial aid officers, and therefore, their knowledge of financial aid is not extensive. Though you can ask to be transferred to a financial aid officer, you may need to wait for a while.  Take advantage of college visits by talking to a financial aid officer in person, especially if the student is applying to a medium-sized or large university.

Parents should write a list of questions in advance and be ready to discuss their financial situation. The more information that parents provide, the more precise of an answer the financial officer can provide.

Complete the college’s net price calculator in advance, and bring a printout of the results.  Be particularly ready to ask questions about merit aid, since that information is often unclear on college websites.

3. Attend the admissions information session

Many colleges hold official admissions information sessions. Check the admissions office website or call them to see the schedule and sign up.

4. Meet with an admissions officer

Admissions officers are generally available to meet parents and students if they schedule an appointment in advance. Check the college’s website for how to make an appointment. Come prepared with a list of questions to ask.

5. Be a guest in a class

Many colleges offer students the opportunity to sit in on a class. Doing so is a great way to get a sense of the college’s teaching approach. Call the admissions office to ask about this opportunity. Note that it’s less common for parents to sit in on a class.

6. Stay overnight

Some campuses offer prospective applicants the opportunity to shadow a current student and to sleepover in their dorm. The visiting student may be asked to bring a sleeping bag and sleep on the floor. Parents can book accommodations near campus.

For both parents and students, staying overnight can provide a sense of the campus life. Walking through the University of Pennsylvania campus at night, for example, I often see a group of students dressed up waiting for a ride share (likely to go downtown) or another group walking to a frat party (music is pumping and disco lights are coming from a frat house). I also see students that seem to be coming from a student organization event, carrying leftover food. Yet other students are studying in the main library, which has a section that’s open 24 hours a day.

Final Thoughts

These tips will help parents and students gather information about a college that they’re interested in. In addition to college visits, parents and students will want to do research in other ways (for example, by talking to recent alumni) to gather a variety of information. When parents and students empower themselves with knowledge, they’ll be able to make well informed decisions. Happy researching!

(Photo: University of Minnesota Duluth)