How to get the most out of college visits

University of Michigan junior Jillian Jackson leads a tour of prospective students and their parents outside of the Michigan Union. Melanie Maxwell |



By: Casey Near, Collegewise


Most students approach college visits and planning in a fairly rinse-and-repeat model: check in at the admissions office, go on a tour, sit in on the info session, leave with a handful (or carful) of college swag. But what if, after all that, you don’t leave with much else?

Here’s the dilemma: some students get all they need out of a tour. Some of us were former campus tour guides, and we’d love to think we were the one-stop-shop for all college questions. But as counselors, we know that all students are different. And what they need out of a visit is equally different.So, how can we apply that logic to the college visit?

First, think long and hard about what you’re grappling with in your college search. Maybe you’re unsure about the size of some of the bigger schools, or you’re not sure if you’ll fit into the social scene of a rah-rah sports school. How can you make the most of your visit to answer those questions?

Here’s a list of some non-traditional ways to approach a visit—to truly fit the visit to you, not the other way around.

  • Ask to sit in on a class. Most admissions offices will have a list of classes open to visitors…see if there’s one that aligns with your interests. This is especially helpful if you’re wary (or unsure about) bigger classes, and it gives you a glimpse of what it’s really like to be a student there.
  • Eat a meal in the dining hall. Other than testing out the quality of the food (and getting infinite waffles), this is a great one to do solo. As weird as it sounds, just observe people around you. Are they studying, goofing around, or heatedly discussing string theory? You can tell a lot about students on campus by the social scene at lunch time.
  • Go to the big game. If you’re around on a weekend, bring the family to a big event on campus: the football game, acapella concert, or political rally. It’ll give you a feel for what’s popular on campus. (Make sure to wear the right school colors to fit in!)
  • Whatever you do on campus, do make sure to check into the admissions office so they can note that you visited. But beyond that, start to think outside the box about how best to spend your time on your visit—be it in the football stands, in line for the waffle maker, or listening to a tried-and-true tour guide.

One of the ways to get the most out of your limited time on a college visit is to ask meaningful questions. The two most common on-campus experiences for prospective students (the college tour and the information session) can often be missed opportunities to get a real feel for what type of student thrives on that campus if a prospective student doesn’t know what questions to ask.

The questions below can help you learn what you could truly only learn in person, on a campus visit. And when we talk about “better questions,” we’re not talking about questions that will somehow magically get you into your dream school. No one got into MIT because they asked a great question on their tour. These are just good ways to be a more astute college observer and get a better sense of fit. (Plus, the answers can help you to eventually narrow your list and write your supplemental essays).

  • What type of applicant do you get excited about? This is a great question for an information session and/or to an admissions counselor. It gets to the heart of the process—the human part of it all. What students catch their eye? Now, this isn’t meant to be asked to unlock some sort of secret formula to get into the school of your dreams. Think of it as a litmus test. When they list those qualities, do they sound like you or the people you tend to like? If they don’t, perhaps it’s a sign that this college isn’t a fit. And if they do, jot those qualities down. It’s a reminder of what you’re looking for.
  • What are the latest most popular or exciting events on campus? This question gives you a pulse of the campus as it is right now, and it’s a good one for tour guides and admissions officers alike. Maybe it’s a protest about a political issue, a big rival basketball game, or a dance marathon. Whatever it is, it’ll give you a sense of what people do for fun, what people care about, and what gets attention. And if it’s a food-based event, remember that free food is pretty universally popular at colleges, so I’d ask for the next most popular event.
  • What qualities would you say your peers here have in common? If I’d been asked this question as a tour guide, I could have waxed poetic about my peers–social-justice-oriented, deep-thinking, creative, empathetic, and bold. (If it isn’t obvious, I went to a women’s college.) And my guess is the words that any tour guide would use to describe their peers may not appear on the website. But they’d capture the essence of the student body. All too often, we tend to assume that the tour guide is an exemplar of all the people at a college. Sure, they were selected to represent the school, but they don’t represent everyone. Get them to open up about the student body as a whole, not just themselves. What do they notice as a common denominator?

Taken together, these answers paint a picture of the type of student that the college looks for and the type of student that thrives there. And, with those answers, you can decide if you fit what they’re looking for. If you don’t, don’t try to reverse-engineer yourself to fit that mold. But if it sounds like you’d fit, you’ll walk away with a stronger, more specific vocabulary to describe what you want in your college applications and throughout the college admissions process.