Myth #1: Visiting colleges is a waste of time and money. I can learn everything I need to know on the Internet and from books and guides. Looking at the buildings will not help me decide if a college is right for me.
Visiting campuses is an essential part of the college selection process. You will spend several years of your life as a student at the college you ultimately choose. It will be your home and choosing a home “sight unseen” is not wise. There is no substitute for walking a campus and interacting with students and professors.
There are over 4,000 colleges in the United States and they are NOT interchangeable. They differ in terms of size, culture, location, the interests of the student body, the strengths and interests of the professors and how much freedom you have in choosing your courses. You can choose from women’s colleges, historically black colleges, colleges that are a part of a consortium, urban colleges, rural colleges, colleges with a graduate school and those without. Colleges and universities also feel different from one another. Southern colleges feel different from those in New England. A student body of 300 feels different than one of 50,000. Liberal arts colleges feel different from large universities. The point is that colleges in the United States differ wildly from one another and you will likely have preferences. You might think you know what type of college you would like best, but if you do not have experience with the opposite, how can you be 100% sure? The answer is by visiting and experiencing the campus firsthand.
Myth #2: It makes the most sense to visit colleges after I am admitted so that I only visit colleges that truly are possibilities for me.
Visiting a college before you apply can increase your chances of being admitted. Admissions officers prefer to admit students who are likely to attend their college. Admissions officers rightly assume that students who visit a college before applying have a real interest in the school and are more likely to attend if admitted.
Colleges weight admission to students who they trust will choose to attend because they are concerned about their standing in the college rankings in US News and World Report and other publications. The fewer students a college accepts, the more selective it appears in the rankings. But, colleges must admit more students than they have space for in the freshmen class because they know that some of those students will choose to attend college elsewhere. In order to admit the least number of students to fill the freshmen class, colleges look specifically for “demonstrated interest” when choosing between equally qualified applicants. A college visit is a key indicator of demonstrated interest.
Note that if you absolutely cannot visit, there are other ways to demonstrate interest: talk to admissions counselors at college fairs, meet with college representatives when they visit your high school, call and ask questions, open emails from colleges and follow colleges on social media. Colleges are tracking this data. Make sure you hit as many of the demonstrated interest data points as possible.
Myth #3 The tour guide is not a trustworthy source of information because she/he is just “selling” the school.
I’ve been on approximately 200 college tours and my experience is that most tour guides’ enthusiasm is genuine and not a canned sales pitch. It is true that dissatisfied students do not apply to be tour guides, so you should of course expect a positive presentation of the college, but that does not mean that the information will be inaccurate. You can expect that your tour guide will share facts with you about the college that you will not find on the college’s website or other materials. Yes, they will point out buildings and quote some statistics, but they will do this from a student’s perspective. You will learn how the students interact with the campus and how they view those statistics to be relevant to student life. Importantly, the tour is interactive. The questions and responses of the parents and students on the tour will impact the information you receive. I always ask my tour guide this question: What would you change about this school if you could? I am often given an honest answer and sincere criticism of the college.
That said, it is also good practice to talk to students on campus that are NOT your tour guide to gather other perspectives. I recommend eating in the dining hall and trying to strike up a conversation. You can augment your on-campus experience by using social media to meet current students and ask them questions about the college. Many colleges also offer overnight visits to prospective students. An overnight experience puts applicants in touch with many students at the college and gives prospective students a chance to spend a meaningful amount of time on campus with actual students and in the dorms away from formalized tours and presentations.
A Final Thought.
College tours are a key element of your college search. By starting your college search early (sophomore year is ideal), you will have plenty of time to identify the colleges you want to visit and schedule visits at times that are convenient for you. Students who have done their research, including college visits, are typically more confident applicants who are excited about the colleges on their list as well as the next steps after high school.
Michelle McAnaney is the founder of The College Spy, a full service independent educational consulting firm that assists students and families across the US and internationally with the college selection and application process. Prior to founding The College Spy, Michelle was a guidance counselor and educator for more than 15 years, including serving as the Director of Guidance at two high schools, an adjunct college professor and a GED tutor. Michelle holds a master’s degree in school counseling and a bachelor’s degree in human development. She recently completed UC Irvine’s certificate program in educational consulting and is a MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) Certified Practitioner and a NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Master Practitioner. Michelle visits over 40 colleges each year so that she has first-hand knowledge of the colleges and universities her clients will be considering. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.