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Are College Campus Virtual Tours Worth it?

Are College Campus Virtual Tours Worth it?

You’re crazy busy. You barely keep up with work, laundry, grocery shopping and caring for the kids. Sound familiar?

You simply don’t have time to go on college visits with your high schooler, and (admit it!) you’re a teensy bit excited that college campus virtual tours exist because you don’t have to climb in the car, book a hotel room, board the dog (or your other kids). You don’t have to ask your boss for time off.

But are virtual college tours the right way to go? Virtual college campus tours allow you to view a campus online and offer ways to approach the college search process differently. When you live in an age where technology can help you and your child explore potential college campuses, should you do it? 

The answer: Virtual school tours are worth it — when utilized correctly. Virtual tour college visits, also called virtual reality college campus tours or online college tours, can offer a first glimpse of campus. We’ll walk through what happens in a virtual campus tour, the role of college campus virtual tours, why you may want to consider one, limitations and more.

What is a Virtual College Tour?

A virtual campus tour is a digital representation of a college or university campus that allows you to explore the institution from the comfort of your own home (in your fuzzy slippers). 

This online experience allows you to view: 

  • Campus facilities
  • Key landmarks
  • Academic buildings
  • Recreational areas
  • Other important aspects of campus life

Virtual campus tours might involve several types of immersive and interactive exploration, such as 360-degree views of campus. Some colleges use virtual reality (VR) technology to offer an immersive experience, so tours feel lifelike and three-dimensional. VR technology might be compatible with virtual reality headsets, which add high-resolution visuals with audio elements and guided narration. Clickable hotspots and live chat engage users, offering personalized exploration. 

You may also hear narrated descriptions or read written narrations to provide context for the visit. For example, a student or an admission representative might narrate the virtual tour. 

They might also include:

  • Interactive maps: Digital maps can help you navigate the virtual tour and locate campus buildings, landmarks and facilities. You can click on map markers to access additional information about each location.
  • Informational hotspots: Informational hotspots refer to interactive elements within the tour to access detailed information about specific areas, programs or services a college offers. 
  • Embedded videos: Short videos showcase featured departments, classrooms, laboratories or extracurricular spaces to help bring life to the tour. 

A virtual college tour may be part of a larger virtual campus tour, offering more options. For example, the full campus visit may offer informational videos through prerecorded or real-time virtual events, live webinars and Q&A sessions to allow your student to ask questions and other resources. This post focuses on virtual college tours as a smaller portion of campus visits. (Trust me, Harvard’s virtual tour will blow you away.)

The Role of Virtual Tours

Ideally, virtual tours serve a role as an information collector. However, virtual tours can contribute to informed decision-making because they offer context and color about a college. Virtual visits can help your student decide where to apply. If they don’t like the looks of the campus on the virtual tour, they may have an easy application decision.

Always keep the role of virtual tours in the forefront of your mind — it shouldn’t replace a physical campus tour unless you can’t get around it. The role of a virtual tour includes: 

  • Visualization: Virtual tours offer a realistic visual representation of the environment, showcasing key features, facilities and surroundings.
  • Information dissemination: Virtual tours involve giving information: descriptions, facts and multimedia content.
  • Supplement physical visits: A virtual tour of colleges supplements traditional physical visits by providing a preview or follow-up experience to give you a peek into the window of the college or university.

Why Consider a Virtual College Tour?

You and your prospective student may want to consider virtual campus tours for various reasons: 

  • Geographical constraints: If you cannot physically travel to a college campus due to geographical distance, financial constraints or other logistical reasons, a virtual campus tour offers a convenient and accessible alternative. (Double emphasis on convenience!)
  • Time and cost savings: Virtual tours eliminate the need for travel expenses, hotel costs and the time it takes to visit multiple colleges. If you live in New York and your child is considering a college in California, for example, or overseas, a virtual college tour might offer a great alternative to an in-person visit. Few things in life are free, but free virtual college tours save you money.
  • Tool for narrowing down decisions: Virtual tours can be revisited multiple times, allowing you to review and compare different aspects of various campuses. This is especially helpful when making decisions or narrowing down your choices.
  • Supplement research: A virtual tour can complement other research methods, including brochures, information sessions and online forums. It provides a visual and interactive element to enhance your child’s view of an institution and might go beyond what you see in a brochure or website.
  • Flexibility: You can access a tour at any time, day or night, at your own pace — it’s a great option if you have to leave for a soccer tournament, have a birthday party to go to or another important event.
  • Pre-visit exploration: A virtual campus tour can offer an initial step in exploring a college. Before committing to an in-person visit, it allows your child to familiarize themselves with the campus layout, facilities and overall atmosphere.
  • Access to more areas: Some virtual tours give access to areas that may be restricted during in-person visits. For example, your child may get to see laboratories, research facilities, or other spaces your family may not see on tour.
  • No rain or snow: College virtual tours are always sunny! You don’t have to worry about rain, snow or hail; better yet, you don’t have to drive in bad weather conditions.
Why consider virtual tours? Here are the reasons.

Limitations of Virtual Campus Tours

As you likely know, you’ll encounter a few downsides of a virtual tour, and the most obvious is that you don’t have feet on campus to see everything with your own eyes. A few other potential drawbacks include the following:

  • Difficulties assessing campus culture: It’s difficult to assess the campus culture when you don’t “feel out” a campus yourself. Therefore, you won’t get a general sense of the values, traditions, behaviors and social norms that characterize the atmosphere and community life on a college or university campus. 
  • Fewer people to talk to: Virtual tours don’t allow you to talk to people because it’s all online. Therefore, you can’t grill the tour guide, talk with an admission counselor, a financial aid professional, coaches or other individuals. Your questions might not get answered.
  • Only shows the “good” side: Virtual tours only show the best a campus offers. (Do you think they’ll show you a dungeon-like residence hall?) No way! Keep an open mind because they’ll only show you the pristine parts of campus.
  • Tough to get perspective: You can’t see the giant ceilings in the chapel or hear the echoey reverb in a huge lecture hall. You also won’t feel the chill in the air or the leaves crunch underfoot.
  • Won’t see many students: Most virtual tours exclude crowds of students. Virtual tours clear everyone out, so the tour guide is center stage. Students won’t hurry to class or sit in the lounge areas.

Ideally, a virtual tour will show a real tour guide giving an actual campus tour. 

There are limitations of virtual tours, including the following listed.

How to Do Virtual Tours Well

How do you do virtual tours besides clicking on the “take a virtual tour for students” on the admission webpage? That’s exactly what your student can do, and they can navigate different parts of the campus by clicking different areas. 

Navigate through campus maps, view dorms, classrooms and facilities. Watch videos showcasing campus life and listen to student testimonials. Attend online information sessions and webinars — whatever piques your student’s interests.

Personalization and Customization in Virtual Tours

Did you know that colleges can work with you to customize and personalize virtual tours? You might have to go the extra step to ask for personalized tour guides and live interactions. College websites explain how you can take a virtual visit, but you might have to call and arrange other, more personalized engagements through Zoom, Google Meet or hop on the phone. Check out a list of other individuals you may want to consider meeting with.

Meet with Admission Counselors

For example, you may want to meet with an admission counselor on Zoom, who gives out trade secrets, the dirt — everything you want to know about a college. 

Your virtual tour may not coincide with a counselor talk. You and your child may take the virtual tour on Monday, then talk with an admission counselor on Thursday. Scheduling it later gives you a chance to think of great questions you have after watching the tour. 

You can find your child’s admission counselor online, under the admission tab on the college’s website. 

Meet with Financial Aid Professionals

Consider scheduling a visit with a financial aid professional as well. Don’t let a generic video from a virtual visit be your only guide to financial aid from a particular school. You and your child deserve better than that! 

If financial aid is part of a larger online visit, watch it. Then call the college or university to explore how the financial aid process works for your situation. You can get a lot accomplished during one financial aid phone call. You get to ask questions that pertain directly to your situation.

Talk with Current Students

As part of the virtual tour, many colleges include videos of students talking about themselves, their majors and extracurricular activities. Listen to these online videos. Then remember it’s all a marketing ploy. 

I know that’s a cynical attitude, but remember that colleges usually pick their most accomplished, affable students to video. This isn’t always a great representation of the student body. 

Do you know someone who already attends the college your child’s considering? Encourage your child to set up a coffee or Zoom meeting with the student. It’s the best way to get the most candid analysis — students will likely blurt out the pros and cons without prompting. 

Remind your child that information from one person is just that — one person’s experience. If your child can talk to more than one person at the college, that’s great! The more feedback from a large number of students your high schooler can get, the better.

Just because one student’s having an awesome or crummy experience doesn’t mean it’s the same for everyone else.

Find Other Ways to Learn More

You want to get as snoopy as possible when you’re looking at colleges, so here are some other ways to do it.

Follow Colleges’ Social Channels

Follow schools your child’s interested in on Instagram, X and YouTube to get brief updates on activities on campus. Try to find social channels not connected to the admission or marketing offices! 

Check out the College’s Online Events Calendar

Colleges often host various events, from musical artists and comedians to free movies and game nights. Seeing a calendar of events can give you a better understanding of the fun activities available to students. 

Research the Surrounding Town

Have you ever heard of a phenomenon called the “campus bubble?” I referred to it sometimes when talking to students. It’s when students become insulated from the town and never leave campus because everything they need is there. The town kind of vanishes and the campus becomes their town.

Still, your child might have to venture to Target every once in a while. So, what’s the town or city like? Do some online research and learn about the benefits outside The Bubble.

Tips for Maximizing the Virtual College Tour Experience

Here’s how to make the most of virtual tours:

  • Interact with as many people as possible. From tour guides to students, there are opportunities for interaction beyond college tours videos. Some virtual tours may offer that, and again, you may have to set those up independent of college or university virtual tours on a website.
  • Give feedback. For virtual tours colleges want to be able to offer the most comprehensive experience possible. Consider giving feedback on how colleges can refine virtual tours based on your experience.
  • Balance virtual and in-person college exploration. Combine virtual college visits with traditional in-person visits. A hybrid approach can provide a comprehensive understanding of a college. Experiencing campus life virtually and physically can give you “Aha” moments once you get on campus.

Also consider combining virtual college tours with informational interviews, online forums and other research methods. While not a full substitute for physical visits, virtual tours can play a pivotal role in providing semi-authentic glimpses into campus life for prospective students.

Yes — kick your feet up, coffee cup in hand, messy bun proudly displayed while you take a campus tour. “Ooo” and “Ahh” over beautiful residence halls, cool science labs and more. 

Just remember, nothing replaces a true college tour. If your child thinks he can choose a college based on virtual college tours, remind him that: 

  • People make a great college experience, not beautiful buildings.
  • Campuses show all their best stuff in a video. The junior/senior apartments might be beautiful (they’ll show these on video) but the freshman residence hall could be a pit. 
  • Talking to as many people as possible is important — get comfy with Zoom!

Don’t forget to visit in person for the full immersive experience. 

The Ultimate Guide to College Visits: What You Need to Know

The Ultimate Guide to College Visits: What You Need to Know

As a parent, college visits can seem like the most complex undertaking in your child’s high school experience to date. What schools should you visit? What questions should you ask? What do you make of all those dollar signs on the financial aid guide? (Oh yeah, that’s a biggie.)

College visits vary so much, and that’s the cool thing about each. You can get a real sense of what a particular college or university “feels like,” which is pretty intangible. Even so, it can make or break the college tour experience.

We’ll shed light on all this while focusing on effective planning, what to do on campus tours, the questions to ask, what school to tour next — everything. We’re going to go beyond the standard advice so you get the most comprehensive practical tips ever.  

Why Are College Visits Important? 

I spent 12 years working in college admission, and I can tell you the most important reason to visit colleges: It gives you and your child (both of you — that’s important!) a chance to understand the campus culture. Getting physically on campus allows you to immerse yourself in the community so you can: 

  • Learn about student life.
  • “Feel” the atmosphere.
  • Gain authentic insights into the community. 

Imagine visiting a college on a Friday and watching everyone pack up to go home for the weekend — that sure tells you a lot about a campus, huh? Or, what if you and your student notice a palpable energy on campus preceding the weekend? That can tell you so much about student priorities. 

Two totally different experiences can give you and your child an idea of what to expect, and the only way you can learn is to get your feet on campus. Even if you’ve gotten the glossy literature in the mail or noticed the gorgeous academic facilities online, it’s time to see if it all matches up. 

You might be tempted to do virtual college tours and check that college off the list, but resist that impulse. There’s nothing like getting boots on campus to really understand what a campus looks like and feels like, which your child can’t get from gluing themselves to a computer screen. 

Types of College Visits

Did you know that there are different types of college visits? 

  • Personal campus visits: Whether you visit a liberal arts college or a community college, personal campus visits offer the most individualized visit opportunity. Your student will most likely get to do everything they want to do while on campus because when you schedule it, you tailor it to your students’ interests.
  • Group campus visits: Group campus visits, just like they sound, offer an opportunity for students to visit campus and be part of a group. While they don’t offer the personalization that a personal campus visit does, you might be able to score a few separate individual appointments at the end of the day.
    • Academic visit days: If your child knows they want to major in a particular academic area, you can attend an academic visit day, giving your child general knowledge about academics. You’ll likely get to do a group tour.
    • Athletic visit days: Some colleges offer athlete preview days, where athletes converge on campus and visit with other prospective athletes and coaches.
    • Individual interest visit days: Music visit days, theater visit days, etc. — the list goes on. Colleges try to offer showcases of different programs to attract students to visit.
Image listing the different types of campus visits: group and individual visits

What Happens During College Visits?

Before you even set foot on campuses, you must schedule college visits — learn how to get an official visit to a college. I’ve detailed exactly how to do that in the linked post. There are two main ways to schedule visits — by calling the admission office or visiting the college online and clicking “schedule a visit” under the admission tab. There’s more to think about than simply filling out a form, so check out the post on how to plan college visits.

Once you schedule your college visit, the next logical steps include getting there, parking on campus, finding the admission office, and then getting your visit underway.

Getting There

First, you have to get to campus. Make your travel arrangements in advance so you can be sure everything aligns. Check with area hotels about discounts for students visiting — some will offer those. Getting to colleges might be as simple as driving two hours from home, while others require a flight and rental car.

Sometimes, colleges will offer vouchers to reimburse travel. For example, as an admission employee, I was authorized to reimburse a portion of a visitor’s travel expenses, such as a plane ticket or gas receipts. You may also qualify for a free college visit if you’re a low-income household. Ask the admission office for more information.

Parking on Campus

Your scheduling information should contain information about parking on campus. Whether you receive information via snail mail, text or email (or all of these!), it should give you explicit instructions about where to park. 

Colleges and universities notoriously have terrible, crowded parking, but the admission office should have spots ready for you. They might even put your name on a spot if they’re on their A-game! That was one of the most popular things our admission office did for families. Talk about rolling out the red carpet!

Learn more: Are College Tours Free? 

Where should you park on campus? Image of a parking lot

Finding the Admission Office

You should receive a map in your confirmation materials., which may come via email, snail mail, text message and more.

Once you find the admission office, you should see a reception area or desk. Have your student check in right away — they should be expecting you. They may ask if you want coffee or water and direct you to the restrooms. They may invite you to sit in the office to wait for your first appointment, especially if you arrive early. Check out the comfy couches and take a look around!

As the admission office is the college’s front door, this is a great time to start evaluating the college. Ask yourself:

  • Is the staff friendly and accommodating?
  • Did someone greet you right away?
  • If you had to wait, did other people greet you, stop, smile and sit down to chat?
  • Did you meet your child’s admission counselor right away? (Remember that they may be on the road and unable to meet with you.)
  • Did someone go over your child’s schedule with you immediately?

Sitting in the admission office can give you a sense of the place right off the bat — you’ve heard the expression that it’s hard to overcome a first impression and hold them to it.

Connecting with Admission Counselors or Representatives

Your child has an admission counselor at every single school. Here’s how it works: Admission offices divide the country into different areas, meaning that one counselor takes care of a territory. These professionals have “their” group of students that they usher through the admission process. 

Ensure that you meet with an admission or admissions counselor at a college or university, even if you don’t meet with your child’s admissions counselor. Though we do so much online these days, it’s important to maintain face-to-face communication with your child’s admission counselor. It can even alleviate your child’s nervousness to see a familiar face, particularly if your child has already met this individual, such as at a college fair or high school.

Try to meet with an admission counselor individually during your visit. When you meet with admission counselors, you’ll learn about the application process, scholarship opportunities and information about your child’s chosen program. Getting to know this person can set you apart from other candidates — face it, an edge means everything in this competitive admission process!

A quick note on meeting with admission counselors: No question is dumb, and encourage your student to have questions in mind. Students often clam up because they don’t know what to ask. Admissions counselors don’t know everything, but they should find it out for you — that’s their job. They’re like shepherds, rounding up your questions and delivering results.

Read more: 202 Powerful Questions to Ask on a College Tour 

Image of meeting admission counselors on campus

Going on a Campus Tour

Folks, this is the shining, blazing star of the college visit experience. You get to walk around and see the campus with your own eyes. Watching students on campus tours is fun because you can see them light up when they see particular parts of the campus that speak to them.

How long are college tours? Campus tours usually last one hour from start to finish but can last up to 90 minutes. You can’t choose your tour guide, which is too bad because a bad tour guide can seal the fate of the college. Try to talk them through that beforehand because they might not click with the tour guide.

You may not start your visit with a campus tour — it depends on your schedule or the visit day schedule.

The campus visit coordinator will organize tours differently on different campuses but should hit these areas.

Student Lounge Areas

Checking out student lounge areas can give you a great idea of how students interact socially. Do they sit around, chatting and drinking coffee? How do they decompress after a long day of studying? Is it vibrant and inviting?

Hopefully, you’ll see:

  • Comfortable seating options to provide a relaxed and informal atmosphere for students
  • Tables and workspaces to study and collaborate on group projects
  • Technology and equipment, such as TVs, gaming consoles and other entertainment
  • Residence hall social spaces might contain board games, pool tables and other recreational activities.
  • Bulletin boards or information centers where students can find announcements, event details and other important information
  • Designated quiet zones or study corners for students who prefer a quieter atmosphere for focused studying or reading.

Finally, hopefully, these areas are easily accessible. Student lounge areas are usually centrally located on campus so students can stop between classes. Student lounge areas vary considerably from school to school, so they’re one possibly overlooked area to check out on college campuses.

Cafeterias

Where do students eat? What’s the food like? Eating in the main dining area can give you and your student a good sense of how students utilize the cafeterias and, most importantly, how the food tastes. For some students, the cafeteria is one of the most important parts of the college experience — at least at first, on college visits. If the food isn’t good, don’t be surprised if your student writes off that college!

Image of a sushi bar; learning to check out cafeterias on campus is so important!

Cafeterias should be an open book, with diverse food options (particularly for specific dietary needs and healthy options), various meal plan options (which allow students to access the cafeteria for a certain number of meals per week), a range of food and specialty stations, social spaces, themed events, sustainability initiatives, late-night dining options and coffee shops or snack bars.

Residence Halls

Finding a campus with the right residence hall, or dorm, is tricky. The options available often depend on the size and resources of the colleges you visit. 

Traditional residence halls typically have multiple floors with rooms arranged in a hallway for communal living and communal bathrooms. You’ll often find common areas for socializing and studying. However, you can find residence halls peppered with dozens of different options. 

  • Suite-style halls: Community-style rooms connected by a shared common area and bathroom. 
  • Apartment-style halls: Individual apartments or suites with a kitchen, living area and private bathrooms, typically for upperclassmen.
  • Special-interest housing: Sometimes called themed housing, you might see special-interest housing favor honors students, language immersion living, or wellness communities. This might appeal to your student if they have specific interests.
  • First-year student halls: These cater to students to foster community and collaboration among students in their first year of college.
  • Family housing: If your student needs accommodations because they have a family of their own, family housing could be a good fit. Look into these units, which might consist of apartments or townhouses.

Other housing types might be available, even quiet or substance-free halls for students who prefer a more low-key living environment, or coed residence halls, which means that all genders coexist, likely with separate common areas. Your child can tap into so many different options — it’s amazing!

What residence halls, like in this image, speak to your child on college visits?

Athletic Facilities

Your tour may or may not go through sports complexes, gyms and stadiums to emphasize the importance of physical fitness and recreational activities. If your child is an athlete, meeting with a coach may be an important part of their college visit, so you may not need an in-depth tour of this space, because the coach will take care of that.

Administrative Buildings

A tour guide may walk you through offices for admissions, financial aid (to learn about the FAFSA) and other administrative services to help students understand the support available to them, including academic support services. 

You likely won’t spend much time in these areas because hitting the most relevant day-to-day spaces is important: academic buildings, residence halls, common areas and cafeterias. However, some campuses have unique or historic buildings that symbolize the institution.

Academic Buildings

Tour guides should show you several academic buildings, such as classrooms, laboratories, research centers and specialized facilities, to highlight the institution’s commitment to developing successful graduates.

They may also show you buildings that house computer labs, innovation centers, or technology-focused facilities to showcase a campus’s technological resources.

Academic facilities can give you a sense of what it’s like to attend classes at that college. If you can, consider setting aside some time to visit with a faculty member or sitting in on a class. Watching how the professors or teaching assistants interact with the students can give you a great idea of the experience you’ll get as a student.

Academic facilities may also be a huge part of the campus tour and college visit.

You can ask questions about the facilities, learn whether the technology is up to date, learn about the accessibility of faculty members, office hours, and any restrictions on faculty access or building access. You want your child’s best possible academic environment, and you can only find out by checking it out.

Some students think these are the most important buildings on a tour, and I half agree. You and your student must ensure you’re choosing the best educational atmosphere possible. However, remember that you can’t make friends with a building or spend time socializing with an academic program — remember the social aspect of campus life.

Evaluate the condition and accessibility of academic buildings. Are the facilities well-maintained, and do they meet your standards? Consider how easily you can navigate the campus and access the needed resources.

Visit specialized facilities related to your field of study, such as labs, studios or performance spaces. Pay attention to the condition of classrooms and lecture halls, noting factors like technology integration, seating arrangements and overall comfort.

Libraries

The campus tour should always feature at least one library. If it doesn’t, seriously question the integrity of the university. Even if your child doesn’t think they’ll use the library, they will! Look for shelves lined with a diverse tapestry of books and resources, the soft glow of study lamps and students huddling in cozy nooks or at communal tables, tapping away at laptops. 

The library should be calm, with a subtle rustle of turning pages and the faint hum of intellectual curiosity, creating a serene sanctuary for individual and collaborative learning.

Auditoriums and Performing Arts Spaces

Auditoriums and performing arts spaces may not appeal to all students (can you hear your student now?: “I’m not in the band or choir. Why do we have to look at this?”). Remember that all students will likely go to events on campus, and they may go here to watch.

The tour guide may also include beautiful spaces like parks, gardens, or other outdoor areas to show off the campus’s natural beauty and recreational spaces.

A few tips: 

  • Wear comfortable walking shoes! You will not want to wear high heels — you will walk on campus for an hour, sometimes over craggy sidewalks and up flights of stairs. Check your kids’ shoes, too.
  • Consider the weather. Bring a coat if it’s going to rain or be cold. Sometimes, students would show up in sweatshirts for their 20-degree-weather tour. Our campus visit coordinator often scrambled to find coats for these silly kids.
  • Check your physical fitness. Some family members struggle to keep up with the pace of a college kid on a tour. If you’re not sure you can make it, send your child on the tour on their own and view the campus on your own at a leisurely pace.
  • Walk near the front of the tour group. Campus tour groups may be huge, so park yourself near the front of the group so you can hear everything. The people in the back miss a lot.
  • Be prepared to stop a lot. Whether to ensure lagging people catch up or to stop to hear about a particular campus feature, you’re going to stop on the tour.
  • Don’t forget to go to the bathroom before your tour. Most student tour guides have a prescribed hour to fit in the whole tour, and making everyone else wait could mean the student might be late for class.
  • Ask questions. Everywhere you go!
  • Ask if you can go into buildings not on the tour. If you see a building and your tour guide does not plan to go in, ask if you can. They might say yes or suggest you swing back at the end of the tour or later during your visit.
  • Ask for a smaller tour group if yours is large: It’s worth trying to get a small tour if you can see a huge group of people forming to leave for a tour. Consider sidling up to the desk and asking discreetly for a smaller tour. It’s not always possible, but could be worth it to get a more personalized experience.

Experiencing the Academic Side

Besides touring academic buildings on campus, your student may also elect to meet with a professor. I highly recommend meeting with professors face-to-face to understand how professors work and interact with students. 

Are they serious? Jokey? Care about their students? Naturally, some of that varies from professor to professor, but should be ingrained in the college’s aims and goals. Ask about the accessibility of professors outside of class. Are they available for one-on-one meetings, and do they actively engage with students in academic and extracurricular settings? 

Understanding the level of interaction your child can have with faculty members is crucial for a well-rounded educational experience.

If meeting with a professor gives your kid the heebie-jeebies, sitting in on a class can help alleviate some of that pressure. Your child will get a feel for the class while you duck out and order your favorite coffee from the student cafe.

Your student will hopefully feel immediately at ease in that professor’s classroom. Some professors even involve the student in the lesson! Fun (and a little scary)!

If you visit during a group visit day, you may only be able to hear an academic presentation by a professor or admission counselor. If that’s the case, that will give you a great rundown of the academic major your child is interested in, and as an added benefit, you may also hear questions others ask about the program or major that you hadn’t thought to ask.

Meeting with Others on Campus

Finally, who else can you think of to meet while on campus? All of this will be prescheduled before you get to campus, but you may also consider meeting with:

  • Academic support individuals, particularly if your student has dyslexia or other learning differences.
  • Coaches, if your child knows they want to play a sport in college. 
  • Financial aid, particularly if you want to get an in-depth idea of what it will cost to attend the college or university.

Did you have a brainwave during your visit but didn’t make an appointment to meet with a particular group or individual on campus? Ask the admissions team or campus visit coordinator if you can squeeze it in later or make an appointment to talk with someone over the phone or Zoom in the coming weeks.

Other Factors to Consider During College Visits

There are a million other things to consider when you’re on campuses. However, we’ll bring a few to the forefront: student-to-faculty ratio, extracurricular activities, diversity and student support services. Let’s hatch these eggs.

Student-to-Faculty Ratio

Class size can significantly impact your learning experience. Smaller class sizes often allow for more personalized attention and meaningful interactions with professors. During your visit, inquire about the student-to-faculty ratio and how it might vary across different departments.

Extracurricular Opportunities

Beyond academics, a well-rounded college experience includes participation in extracurricular activities. Explore the clubs, sports teams and cultural organizations available on campus. Consider how these opportunities align with your child’s interests and passions.

Don't forget to ask about extracurricular activities like ski club, in this image.

If you’re lucky, maybe a club fair will be going on, or maybe your student can talk to someone about an organization. Inquire about the level of student involvement, leadership opportunities and the overall impact of extracurricular activities on the campus community. A vibrant extracurricular scene can enhance your child’s college experience and contribute to personal and professional growth.

Campus Diversity

Diversity enhances the learning environment by exposing students to a variety of perspectives. Take note of the student body’s demographic makeup and the college’s efforts to promote inclusivity. A diverse campus fosters a rich and dynamic community. 

Speak with students from various backgrounds to gain insights into their experiences on campus. Additionally, inquire about the support services for underrepresented groups and the overall campus climate regarding diversity and inclusion. Remember, diversity means many things, including where people are from and their interests.

Support Services

College life can be demanding. Ask about counseling services, academic support and career guidance. If resources like this are readily available, your student may feel more secure as they navigate the academic journey. Learn about mental health resources available on campus to ensure a well-rounded support system throughout your child’s college experience.

Career Services

Ask about internship and job placement and the percentages. Alarm bells should ring if you hear “30 percent of our students found jobs after graduation last year.” That’s low. Ask about time management and study skill seminars offered by academic support services. 

Making the Most of Your Campus Visits

Finally, let’s put the chocolate syrup on the ice cream on your campus tour. These tips will put the finishing touches on your visits.

Engage with Current Students

Current students are the MIPs — the most insightful people — during college visits. They can offer candid information about daily life on campus, the rigor of academic programs and the overall student experience. Don’t hesitate to discuss with students you encounter during your tour, and consider arranging meetings with student ambassadors or participating in campus events.

Prepare a list of questions to ask current students. Inquire about their favorite aspects of the college, any challenges they’ve faced and how supportive the campus community is. Ask about opportunities for involvement in clubs, sports or other extracurricular activities. Current students’ perspectives can provide a realistic and nuanced view of what being a part of the college community is like.

Explore Surrounding Areas

A college education extends beyond the campus boundaries. Take time to explore the surrounding areas to gauge the off-campus lifestyle. Consider factors such as housing options, local amenities and job opportunities for internships or part-time work. A college’s location can significantly influence your overall experience, so ensure it aligns with your preferences.

Beyond the immediate vicinity, consider the broader city or town. Is it a thriving urban center with diverse cultural offerings or a quieter town with a strong sense of community? Assess whether the surrounding area complements your lifestyle and preferences.

Document Your Impressions

With multiple college visits, details can start to blur. Create a system for documenting your impressions through a travel journal, photos, or a dedicated app. Include notes on the campus atmosphere, academic facilities and any standout features. Use our college visit checklist, the College Money Tips College Visit Spreadsheet, to document your impressions. You can copy and paste it onto your own Google spreadsheet. 

Organize your documentation by college, making it easy to compare your experiences. Include positive and negative observations and any feelings or intuitions you had during the visit. This documentation will be a valuable reference when making your final decision, helping you recall the nuances of each campus and how well they align with your expectations. Don’t forget to do this right away because it’s easy to forget the details once you do several college visits!

Does Visiting a College Help You Get In?

Do college visits help admissions? 

Visiting colleges doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get in. You still have to meet the entrance requirements for the college or university. Your admission counselor will go over the requirements when you meet with them. If you don’t think you’ll meet the requirements, ask the admission office about what you can do to boost your chances of getting in. It may involve taking the ACT or SAT again or auditioning for an oboe solo — ask the admission office.

Make Your College Visits Exceptional

In the intricate process of choosing the right college, official campus visits stand out as a pivotal step. By immersing yourself in the environment, engaging with current students and carefully considering various factors, you can make the right decisions that align with your academic and personal goals. College visits go beyond the brochures and websites. They let you envision your future on campus and find the perfect home.

Also, remember that the weather can influence your perception of a campus. A beautiful, sunny day might cast the campus in a positive light, while a rainy or overcast day could impact the visit. Consider visiting multiple times, if possible, to experience the campus in different seasons and weather conditions.

Finally, consider visiting colleges when schools are in session because you can view the college when students are on campus. Visiting college during spring break or fall break requires a specific approach, possibly visiting again when students are on campus.

Learn more: How to End the College Search

How to Schedule College Visits that Check All the Boxes

How to Schedule College Visits that Check All the Boxes

College visits can be so exciting! However, they’re also nerve-wracking for both you and your student because it’s such unfamiliar territory. You and your child may have dozens of different questions: 

  • “What do I wear on a college visit?” (Your kiddo can wear casual clothes, FYI — unless they are doing an interview or audition.)
  • “What questions do I ask?” 
  • “How do I schedule a college visit?” 
  • “How do college visits work?”

As a parent, you’ll have another set of questions: 

  • “When do I get to talk to the financial aid office?”
  • “How much will it cost to go to this school?”
  • “I can’t take time off work. Do colleges do tours on weekends?”

The best way to find out all the answers to your questions: Visiting colleges.

But before learning how to schedule college visits, it’s important to do some preplanning, particularly because you’ll have to crack open that daunting family calendar. 

Let’s take an in-depth look at how to schedule a campus visit.

How to Schedule College Visits: A Step-by-Step Guide

Let’s go over the steps for how to set up a college visit, beginning with thinking through your child’s interests. Then we’ll walk you through how to coordinate with admission offices at the school your child wants to visit.

Step 1: Determine which schools to visit.

The hardest part might seem like it should be the simplest. Which colleges should you visit? Ask your child a few questions:

  • What size college do you prefer? Do you think you’d like to go to a large state university or a smaller liberal arts college? Or a college that’s sized something in between? It’s a great idea to visit a small, medium and large institution so you get a feel for each option.
  • How far away do you feel comfortable attending college? That will peel back their options — or open them super wide!
  • Which schools do you want to apply to? Visit the colleges your student plans to apply to or has been granted admission to. (I know, it seems super obvious.)

So, finally, create a shortlist. Spend some time brainstorming with your student. It’s okay to put together a list of colleges and universities you’ve heard of, including adding colleges that you know Aunt Sarah has gone to, etc. Also consider location, size and available programs. Consider not getting too hung up on the program, however, because many students change their minds about their major while in college.

Step 2: Set a realistic timeline.

When should you tour colleges? As a senior, your child may want to visit prior to major application deadlines. For example, you may not want to visit October 31 if your child faces a November 1 deadline! Here’s a quick look at common application deadline dates:

  • Early Decision (ED): Deadlines for ED applications are usually November 1 or 15. You especially want to visit prior to these deadlines because ED is a binding commitment, meaning your child must withdraw their other college applications.
  • Early Action (EA): Deadlines for EA applications usually land in November, but some may extend into December as well. EA is non-binding, unlike ED, which means your child can apply to other colleges.
  • Regular Decision (RD): RD deadlines commonly land around January 1 or 15. You can apply to multiple colleges RD and decide on the national candidate reply date, May 1.
  • Rolling Admission: Rolling admission means universities and colleges review applications as they receive them and make decisions throughout the year. It offers the most flexibility when working around visit dates, but you still want to visit and apply early so your child can secure their spot in the class.

Then, there’s also your child’s year in school to consider. Freshmen and sophomores definitely have the most flexibility because you can visit any time, at any year. Juniors generally have the same option. But here’s a quick breakdown for you!

  • Junior year: Visit during school breaks, weekends or any time that fits your schedule.
  • Senior year: Schedule visits during the fall that your child hasn’t had a chance to visit, prior to the application deadline. 

Does this mean that your child can’t visit colleges after submitting applications, particularly after they have been accepted? Absolutely not — that’s what admitted student events are for. Repeat visits are also great for revisiting specific departments as well! For example, if you want to compare two biology departments more closely, you can definitely visit to compare them, apples-to-apples.

Step 4: Decide on a date and time.

Think about the right date and time for your visit, because that’s one of the first questions you’ll have to answer when you talk to an admission office or sign up for a visit online. Some colleges have very specific visit days outlined and others allow you to visit whenever you’d like, during regular business hours. Some colleges are also open on select Saturdays. 

Don’t forget to leave yourself plenty of time to do a visit. Allow yourself at least two hours to go on a tour and meet with an admission counselor, though you might even need four hours to do everything your child wants to do. 

Tip: Consider not touring two college visits in one day, even if they’re in the same town. It’s a lot for one day!

Step 5: Determine what you’d like to do on your child’s visit.

Talk to your child about what you want to do on a college visit ahead of time. The downside to this process: You may not even know your options when you set up a campus visit. Most colleges have a dizzying array of college visit options. For example, your child can: 

  • Attend an on-campus, personal visit
  • Opt for a large group visit day
  • Do a visit day specific to your child’s interests, like an admitted student visit day, engineering visit day or transfer visit day

Consider: Does your child want to blend into the crowd? Go for a large group visit day. Do you both prefer that your visit be a one-on-one experience? You both might want to do a personal campus visit. 

I really liked one-on-one personal campus visits because it’s all about your student — they can do exactly what they want on a visit, such as digging into a science lab or meeting with an engineering professor one-on-one. It’s pretty hard to do that on a personal campus visit.

Step 6: Contact the admission office.

There are two main ways to schedule a college visit: 

  1. The old fashioned way: Calling the admission office on the phone. All colleges have a campus visit coordinator who answers the phone and schedules your visit. Most of these individuals are super friendly and welcoming!
  2. The 21st century way: Signing up for a visit online. (Okay, that option existed in the 20th century, too.) Anyway, you can sign up for everything your child wants to do online. 

We’ll go through how each option works, step by step, below: 

Phoning the Admission Office

I often used to answer the phone in the admission office for the campus visit coordinator, so this is how it would sometimes sound:

Campus visit coordinator: “[Name of college] admission, this is Melissa. How can I help you?” 

You or your student (encourage your student to make the call! It’s a great step toward independence!): “Hello, we’d like to schedule a college visit.”

Campus visit coordinator: “Great! What is your student’s name and when would you like to visit?”

The campus visit coordinator will immediately ask you questions, such as your student’s name and hometown to locate them in their customer relationship management (CRM) system. Many colleges and universities use Slate. If your child is already in the CRM, it’s easy peasy. If you’re not in the system, expect more questions, such as: 

  • Name
  • Address
  • High school
  • Year in school
  • Phone number
  • Academic interests
  • Other questions to help them complete your profile in Slate
Slate is the name of the CRM that campus visit coordinators use to schedule college visits. Image of Slate on a computer.

Because you’ve talked about what you’d like to do while on campus, you have a launchpad to discuss all your options with the campus visit coordinator. Throw every interest your student has out there, no matter how wacky. They are there to help your student connect with specific interests, such as women’s bowling or the chess club.

Much like reviewing your order at a restaurant, the campus visit coordinator should walk you through your requests and then get to work putting together your visit. 

Registering for a Visit Online

Naturally, registering for a visit online is a markedly different experience because you’re not talking to a real person. I recommend calling because you can articulate any special nuances of your visit. For example, you can ask for a possible longer tour because you’re bringing Grandma and Grandpa along. Talking with them in person can allow you to ask specific questions about the campus visit schedule.

However, registering for a visit online is certainly an option. The process looks like this:

  1. Navigate to the website. Click on “Admissions” on the college’s website, ensuring you’re on the undergraduate admissions section of the website.
  2. Click “Visit.”
  3. Choose the type of visit you prefer. You may have an array of choices: personal campus visit (also called daily visit), weekend visit or group visit.
  4. Fill out the information prompt. The site will prompt you to fill in your name, address, high school, graduation year, academic interests, athletic interests, etc.
  5. Indicate specific requests. Does your child have very specific questions for a particular individual? You can choose meeting with a professor or coach, sitting in on a class, meeting with an admission counselor or meeting with other individuals on campus.
  6. Check for a confirmation email after you hit submit. It should come to your inbox pretty quickly! If you don’t receive a confirmation email within a day, reach out to the admission office. 
  7. Create an account (if required). Some colleges may require you to create an account on the admission portal to handle your visit, so follow the instructions. 
  8. Prepare to modify your registration. Many colleges allow you to modify your registration online. Use the confirmation email or the admission portal to make necessary changes. If you must cancel your visit, do so within 24 hours.

Contact the admission office if you have specific requests not available on the online visit form. You want to get the most tailored visit possible for your child, because you may only have one shot to visit! 

At the very minimum, try to get: 

  • Tour of campus
  • Meet with an admission professional
  • Meet with a financial aid professional
  • Meet with a professor
  • Information session (usually led by admission staff, though professors may lead this session)

However, if your child has other “musts” in college — dietary needs, soccer talent, oboe talent — whatever! — schedule those meetings as well. 

Step 7: Watch for confirmation materials.

Your child should get confirmation materials, and they may come in various forms: 

  • Text messages
  • Emails
  • Written confirmation via snail mail
  • Phone confirmation

Your high schooler might get some of these confirmation types — or all of them. 

Double-check all confirmation materials so you know you’ve got the right date, time and appointments. Your child may also get an email or text message confirmation the day of the visit or the night before. Check the dates and times again. 

Tip for parents: You might want to add your own email or phone number to the confirmation materials — not your student’s. High school kids aren’t always the best at checking their email and sometimes don’t read text messages thoroughly.

Learn more: Are College Tours Free?

Step 8: Consider a virtual tour ahead of time.

Why not get a preview of the college? It’ll help you think of questions to ask when you actually visit. For example, check out Harvard’s virtual tour. You can make notes as you watch and bring those notes with you when you and your child visit the college.

What to Remember When Scheduling College Visits

When scheduling college visits, remember: 

  1. No question is too silly. You want to get the very best college visit possible for your child, so ask for those appointments that seem over the top, like “Can we meet with a wildlife biology professor, not just a biology professor?”
  2. Consider writing out your plan ahead of time. Colleges have different fall break dates, weekend dates and more. What works for one college visit may not work for another, and you may find yourself in the position of having to switch visit dates. Therefore, consider discussing several campuses you want to visit so you can do a switcheroo if needed.
  3. You’re not alone in this process. A campus visit coordinator or admission counselor can answer your questions about the campus visit schedule or how to visit colleges. If you have questions, ask. You should never feel lost during the college visit process.

Visit several colleges so you and your child can compare and contrast them. Consider checking out a wide variety of school sizes, from state universities to private colleges and even community colleges, too. The only way you can find the best fit for your high schooler is to visit a lot of colleges.

Schedule College Visits Now

You and your child also visit at any age — you can start as early as middle school if you choose! But if you get going during your high schooler’s sophomore year in high school, that’ll give you plenty of time to make the rounds and get a feel for which one is best for your child. 

Keep a log before and after visiting. I have a handy spreadsheet you can copy and paste! 

Keep a running list of the pros and cons of each college. Your child might start to forget about visits she did three years ago, so keeping a spreadsheet is one way to keep things fresh on your college visit checklist.

Best Private Student Loans of 2023

Best Private Student Loans of 2023

When your child applies for financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), they may experience a gap between the cost of the school and the financial aid they actually receive. A private student loan, which may come from an online lender, credit union, bank or other lender, may help cover the gaps that financial aid doesn’t cover.

We reviewed the best private student loans based on research on interest rates, repayment terms, other benefits and more. We’ll also go over the basics of private student loans, including how they work, the pros and cons between private and federal student loans, how students can maximize both federal and private student loans and more. 

Best Private Student Loan Lenders

We compared dozens of private loan providers and chose the top five to feature here. According to our research, the best private student loans for students include: 

Rating

Minimum credit score

APR (both fixed and variable)

Check rate

College Ave

5/5 stars

Mid-600s

3.99% –14.96%

SoFi

4.5/5 stars

Mid-600s

4.49% – 14.75%

College Finance

3/5 stars

Sallie Mae

4/5 stars

Mid-600s

4.50% – 15.33%

Earnest

4.5/5 stars

650

4.49%  – 13.95%

How Do Private Student Loans Work?

Private student loans differ from federal student loans because they do not come from the government. Your child’s school may also be a direct loan institution, which means that the school may offer loans directly to borrowers. Ask your child’s school if it offers loans directly. 

You can submit applications through lender websites and must include the following: 

  • Information about your child’s degree or program
  • The school your child plans to attend
  • The amount of money you need to borrow (your child must have qualified higher education expenses at an eligible institution)
  • Personal and financial information
  • Cosigner information, if applicable

Your child may have to be the age of majority in your state of residence (if not, your child may need a cosigner) and be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident or non-permanent resident alien. Your child may also have to be enrolled at least half time in a degree-granting program. 

Your child can borrow up to their school’s cost of attendance in private loans, minus other financial aid earned. Individual lenders may have limits for the amount of money your child can borrow. 

Your child will face limits on federal student loan amounts. For example, dependent students may not qualify for more than $5,500 in their first year and no more than $3,500 of this amount may be in subsidized loans. Dependent undergraduate students run into an aggregate loan limit of $31,000; your child cannot get more than $23,000 of this amount in subsidized loans. 

In contrast, the application process differs for private student loans versus federal student loans. You or your student must file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to qualify for federal student loans. Federal student loans come from the U.S. Department of Education through the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan (Direct Loan) Program. Direct loans include Direct Subsidized loans, Direct Unsubsidized loans and Direct PLUS loans: 

  • Direct Subsidized loans: Undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need may receive the Direct Subsidized Loan to help pay for college or career school. The federal government pays the interest on Direct Subsidized loans while you’re in school.
  • Direct Unsubsidized loans: Graduate and undergraduate students can tap into unsubsidized loans, which means that the government does not take care of the interest while you’re in school.
  • Direct PLUS loans: Parents of undergraduate students can help pay for cosmetology students’ education with a Direct PLUS loan. Parents will have to undergo a credit check.

Private student lenders may require you to make payments while you are still in school and can have variable or fixed interest rates. Federal interest rates are always fixed. This means that federal student loans may be more predictable when your child repays them. 

Federal student loans typically carry lower interest rates than private student loans and private loans also cause you to lose out on income-driven repayment plans and other perks such as public service loan forgiveness, which means you do not have to pay your student loans after a certain period of time.

Federal vs. Private Student Loans

One of the best ways to compare federal and private student loans involves looking at the pros and cons of both. So, what are the pros and cons of federal vs. private student loans? Let’s take a quick look. 

Pros of Federal Student Loans

Let’s take a quick look at a few benefits of federal student loans first.

  • Fixed interest rates: Federal student loans offer fixed interest rates. This means that when your child repays their loans, they know what interest rate to expect. Fixed interest rates never change, while variable interest rates change.
  • Payments not due while in school: Federal student loan repayment doesn’t begin until after you graduate, leave school or enroll in school below half-time.
  • Lower interest rates: Your student will typically pay lower interest rates for federal student loans compared to private student loans. However, it’s a good idea to compare several options to check on the costs.
  • Subsidized options: You can qualify for subsidized federal student loans, which means that the government will pay the interest while your child attends school. 
  • Tax deductible interest: Interest may be tax deductible on a federal student loan. 
  • Repayment plans: You may choose from several repayment plans for federal student loans, including income-driven repayment plans. Also note that if your child decides to pay off a student loan early, they won’t pay a prepayment penalty.
  • Loan forgiveness and consolidation: Your child will have many federal loan perks, including forgiveness (in which they may not have to pay back loans, such as if they choose to work in public service) and consolidation, which means combining at least two loans into one loan and getting a new interest rate.

Cons of Federal Student Loans

What are the downsides of federal student loans? You may have heard that you should take out federal student loans before private student loans, but you should still consider all angles of federal student loans before you borrow.

  • Borrower limits: Your child cannot borrow an unlimited amount with federal student loans. As your child becomes a first-year through fourth-year college student, they can borrow progressively more. They will face an aggregate loan limit that they cannot go over for both undergraduate and graduate school.
  • No subsidized loans for graduate students: Graduate students cannot tap into Direct Subsidized loans, which means the government will not pay the interest while your student is in school. Graduate students must also pay a higher interest rate for their federal student loans.
  • Not all institutions participate: Not all educational institutions that distribute Title IV student aid funds, which means that your child’s school may not offer federal student loans. 
  • Hard to discharge: It is extremely difficult to discharge federal student loans. If your child defaults or cannot repay federal loans will not get away from them through bankruptcy. In short, it’s really hard to discharge student loans, including through Chapter 13 or Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

Pros of Private Student Loans

The benefits of private student loans include the following:

  • Fills in the gaps: Private student loans can fill in the gaps between the sticker price of a college, financial aid your child receives and federal student loans. When your child has unmet need, private loans can take care of the rest.
  • Unlimited borrowing: Generally, you can borrow up to the cost of attendance in private student loans, minus financial aid. 
  • Tax-deductible interest: Interest may also be tax deductible on private student loans. 
  • May have lower interest rates: You may find that certain private loans have lower interest rates than graduate and parent loans, particularly with regard to graduate and parent loans through the Department of  Education.

Cons of Private Student Loans

The downsides to private student loans include:  

  • No access to federal protections: Your child will not have access to federal income-driven repayment or loan forgiveness options with private student loans. They also wouldn’t be subject to orders from the federal government to cancel student debt.
  • Based on creditworthiness: Qualifications for private student loans are based on creditworthiness, which means that you or your student must undergo a credit check. Lower credit scores combined with lower income can result in a higher interest rate. Your credit score is a three-digit number that ranges from 300 – 850 and summarizes how well you have paid back debt in the past.
  • No federal subsidies: The federal government will not pay the interest on a private student loan like the federal government does with a subsidized student loan. 

How Are Private Student Loan Interest Rates Determined?

If you take out a private student loan, you must repay it with interest. Private student loan interest rates are based in part on your credit score (as a cosigner) or your child’s credit score. The higher your credit score, the lower your interest rate may be. 

Your child may have the option for a fixed or variable private loan interest rate. A fixed interest rate stays the same throughout the life of the loan, while a variable interest rate changes depending on an underlying benchmark index rate. Variable interest rates are usually based on the Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) index rate. As the interest rate changes, your monthly debt payment could go up and/or down due to the changes in the index rate. Interest rates typically include the base rate, the lender’s policies and you or your child’s credit history. To break it down even more, they are based on fixed margin, or the lender’s decision about your ability to repay the loan — this part of your loan doesn’t change. The variable part of the interest rate changes, and that part is based on the interest rate index. 

Ask private lenders about the total cost of the variable interest rate you’ll pay and also compare these rates to current federal student loan interest rates, currently first disbursed on or after July 1, 2022 and before July 1, 2023. 

Loan Type

Borrower Type

Fixed Interest Rate

Direct Subsidized loans and Direct Unsubsidized loans

Undergraduate students

4.99%

Direct Unsubsidized loans

Graduate or professional students

6.54%

Direct PLUS loans

Parents and graduate or professional students

7.54%

Note that private student loans list an annual percentage rate (APR), the annual cost of a loan to a borrower, including fees like loan origination fees. The interest rate doesn’t include these fees. You should always look at the APR of private loans, not just the interest rate.

How Can Students Maximize Both Federal and Private Loans?

Students can take advantage of both federal and private student loans by filing the FAFSA online at fafsa.gov or complete a FAFSA PDF and mailing it in. You can also apply for private student loans on a lender’s website. 

Students can generally borrow up to the cost of attendance for private student loans, minus financial aid. The first step involves filing the FAFSA, which you can do in a few simple steps (you can do it for your student or your student can do it by themselves): 

First, create an account with a username and password, called an FSA ID, and have the following information handy:

  • Social Security numbers for you and your dependent student
  • Driver’s license number
  • Alien registration number
  • Federal tax information, documents and returns
  • Records of untaxed income 
  • Cash and investment balances
  • Business and farm assets

List at least one institution to receive your information using the federal school codes for each school.

You can save time by using the IRS direct retrieval tool (DRT), which automatically transfers tax information onto the FAFSA. Note that you can’t see the exact data for security purposes; you’ll see the words “transferred from the IRS” in the appropriate fields.

Maximizing both federal and private loan options also involves understanding the annual loan limits for federal student loans.

Loan Types

Maximum Annual Limits

Undergraduate students

Direct Subsidized loans and Direct Unsubsidized loans

Between $5,500 and $12,500, depending on year in school and dependency status

Graduate/professional students

Direct Unsubsidized loans (graduate students are not eligible for Direct Subsidized loans)

Up to $20,500 each academic year

You can add up the federal loans your child receives, as well as the work-study, scholarships and grants that make up their financial aid award. What is the gap between the amount of aid received and the amount still owed to the college?

Let’s use some fictitious numbers to illustrate the point. Let’s say your child receives the following:

  • $5,500: Federal loans
  • $9,500: Scholarships
  • $2,500: Work-study
  • $1,100: Grants

In this case, aid would amount to $18,600 in total. Let’s say that the cost of college is $25,000 (another fictitious figure). The gap between the cost and the award amount is $6,400, which means your child could then apply for a private loan to cover the rest of the costs.

Is a Private Student Loan a Good Option?

A private student loan can offer a wonderful opportunity to allow your child to achieve a college degree and their career ambitions. 

However, it’s a good idea to consider all the angles of a private student loan, including the interest rate, loan limits, fees repayment penalty (the amount your child may have to pay if they pay off the loan before it’s due) and even customer service that the private lender may provide.

Consider encouraging your student to exhaust their federal student loan options first due to the federal protections they get with their federal loans, such as consolidation and loan forgiveness.

Your child can also drive down their interest rate with private student loans when they have access to a reliable cosigner with excellent credit. This could make federal student loans a great option. 

How to Find the Right Private Student Loan 

First and foremost, carefully compare options between private loan lenders, including repayment terms. You can help your child take the following steps to find the best student loans for college. 

Step 1: Put together a lender list.

Help your child put together a lender list. Look at reputable companies known to support borrowers during repayment. You can eliminate any lenders that don’t line up with the eligibility requirements for your child’s particular situation. 

Don’t forget to check with the financial aid office of the school your child plans to attend for a preferred list of lenders. Many institutions are direct lending institutions for college loans.

Step 2: Check the loan terms. 

Loan terms tell you how long your lender expects you to pay back your debt. Unlike federal student loans, you do not get a standard repayment schedule for private student loans. Many private student loans give students 120 months (10 years) to repay their loans, but some private lenders allow a 25-year repayment term. 

Also, find out what happens if you can’t make your payments. Private lenders don’t have forbearance programs if your child loses a job in the future, though the best loan providers for students may help out in a sticky situation.

Step 3: Get quotes and compare offers. 

Prequalify with a lender next. Lenders will do a soft credit inquiry when they check your credit for prequalification, which doesn’t hurt your credit quite as much as a hard credit inquiry.

Next, compare offers to determine the lowest rate, best repayment term for your child’s situation, borrower protections and other benefits.

Step 4: Choose a lender. 

Finally, choose a lender and complete an application using the lender’s process. Each lender will offer different instructions on how to get a student loan. Have items handy such as Social Security number, address, enrollment information in school, employment information, financial information, loan amount requested and financial aid information.

Every provider will have a different process on how to get a student loan. Most lenders will tell you the results quickly, but read the fine print before you make a final decision. Your child should have about 30 days to accept the loan offer and your lender should release the funds within weeks or months.

Can My Child Get a Private Student Loan without a Cosigner?

Eligibility requirements for a private student loan vary depending on your student’s lender and the loan you want to take out, but generally, your child will face limited options if they can’t get a co-signer.

How to Get Private Student Loans with Bad Credit

How might you help your student get student loans, even if you have bad credit? Naturally, you want to raise your credit score to increase your chances of cosigning a private student loan with your child. A couple tactics include paying off debt, making all payments on time and keeping your credit utilization low. Let’s take a quick look at all of these options.

  • Pay off debt: Having a lot of unpaid debt can affect your credit score. Paying off your debt may help raise your credit score and help you cosign a private loan with your child. You can benefit from paying off any debt you have, whether from your own student loans, credit cards, personal loans and more.
  • Make payments on time: Making payments on time can also increase your credit score for any loan you owe on. Setting up autopay on all bills can help you raise your credit score.
  • Keep credit utilization low: Your credit utilization ratio compares the amount of credit you use versus the amount of credit you have available. For example, if you have a credit card limit of $5,000 and use $1,000, in this particular instance, your credit utilization limit is 20%: $5,000/$1,000 = 0.20 x 100 = 20%. Try keeping this number below 30%. 

You can’t pinpoint an exact time that your credit score will take an upswing, it’s always worth trying to make it happen so you can become a cosigner for your child.

FAQs 

Let’s take a look at a few frequently asked questions about private loans for college.

What are the eligibility requirements for a private student loan?

Lenders each have their own eligibility requirements. In general, your child must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, attend school at least half time and qualify with a cosigner. Understand the risks before you become a cosigner, because you’ll need to make monthly payments on your child’s loan if they default on their loans. Getting a loan without a cosigner can cause your child to pay more in interest over time.

How do you find the best private student loan?

What is the best student loan? Shop around to find the best private loan. Check on interest rates, fees, customer service, ratings among current customers, repayment options, including repayment flexibility and more. The private loans that have the lowest interest rate and most favorable customer service options, fees and repayment options should catch your interest. However, consider having your child take advantage of federal student loans first, which usually offer more repayment perks and lower interest rates.

Do private student loans have fees?

Private student loans can come with fees, such as the origination fee (the amount your child pays to to take out a loan, which is the percentage of the loan fee), the application fee (the fee charged to process your application), late payment fee (the fee your child pays if they don’t make on-time payments) and prepayment penalty (the fee for paying off the loan early). Make sure your child can pay the loan off whenever they want.

Methodology

Here’s how College Money Tips chose the best private student loan lenders: We reviewed interest rates, repayment options, loan amount options, cosigner details, fees, Better Business Bureau (BBB) rating, customer service and other benefits. We aggregated the data based on all of these factors and made decisions based on top scores in each category.

Are College Tours Free?

Are College Tours Free?

College certainly isn’t free, what with the cost of tuition, room, board and fees, college applications, the cost of standardized tests and more. It’s easy to think that those are the only costs involved in the process, but they aren’t. 

So, in general, are college tours free? 

Yes and no. 

You don’t pay money to go on the college tour but the “extras” cost money. When your child visits college, you have to think about other costs — travel expenses, meal purchases and hotel visits. Consider the cost of visiting five schools. Flights, meals, parking and hotel rooms can cost into the hundreds (if not thousands!) of dollars.

However, colleges and universities often invest their resources to make college visits absolutely free of charge for students.

Do College Tours Cost Money? 

No, tours themselves do not cost money, and generally, neither do college visits. In other words, you don’t have to pay a fee to the campus visit coordinator as soon as you step onto the threshold of the admission office. However, you might have to pay to park in the admissions office lot or a lot near the admissions office on campus. You might have to pay to eat lunch in the cafeteria. 

Let’s break down the definition of a college tour. College or university tours involve a walking tour of campus that lasts between 60 to 90 minutes. In these, a tour guide (typically a college student) takes you through academic buildings, residence halls, student lounges, cafeterias and more. 

A college visit refers to all the activities you do while you’re on campus, including the tour. For example, the full visit might include the following: 

  • Academic presentation
  • Meeting with faculty
  • Tour of campus
  • Meeting with admissions or financial aid
  • Eating lunch on campus
  • Meeting with an extracurricular advisor or coach

It’s worth asking how much you’ll pay in extra fees when you sign up for your visit. The campus visit coordinator or your admissions counselor will tell you what fees you’ll pay once you’re on campus. Overall, these direct fees shouldn’t cost a lot.

Which Types of Programs Offer Free College Visits?

Some colleges offer programs that guarantee that your child’s visit will cost nothing. Students may tap into a wide variety of options, but the tricky thing is that all colleges may offer different options. It’s also worth noting that colleges may not offer free programs for parents — only students. Let’s take a look at three main types of programs you may want to ask about: diversity fly-in programs, travel reimbursement and scholarships for college visits.

How do you find out about the opportunities available at colleges and universities? Easy! Just ask, referencing some of these program ideas/opportunities when you ask the admissions office.

Diversity Fly-in Programs

Colleges may want to develop their profiles by developing its minority population. Therefore, they may have something called fly-in weekends, diversity overnight programs or weekend immersions. Colleges may call them different things, but the point is that they cost nothing to attend for the entire visit — meals, the overnight visit, everything is free. Students will spend the night on campus with another student, eat meals in the cafeteria and experience college life side-by-side with another current student. 

Travel Reimbursement

Students who visit colleges (typically from out-of-state) might qualify for travel reimbursement, such as flight or gas expenses. Typically, the admissions office accepts receipts and then sends a check to reimburse you, the parent. Colleges and universities may require your child to live a certain distance away from the school in order to qualify for travel reimbursement. For example, you probably can’t expect to get travel reimbursement if you and your student live just one hour away.

Scholarships and Grants for College Visits

Some colleges and universities will give you a scholarship or grant for making an official campus visit. However, it’s likely that you’ll need to enroll in exchange. For example, a school might state on its website, “If you make an official campus visit, you’ll receive $1,000 per year for up to four years when you attend XYZ College.” Look into the requirements, such as visiting by a specific date. 

Who is Eligible for Free College Visits? 

In general, free college visits are set up for those who would find the cost of college visits too expensive or for underrepresented students on campus. Colleges would like to underrepresented students who fit certain backgrounds, such as the following: 

  • First-generation college students: First-generation (also sometimes abbreviated “first gen”) means that parents of college students didn’t attend a four-year college, regardless of whether prior generations (including grandparents) did.  
  • Lower-income students: “Low income” refers to a family’s taxable income for the preceding year that did not exceed 150% of the poverty level amount.
  • Minority racial and ethnic backgrounds: Colleges and universities may also put efforts toward recruiting underrepresented minorities. Hispanic undergraduates have increased at four-year colleges and universities since 1996 (their numbers have jumped from 6% to 16% in 2016). Hispanics are now the largest minority group at minimally selective four-year institutions.

What Do Free College Visits Typically Entail? 

Free college visits for students may include a wide variety of options. Your child may have great leeway in choosing the activities they want to do on campus. Other schools may completely structure the visit, particularly if no family members tag along. Your child may not have much choice about the times and arrangement of activities, whether it includes an academic presentation, meeting with faculty members, tour and more. The college may strictly weave these activities into what your child does.

The timing may matter as well. Fly-ins and diversity visit programs typically occur in the spring of junior year or fall of senior year. Colleges may also conduct fly-in and visit programs during the spring semester of your child’s senior year to help your student ultimately decide where to attend college — these ultimately give them a last chance to market the college.

How to Qualify for a Free College Visit 

Let’s take a look at how to help your child qualify for a free college visit.

Step 1: Help your child identify colleges to visit.

The first step might seem like the trickiest part — targeting colleges to visit! However, that’s a good way to narrow down all the free college visit options. Ask your child where they think they might want to visit — large state universities, small private colleges or mid-sized universities. 

If your child doesn’t know for sure, it’s worth considering visiting local colleges and universities to get a feel for the opportunities closer. Otherwise, explore strong options that have your child’s major. 

Once you have two or three options narrowed down, you can move onto the next step.

Step 2: Contact the admissions office. 

At each of those schools, contact the admissions office. The admission counselor assigned to your child’s part of the country can let you know about your options for free college tours. The counselor may outline a number of options or may require proof of your financial situation if that’s the requirement to qualify for free tours. 

Filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) gives you and your child the fastest way to prove your financial situation. The admissions office will know pretty quickly whether you have a qualifying income level that allows your child to attend a free college visit. In the same way, if you report your child’s status as a minority, they will likely check your child’s qualifications or take a look at the application.

Step 3: Keep track of processes.

Every school has a different process, so keep track of the visit benefits for each school. It might get confusing if you have six schools on the list! Consider whittling down the list with your child as you go on visits. You may not have to use every voucher because your child might find a dream school halfway through the search process.

Step 4: Consider budgeting.

If you can, consider putting together a budget for college visits. Like it or not, it may cost something to make college visits happen, particularly if your child doesn’t meet every single qualification that the school requires for free visits. Note that parents aren’t always covered during free college visits, so that might be the biggest downside. You may have to pay for yourself to go.

Step 5: Make visits happen.

Next, make college visits happen. Again, you may have to pay for yourself to attend. If you can’t financially afford it, you may not enjoy the fact that you have to sit out of college visits. Sending your child on college visits on their own may not make you feel good about the search process, but if it gives your child a chance to visit colleges, then it might be a good thing. If you’re in a tough spot financially, it may end up being the only way to go.

What if We Don’t Qualify for a Free Visit?

Some colleges won’t offer free visits. If a school offers a somewhat reduced cost for its college visits, they still might not end up as affordable as you want. Consider adjusting your child’s college list to schools that are more willing to adjust the cost of tours. 

You may also want to consider making another request to the admissions office to find out what else they may be able to do for your child. In many cases, admissions offices want to do everything they can to get qualified applicants on campus. They may be willing to make a special exception for your child and cover visit costs. 

Should You Do Virtual Tours? 

Virtual tours are online college tours that you can take while you sit at home in your living room. You and your student may want to consider sitting in on online tours of colleges at the beginning of the college search process. 

However, don’t make them your only visit. A college puts its best foot forward with virtual tours. This means that they show only the shiniest options on campus — perfect buildings, beautiful residence halls and more. They put the perkiest students on the tour video and everything looks fresh and amazing. A virtual tour almost always shows an altered reality of campus, so make sure your child gets their feet on campus.

Learn More About Free Tours

Don’t stop looking for options for free tours, even if the option isn’t immediately apparent on a college or university’s admission website. In fact, many won’t publish information about free college tours. Call and ask to learn more and to answer the question, “Do college tours cost money at this particular school?” — it’s your best bet.

FAQs 

Let’s take a look at a few frequently asked questions about free college tours.

Are college tours expensive?

In general, college tours are not expensive. They typically don’t cost you or your child money. Colleges and universities generally offer free tours, free lunch on campus and more. However, it’s the other expenses — hotel, airfare, gas and more — that can add up. 

Are college tours worth it?

Yes, college tours are worth it. There’s nothing more important to choosing the right college than getting you and your child’s feet on campus and experiencing it for yourself. You’ll talk to the students, faculty members and other individuals who will make your child’s college experiences invaluable.

What should I expect at a college tour?

One of the most common questions prior to starting the college search process looks like this: How to tour colleges? College visits may involve a wide variety of opportunities that align with your students’ interests. For example, if your child wants to play soccer in college, your child may talk to the soccer coach. The college tour makes up a portion of the college visit. In a college tour, a tour guide takes students through academic buildings, residence halls, common areas and more. The campus tour gives students a general overview of what to expect when they are a student on campus and also gives them an opportunity to ask questions while on the college tour.

Do college tours increase chances of getting in?

No. Your child taking a college tour does not determine whether or not they will get into a college. Your child’s qualifications for admission do more to determine whether your child will get into a particular college or university. However, it’s always good to meet the individuals on campus and have your child show their personality, interests and more. That may tip the scales in favor of admission if your child is “on the bubble.”

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