It’s easy to see which prospective students and families have had great tours in any admission office. In fact, I vividly remember one very satisfied family coming back from tour. Here’s what happened, all at once: 

  1. Dad high-fived the tour guide. 
  2. Mom looked thrilled (and relieved) and gave the tour guide a hug.
  3. The prospective student grinned from ear to ear and added the tour guide’s personal cellphone number to his phone. He said, “I’m really excited to be here next year.”
  4. Dad asked for our current student’s business card. 
  5. The whole happy family disappeared into an admission counselor’s office.

I knew that kid was sold, and that’s what the tour should look like!

You just knew each personality was a perfect fit. The student did a perfect job fielding the parents’ questions, addressed the student’s felt needs and connected all the dots for everyone.

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Anatomy of a College Visit

So, let’s back up a bit and discuss exactly what happens during a college visit. A college tour is just one component of a college visit. A personal campus visit can involve the following: 

  • Campus tour
  • Information session
  • Class visit
  • Lunch with a student
  • Meeting with a professor
  • Coach meeting
  • Financial aid meeting
  • Meetings with other organizations or people on campus you and your child specifically request (like a dietitian, academic support personnel, etc.)

On the other hand, you and your child can also attend group visits, which are very different from personal campus visits because you do everything in a group setting. You may do the following:

  • Campus tour
  • Information sessions
  • Presentations
  • Student panels
  • Specific meeting requests after the visit day

Sure, you’ll want to sit down with your child and think through exactly what you’d like to do while you’re on your visit, but notice what I included on the first bullet of each option? Yep — the college tour. It’s typically the highlight of the campus visit experience. And if you have a fun, knowledgeable student tour guide, that can make or break a college decision.

A fantastic tour of campus should include a stop at every one of these locations: 

  • Residence hall
  • Classroom or lecture hall
  • Student center or lounge
  • Dining hall
  • Library

These locations could be added — at your request! (The best tour guides veer from the script and go where your child wants to go):

  • Student resource center 
  • Greek life and other organizations 
  • Campus chapel or other religious center
  • Athletic facilities or workout facilities
  • Other locations on campus

And add the glue — an amazing tour guide! — and you’ve got yourself the best college tour ever. How do you get that kind of college tour at every college? 

Answer: You plan for it. 

How to Plan the Best Ever College Tour

Plan at least a week ahead (two weeks is even better!) so the campus visit coordinator in an admission office can schedule your visit. The campus visit coordinator is the person who puts together your visit. At many small colleges, the campus visit coordinator may even carefully put together a (sometimes complex) schedule that depends on current students, admission counselors, financial aid advisors, coaches and more. Needless to say, this type of careful planning doesn’t just happen in a matter of minutes!

Get on the Phone with the Campus Visit Coordinator

Many admission offices often have set times for tours and information sessions, but it’s okay not to know what those are before you call. Just get on the phone with someone from the front desk of the admission office. I’d encourage you to have your student to join in on this call as well so everyone’s on the same page. Do not schedule a visit online. The best college tours don’t sprout from an online form. Trust me.

Note: You can also schedule this visit on the phone or via a series of emails with your child’s admission counselor or the campus visit coordinator.

Ask for a Personalized Campus Tour

Some schools may claim they don’t offer a personalized campus tour, but ask if an exception can be made in your case. A personalized tour is ideal because your child will get to visit the areas of campus he or she wants to visit. There’s nothing worse than being on a group tour and spending 25 minutes of the tour in the gym because it’s what the other people in the tour group want. Your student is more likely to get the tour he wants if it’s a personalized tour.

Ask for a Tour Guide Who Has the Same Interests as Your Child

Now, this could get tricky. Asking for, say, a female tour guide who’s an English major might involve a lot more work on the campus visit coordinator’s behalf, but remember, you’re the customer. You want to make sure your child has a stellar tour experience and this is an excellent way to make sure it happens.

One time, we paired a really shy prospective music major with a current student who was also a music major. Our current student happened to have a super high EQ and empathized really well with the student and her family. The parents were so impressed by the intentional tour pairing that they brought a box of cookies to the admission office before they left town. (Kudos to the prospective student’s admission counselor for that — he knew his student well.)

Ask for Extra Time

So, how long are college tours, anyway? It depends on the college! They usually hover in the hour range. You might prefer to find out how long campus tours generally are and ask for an extra half hour or 15 minutes. I know the trickiest part for most tour guides was making sure the tour lasted the specific amount of time — usually an hour. There was just so much great stuff to talk about. Instead of rushing through the tour, wouldn’t it be better to make sure you spend the perfect amount of time doing exactly what you and your student want?

By the way, I wouldn’t recommend trying to cram two campus visits into one day.

Find Out if Specific Buildings or Other Features Can Be Included

Ask what the tour includes and find out whether you can get your child’s favorites included in the tour. There’s nothing worse than going through a college tour that isn’t relevant to your child. I remember giving a group tour once with two athletes, an art major and a kid who wanted to see the biology labs. Needless to say, I was torn in different directions and offered to take one student and his family to the art building after the visit day was over.

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When to Do a Tour

Think about the time of year! Now, COVID-19 has changed this a little bit, but if you can select the best time of year to visit, you’d be amazed at the difference that makes. Visiting a college in Maine in January or a college in Florida in August might not set you up for success. Again, COVID-19 has changed this, because at this point, you may just need to sneak in a visit when you can. 

Check out COVID-19 announcements from the National Association for College Admission Counseling for more information.

Consider the Weather

This may not really be something you can do anything about, but if you have the flexibility, choose the best weather day to go. Rain puts a damper on a college visit. If you can’t change your visit date and the weather isn’t going to be great, make sure you have the right weather gear: hats, gloves, winter coats, umbrellas, hats.  

Visit When Classes Are in Session

During regular times (not COVID-19 times), visiting when classes are in session is best. Let’s say you visit during the summer. You can definitely learn about admission and financial aid processes and see campuses but you and your student won’t experience the same hustle and bustle you would when school’s in session. 

Choose the Right Time During High School

A popular question is this: “When’s the best year in high school to visit?” 

This question is a fun one because there’s no “right” year to visit. Here are a few truths: 

  • You and your child will have to get started sooner if she has 12 schools on her list. If she only has two, you’ll obviously spend less time on visits.
  • A popular time is to visit spring break of your child’s junior year. 
  • A good rule of thumb is to visit one large, one medium and one small school.
  • It’s a good idea to consider your child’s maturity level and excitement about visiting schools. Some freshmen in high school are ready; some juniors aren’t ready at all.
  • It’s not a bad thing to get a “taste” at a young age. Some high schools do school trips to colleges during freshmen year. Some students tag along on tours with older siblings. It’s a great way to launch the college search!

During Your Tour

Student tour guides have a prescribed tour route for prospective students and families. Make sure you:

  • Let your student interact with the tour guide as much as possible. Don’t dominate the conversation!
  • Ask to see things. If something looks interesting, ask about it and ask to go in the building. 
  • Focus on people! Buildings aren’t going to connect your student to alumni after college or help you make friends in the residence halls.
  • Encourage your student to talk to as many people as possible — everywhere. Students, dining hall workers, tour guides, even faculty sitting in their offices. (Your student may not feel comfortable doing that, but the more people you all talk to, the more robust your visit will be and the better overview of the college you’ll get.)
  • Find out what’s going on. Look at bulletin boards, campus events and pick up a campus newspaper. 
  • Watch students and get a feel for how they interact with each other. Are they engaged and friendly? Aloof? Do they seem friendly to your student in general?

Go Deep

Think of other details. What are your specific needs and expectations?

Do You Have Concerns About Walking on Campus?

Worried a bit about your ability to get around? It might be hard for you or someone in your family to hoof it around campus with a group. If so, this is the time to speak up! Tell the campus visit coordinator ahead of time if you’ve got some health issues, your child’s broken her foot — whatever it is!

The admission office will make accommodations for you. They might put your whole family on a golf cart or abbreviate the tour to meet your needs. Colleges are used to accommodating families and they do it happily. Don’t be afraid to ask for physical accommodations.

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Need a Wheelchair-Accessible Tour?

Explain to the admission office that you or a family member are in a wheelchair. Admission staff members will often have a specific wheelchair-accessible tour mapped out ahead of time. They’ll also ensure that your tour guide knows how to give a wheelchair-accessible tour.

Need Other Accommodations?

Think of other accommodations you might need. This could involve:

  • English translation
  • Sign language interpretation
  • Accommodations for a blind family member
  • Other accommodations

What if the Tour isn’t Awesome Even After All that Prep Work?

Okay, so everything you do to prepare for a college visit still might not end up jiving. Pinpoint what it was that wasn’t great. Was it the tour guide who kept checking his phone? Did a professor turn you off? Was an admission counselor less than enthused?

Once your child has narrowed the college list, you may want to make return visits to schools. Your child can also do overnight visits. On these visits, plan to go to classes and interact with students. (Some colleges even offer spring programs for juniors and fall programs for seniors. Check online or contact the admission office.)

Keep a list of people’s names you interact with and let the admission office know what turned you off about the visit. If possible, have your child communicate that.

Contact anyone you know who has connections to the college to learn more about it. Maybe it was just a tiny “glitch” and the college deserves a second chance.

You Can Help Your Student Build the Best College Tour

You can sign up for a college tour online, but remember that it’s harder to make your unique needs known. In the end, you might end up disappointed. How would admission personnel know Grandma’s tagging along if you don’t tell them? 

I know you’re terribly busy and registering for a visit online is a way to save time. But the nuances of your needs can get lost if you or your child don’t communicate. Get on the phone so you get as many details ironed out ahead of time. That way, you and your child will have the best college tours (and visits!) ever!

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