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6 Steps to a Hassle-Free College Tour

Expert advice for productive and painless school visits with your student

By Elizabeth Fishel

The college tour is a ritual practiced by many American families when their high-school students are college bound. It does not always go well.

Too often, parents and their kids have different goals, conflicting agendas and varying degrees of patience. Although not every family attempts a college tour (and plenty of good information can be found on college’s websites, in their viewbooks and from talking with current students), for those who do visit campuses in person, planning ahead will ease potential conflicts before the tours threaten to disrupt family harmony. And, as you'll see below, there are a few smart strategies to make the tour experience more pleasant for you and your kids.

In the old days, if students were applying to only one college, probably the local state university, there wasn’t much sense in visiting; they either got in or they didn’t. Today, however, with multiple applications the norm, many families begin investigating the options when their children are freshmen and sophomores in high school, and come up with a list of colleges to visit. Then, in the spring or summer of their child’s sophomore or junior year, they travel to the top five, 10 or even 15 under consideration to get a feel for each one and move toward making a final list of where to apply.

The Grand College Tour takes place with an undercurrent of momentous questions. Which schools will our kids want? Will those schools want our kids? Will our kids and we agree on which colleges are best? Can we afford the schools we all like? College tours provide parents and prospective students with a chance to move toward resolving these uncertainties.

The college tour has become almost as much a rite of passage for parents and their high school juniors and seniors as the departure for college itself. If time, money and inclination permit, touring a handful of colleges can give prospective applicants a chance to gather information; get a sense of the differences among big and small and urban and rural campuses; meet some students who attend the college and get a feel for campus life.

“No matter how many colleges you visit," says Risa Nye, a longtime Oakland, Calif., college counselor, "your observations should focus on the same criteria: the size of the campus, its location, the climate, the general atmosphere, where people live, where they eat, what they do for fun, how much they study, where they study and what is most important to most students.”

Here are six strategies to help you and your student boost the benefits and ease the headaches on your college tour:

1. Make sure your student has “skin in the game.”

It’s best to plan the tour together, so your student will feel invested in it. This is also a way of respecting that he or she is entering a new life stage and will be taking on more personal responsibility. Encourage your child to go to the colleges’ websites, sign up for tours, research programs and professors of interest and email admissions people with any questions (Note:  Now is a good time to make sure students have an adult email handle, not something like [email protected] or [email protected]).

2. Have the money talk before you start looking.

Planning the tour together also provides an opportunity for an initial conversation about how much you can afford and how much would have to come from other sources such as grants, loans and working during the school year. Check out the College Board’s website, Big Future for a list of questions to ask a college’s financial aid officer. If time allows, you might be able to meet with financial aid people at the colleges you visit to help you make informed decisions down the road.

3. Keep a low profile.


On the tour itself, do your best to follow your student’s lead. Resist the temptation to elbow your child out of the way, hijack the proceedings and ask most of the questions. Avoid following the example of one dad we know who, when the college tour guide pointed out the “gender-neutral dorms,” embarrassed his daughter by asking, “What does that mean?” Also, don’t overwhelm your child with opinions on the excellence of the history department or the lacrosse team at college X compared to Y. Listen to your child’s impressions first and then (respectfully) share yours.

4. Write it down.

Since even young memories can turn fuzzy, suggest that your student keep a small notebook and after each visit, jot down a few salient details or even create a personal rating system (stars, hearts, whatever) to track impressions of each school. That way, weeks or months later, all of you will be able to remember which college had the Great Books program, which specialized in foreign languages and study abroad and which had the fabulous frozen yogurt.

5. Go the extra mile.

If your prospective candidate knows a current student, try to arrange a meet-up, if possible, over a meal or a dorm visit. If your son or daughter has a special passion, pursue its possibilities on campus, even if that area is not highlighted on the official tour. Perhaps your daughter is a budding actress: Make sure to see the theater or better yet, attend a performance if there’s time. Maybe your son wants to work out every day: See how far the gym is from the dorms. Regardless of whether your student wants to write for the school paper, grab a copy of the latest issue or check it out online; you’ll learn a lot about what’s important to students at that campus. And do check out the local community, too — restaurants, shops and stadiums as well as the bus or train station or airport for visits home.

6. Cut your losses.

To avoid burnout (or worse still, your kid’s flat-out refusal to get out of the car), Nye suggests no more than six colleges per trip. It usually makes sense to divide school visits geographically, and do the ones farther away on a spring break or summer vacation and the ones closer to home on a weekend or high-school day off.

You can also consider touring colleges after, not before, your student has been accepted, a money-saving approach which narrows the field and allows your student to focus only on the schools that are real possibilities.

But if you can swing it, in-person campus visits before your student applies can provide a gut feeling that a college could be the right fit. “It’s like house-hunting, when you walk in and know that a place feels like home," Nye says. "So many times kids come back from a college visit and say, ‘I found my people!’ You can’t get that out of a book.”

Elizabeth Fishel is the author of five nonfiction books including Sisters and Getting To 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years (with Jeffrey Arnett).  She has contributed to numerous magazines including Vogue, Ms., New York, The Writer, and Oprah's O.  She has written for Next Avenue since 2014. Read More
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