The Lowdown on Campus Tours

Choosing a college is a huge decision, and to ensure that it's the best possible fit -- academically, socially, financially and even geographically -- it's a good idea to tour several campuses before enrolling.

"It's amazing how many students choose a campus never having set foot on it," says Valerie Bordeaux. She's director of university outreach and school relations at California State University Long Beach, and director, president scholars program. "That may be for financial reasons, but the choice about the institution you'll attend is so important, you should take the opportunity to tour."

"I think it's fair to compare choosing a college to any major purchase," says Carol DelPropost. She's assistant vice-president for admission and financial aid at Ohio Wesleyan University. "You look at all the features and options, and think about what will best suit your needs. This is a huge investment, and you need to try it on for size."

The first thing a campus tour can do is dispel false perceptions about a school. "I think the biggest misconception is that since our campus is so big, [people] are known more by numbers than names," says Mike Kolar. He's the assistant director of the office of admissions at Michigan State University (MSU). "That's not the case. There's as much warmth and personality there as a small private school. We hear that quite often."

He says that prospective students touring the campus experience that friendliness. "We always hear about how willing our undergraduates are to lend a helping hand to visitors -- whether it's pointing them in the right direction to the Union, or telling families why they chose MSU."

Jennifer Arcuri, a senior at Pace University in New York, toured numerous campuses before deciding on Pace. She says, "They were all very valuable, and are very much a turning point for decision-making for prospective students."

Arcuri checked out campuses primarily in large cities and toured another school's campus seven times. She says that after being away from New York for 18 months, she toured Pace and really appreciated how it differed from the other schools she had seen.

"The school was so hands-on and really stressed the importance of working and being in the real life of New York City," she says. "The guide really stressed the 'areas of knowledge' classes and the core classes that, more or less, made you take part in some kind of civic engagement within the city. The thought of having the whole city as my campus really excited me."

Just how many colleges a student should tour is an individual decision, but it shouldn't be so many that it becomes overwhelming or confusing.

"There are some students who begin very early with a long list, and will visit 12 or 14 schools. I honestly don't recommend that," DelPropost says. "I think that's really stretching yourself thin in terms of being able to absorb enough and make logical comparisons. But four, five, or six is a good number."

There's also the question of whether to group the tours together in a short period of time, or space them out over several months. Logistics and travel budgets might make it easier to visit several campuses in one trip. DelPropost says that this can be a good thing as comparisons are fresh in the student's mind, but adds that whirlwind tours can be overwhelming and exhausting.

"The real advantage of spacing them out is that you can absorb that one visit, form some lasting impressions, and have some time to reflect on that experience," DelPropost says.

The key to a successful tour is being organized. Because students will likely tour several colleges, they need to keep records that allow them to make well-informed comparisons and decisions later on.

"I always tell students to take notes, or bring digital cameras and take plenty of pictures, because six months from now you'll say, 'Now where was that great residence hall I liked? Was it at this campus or that campus?'" says Cheryl Brown, director of undergrad admissions at Binghamton University in New York state. "We always tell students to keep a file on their college choices."

DelPropost suggests students keep a journal complete with a checklist and column for each school they visit. "That requires thinking ahead in order to develop the checklist, although there are many available on the web so students can print one out and add to it."

Parents should help students prepare for the tour, and figure out what they want to learn from it. Check out each school's website. See if you need to pre-arrange an opportunity to sit in on a class or two. Figure out in advance the types of questions you'll want to ask.

"Some of the best questions are really geared to our students. Why did they decide to attend MSU?" Kolar says. "Asking about opportunities outside the class helps students become aware of the numerous student groups, organizations, study abroad [programs] and internship opportunities, etc..."

"I don't think there's anything students or parents should avoid asking," Bordeaux says. "This is their opportunity. They're looking to select the university that's going to provide them some of the most important days of their life. Some will meet their mates or best friends, choose a career, fall in love with something they discover -- so just ask. If it's something that's uncomfortable for the tour guide, so be it. I don't mean they should be obnoxious or anything, but this is their opportunity to make one of the most important decisions in their life. I don't think there are any dumb questions."

Who asks the questions is a personal decision. "If you're a parent, you should talk with your child beforehand about how comfortable they feel with their parent asking questions, or if it might be better for a parent to take a separate tour," says DelPropost.

"Parents should not take over the tour," Bordeaux says. "Not only does that make it uncomfortable for their student, but it also impacts the others on the tour."

To get the flavor of the school, Arcuri suggests observing people on campus, eating in the cafeteria and taking in a game or a school theater production while there. "Get an understanding of not only the academic environment, but the social climate of the school," she says.

Assess your visit immediately after each tour, jotting down any additional thoughts that come to mind -- even little details. "Go on the college's website to refresh [your memories] after you've been on the tour, and connect the visuals to what the campus is all about," Brown says. She also advises students to pay attention to their gut feelings.

"Get a feel for things," Bordeaux says. "Check out the campus, connect with the students, and see what the community has to offer so you can make the best choice for you, so you can thrive in your college years."

You don't have to wait until your senior year of high school to tour college campuses. Bordeaux notes that her university offers family and individual tours, as well as group tours for middle schools, high schools, community colleges and community groups.

Additional Tips

  • Best time to take a campus tour: when classes are in session
  • Worst time to take a tour: weekends or holidays
  • Ask about the student-faculty ratio
  • Ask about student support services
  • Ask about campus security
  • Ask students and faculty about their own experiences on campus
  • Check out the community
  • Don't forget to ask about extracurricular activities