When Should You Visit Colleges?

Is there a strategy to deciding which colleges to visit?

That was the question on the mind of a California mom who emailed me this question:

In your opinion, is it better to spend the money now and visit out-of-state schools and meet with the admissions and/or financial aid offices or spend money to visit California colleges that she probably won’t give her any merit aid?

Our original thinking was to have her visit some UC (University of California) and CSU (California State University) schools as back-ups that we can afford (but she might not be happy at these schools in the long run.) I am concerned with the budget cuts and how students are taking longer to graduate from these schools.

It would be interesting to hear what you and your family did when you visited schools. Did you visit before your kids applied or waited until after you found out how much your aid package was? Does it help to meet with the admissions and/or financial aid offices before a student applies?

Visiting Colleges in Far-Flung Places

Clearly it’s much more expensive and involved for families out West to visit schools because you can’t just hop in the car and visit a bunch of colleges outside your own state on a long weekend. (Obviously families in other parts of the country face this same challenge.)

Families back East, where there is a high concentration of schools in close proximity, are clearly at an advantage. When we were driving in Pennsylvania on a college road trip, I swear I could have thrown a rock from any highway  or turnpike and hit a college in a state that’s chock full of them.

Both of my kids only applied to schools that they had visited first. By checking out schools in advance,  they were able to eliminate those that didn’t seem to be a good fit.  By the way, some of  this winnowing out seemed awfully subjective to my husband and me, but we kept our mouths shut.

As a practical and financial matter, we weren’t able to visit schools in every region.  My daughter, for instance, never got a chance to look at schools in the Midwest — she checked out schools in the Pacific Northwest and the East Coast.

My son was able to see schools in the Midwest — I particularly like schools in this region because the price for some of these private colleges aren’t as high as they are further East.  Ben also got to visit a few schools in Pennsylvania during a family trip when we were visiting our daughter who attended Juniata College. She was a starting forward on the school’s varsity soccer team and we got back to PA every year to watch her play a game – except for the year she spent at the University of Barcelona.

Getting Brownie Points for Visiting

Many private schools will give brownie points to students who show an interest in them. And a great way to demonstrate that interest is to visit the college and, if it’s available, sit through an interview.

Here is a post from my CBS MoneyWatch college blog that I wrote in 2011 about the University of Rochester that pinpoints what the payoff is for visiting the campus:

University Reveals the Secrets of Winning Merit Scholarships

If you wait until your child receives acceptance letters to visit schools, you won’t have much time. Acceptance letters often arrive in March and April and the deposit deadline is typically May 1.

In contrast, state schools generally aren’t going to give you bonus points for visiting their campuses. They also don’t offer interview opportunities — there are just too many students who apply. So if you’re going to plan a road trip, I’d visit private schools where showing up can actually count.

It can be expensive visiting colleges, but the cost can be worth it if you end up getting a better aid package because you made the effort to show up.

Cutting the Price of a College Tour

To cut the cost on college trips, I always bid for hotels and cars on Priceline. I never went with a hotel’s published price on Priceline, but instead I offered a low ball price through the site’s bidding process. Sometime I got a cheap price right away and other times I had to keep offering low ball bids for a few days. Unsuccessful bids require you to change a date/location/quality of the hotel or wait 24 hours to try again.

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  1. My son and I have visited many Colleges however there is another one that wants to see him 8 hours away that would be a reach academically to get in. Many Colleges are contacting him just because they want him to play Lacrosse at there school, we find a great fit with his major but his GPA is only 3.0 and his SAT are low and I was thinking I don’t want to waste a 8 hour one way drive to visit the Lacrosse Coach where he might love that school to only find out later due to his grades he wasn’t accepted. I was thinking I would rather wait and see if they accept him first since he already applied by the Nov 1st deadline and then if hey accept him visit the Coach.
    Help I need an opinion about this. I have never had a child that D2 and D3 schools are trying to recruit with a 3.0 and low SAT. Yes the Coaches want to see him but they can’t decide if he will be admitted many times.

  2. If i could attend the college of my choice. would was dreaming about going to college, but how was i going to pay for my education.. @ I am not sure right now because my family migrates. @

    Any question everybody?
    (???)-537-6531 …Call me..

    Have a wonderful day.

  3. Thanks Denise

    Very helpful! I know I have to get on these recordings soon. I had put them on the back burner when she decided to go for engineering.

    Had a great college visit yesterday. It is fun to see her so excited about schools…

    Now have to read today’s article about essays! Perfect timing.

  4. Another angle to Julie’s question about whether talent counts only if you major in it …

    I agree that the answer seems to be “talent matters for any student” — private schools look at the students holistically. One college we’re considering, Kalamazoo, says straight out on its website that musical talent gives applicants an edge, even if the student will not be majoring in music. Besides listing the experience on the resume, you can post videos of recitals on YouTube and include the links with your app. or resume. Or include a performance CD when you apply. That’s what Kalamazoo recommends. I’m sure if you dig deeply into the websites of schools you’re considering, you will find more info. And, you can always call admissions people and ask them.

    1. Thanks Denise. Great advice. Looking at a school’s website is always a must. And thanks for the inside scoop on Kalamazoo!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  5. We have visited many schools in our state (Texas) but like your suggestion of reaching further. It really helps not to just visit the schools but the departments of the majors you may be interested in.

    One very confusing part for us is my daughter is a classical singer but wants to major in engineering. We hear colleges like talent but how do you best show the talent unless you apply for music and travel to an audition??

    Does talent only count if you major in it?
    Is it enough to just sum years of work up on just a line or two in a resume?

    We are hoping this will help with merit scholarships because she has top scores/grades.

    The scholarship calculators do not consider talent OR the high school you come from.

    At our high school you have to take as many AP classes as are available (any regular class– that you can earn only 100% in — will kill your GPA and keep you out of the top 10%)

    Still looking for good fits out of state. Especially California – and have not found anything there! (She could have been 3rd generation at UC Berkeley)
    Best college book I have found! – reading it a 2nd time now! Thanks.

    1. Hi Julie,

      I think you raise a good point. If a child knows what major he/she is interested in, it makes sense to check out that academic departments of schools. The experience of students who major in physics could be completely different from the chemistry majors depending upon the quality of the professors.

      There are very few schools in this country where you need to take as many AP classes as possible. I realize that in Texas only the top 10% of students are eligible for UT Austin, which is what drives this practice. There is something similar in California where class rank is extremely important. California is a big public school state because it is so much younger than the states in the Midwest, South and East. Hence there aren’t as many solid college choices as you might imagine for the nation’s biggest state.

      State universities are going to chiefly measure students by their numbers – test scores, GPA and class rank. Schools that will appreciate a kid who is a classical singer (who doesn’t plan to major in this area) are going to evaluate applicants holistically. That will chiefly be colleges.

      Hope that helps.

      And one more thing. Since you mention how you like my book, The College Solution, I’d love to get a recommendation on Amazon if get a chance!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. I found it is good to contact the departments before you visit to make sure they are available for a tour. We are facing some more trips to now check out schools in depth.

        Actually UT Austin is top 8% now! All others top 10%

        I hate to say it but I do not think it is THAT competition that heats up the high school. Many top grads do not even wind up at UT they go for Duke, Stanford etc…

        Seven years ago I turned to the US News ranking and started looking at high schools. We decided to leave CA.

        Many people from around the country are having a hard time with their public schools at every level and can not pay for private. I believe those rankings are a huge factor in why certain public high schools are so competitive. A different school in the same town would have required far fewer APs — and is much less competitive to get into top 10%. This whole school district is highly ranked and growing in size and filled with people from all over (especially ex-CA). This could be a whole new book topic!

        I have recommended your book on Amazon and to some good friends as well. I had to buy it at a Barnes and Noble though because I could not wait to read it. I will let them know as well that I liked it.

        I will look at colleges and ones that evaluate “holistically”. Thanks!

  6. Hi Lynn,
    I just noticed you said your daughter played soccer at Juniata. Was that at all a factor in her choice to attend, or one of the filters for school?
    I’ve got one kid taken starting college next month but the second, a Sophomore, wants to play Field Hockey, which narrows our options significantly. And it sounds like we may have to start even earlier if she wants her athlete status to be a factor in admission and merit scholarship opportunities. I’m lobbying hard for her to play Division III so she can have a life.

  7. After my first son was admitted this year, I realized how much his opinion was formed by ‘rumors, opinions, and prejudices’ before he even stepped foot on a campus. It was mostly based upon information he received from older students and statements from fellow classmates, most of that again opinions formed without having visited the campus. Once he had a chance to see for himself, he became a much better decision maker.

    It is definitely important to visit. Our 11th grader will be touring UCLA, as UCLA has family come for the last day of our son’s orientation visit. They include programs for siblings, including our 11 year old.

    One note from a Princeton alum, and interviewer. He suggests being an undergraduate near where you will eventually live and raise a family. Afterward, you can go away to graduate school, while keeping alumni opportunities and contacts near your expected home. That being said, it is also a lot easier visiting nearby. And, you are right, there are a lot of private schools in the midwest and east compared to California.

    1. Thanks for your advice David. I agree with your observation about “rumors, opinions and prejudices.”

      I think one reason parents don’t like their children to leave their state is because of this fear that they will remain in the state where they attended college. I frankly think this is an overblown fear. My daughter is Exhibit No. 1. Students can have just as many connections or more where they grew up, not where they attended schools for four years.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    2. We advocate the opposite: Go far away for college and come back to CA for those same connections. There’s a huge difference in the connections you make at Wharton vs Stanford both in geography and career—do you want to be a tech exec/VC or a work on Wall Street? My late uncle went to Yale but went back home to Texas for law school–much more valuable to be a UT lawyer in Texas. I think that geographic advice would very much depend on what kind of grad school you envisioned. (And how likely the teen seems to stay the course.)

  8. I agree that college visits are very important. Living in Southern California, we also did day trips to visit local colleges and universities. The more tours my daughter went on, the more she was able to identify what she wanted in college and the types of questions to ask on future tours. I think the local visits gave her a base line for comparison when we toured out of state schools. We identified clusters of out of state schools that she was interested in; many located within an easy drive of each other and arranged our trips that way. Also some hotels near the schools will offer discounts if going on a tour, some of these hotels can be found on the college websites. The out of state visits really opened up my daughter’s eyes to what is out there since many of her peers only looked at schools in California.

    1. Hi Karen,

      I like your strategy. You also brought up an important point. Most kids stay in their own states to attend college even though they may have better opportunities elsewhere. Actually visiting schools in other states will often open the eyes of teenagers and, just as importantly, to their parents, to other possibilities.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  9. This summer, I had the choice of taking my rising senior son to tour colleges in one area outside of Calif. – for a couple of days only. The choices were two colleges in Ohio, or two in Iowa/western Illinois.

    On collegedata.com, under the “Admissions” tab and “Selection of Students,” there is a box for “student’s level of interest.” It varies from “Very Important” to “Not considered.”

    The two Ohio colleges say student interest is “very important” while the other two colleges only “consider” it.

    So, all else being nearly equal, we chose Ohio, and hoping that will help with merit aid. For those two colleges we can’t visit, my son can go to a local college fair, and also make his interest known via various web options — virtual tour, facebook, online chats.

    1. Smart decision Denise! I recommend that everybody look at those 19 admission factors that are in each school’s Common Data Set. The easiest place to see them is at COLLEGEdata.com.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy