Which Colleges Should I Visit?

Is there a strategy to deciding which colleges to visit?
I got that question via email from a mom who attended my college workshop over the weekend at the University of California, San Diego.
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.
Here is the mom’s 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

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.
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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