A Guide to Visiting Colleges

Summer is a popular time for high school students and their parents to visit colleges. While some are reluctant to visit when schools are not in session, colleges are actually quite lively during the summer. Many college students remain on campus to conduct research and others work in the admissions office as tour guides and student interviewers. High school students can definitely get a sense of the campus vibe, and they can also see if the campus aesthetic and location appeal to them. 

I advise my students and their families to think of college visits in three ways: criteria-building; list building; and choosing your home. What does this mean?


These “shopping around” visits are ideal for students who have completed 9th and 10th grade. These visits can be combined with vacations or visits to family and friends. On a criteria building college visit, students are information-gatherers, learning about different types of colleges. I recommend students visit small colleges and large universities, private colleges and public colleges, and colleges in urban, suburban and rural locations. The focus is not whether the student likes a specific college. What matters is whether the student likes a type of college.

These visits can include a student-led campus tour and admissions office information session. Or they may be a more casual walk around the campus (although I always recommend stopping by the admissions office to pick up materials). Students should visit the student center, the library, and a dining hall. Above all, they should talk to students they see on campus. It can be a little intimidating to go up to a college student and start chatting, but most college students love to talk about their college!

Students should take notes, because these “shopping around” visits will help them develop a list of criteria that they want in their college experience. That criteria can—and almost always is—refined as students delve deeper into college research. But understanding the differences (and similarities) among liberal arts colleges and research universities, public and private universities, and urban, suburban and rural colleges will be valuable as they build their college list later in high school.


These “serious shopping” visits take place during junior year and the summer between junior and senior year. At this point in high school, students have a better understanding of their academic and non-academic interests. They also have a better sense of their academic profile and where they will be a competitive applicant. Students will also have attended college fairs, spoken with their college counselor and started serious college research. (For more information about how to do college research, check out my recent blog.) Students can also refer back to notes they took on criteria-building visits.

List-building visits should include student-led campus tours and admission presentations. Some colleges also offer on-campus interviews, which can be scheduled at the same time. Where appropriate, students should make appointments to meet with a financial aid counselor, the writing center, disability services and academic support. If visiting when college is in session, students should see if they can attend classes. Sometimes they can even stay overnight with an enrolled student. Students should check out resources that are important to them—athletic facilities, arts facilities, labs and libraries, as well as the ease of access to medical care, including mental health counseling. And, students should chat with enrolled college students and ask them about their college experience.

On these list-building visits students zero in on the criteria each college has and whether they match what the student wants in their college experience. Now in serious-shopping mode, these visits are all about the specific college and whether they should be on the final college list. 

Choosing your home

These “ready to buy” visits take place in the spring of senior year, after students have received an offer of admission. Colleges typically have “admitted student” events to help students get to know the college better. For more information about how to choose the right college, check out my recent blog.