Ask Cappex: When is the Best Time for a College Visit?

on August 12, 2016

Our college expert Mark Kantrowitz answers your questions about college and financial aid.

Q: When is the best time to visit colleges? And do our parents have to visit, or should we go on our own to get a feel for it?

A: The best time to visit a college is when classes are in session and students are on campus. Otherwise, all you’ll see is a bunch of empty buildings. The main difference between colleges is not in the facilities or the faculty, but in the students. You need to interact with the students to see how well you fit in and whether you’ll feel comfortable on campus.

Too often, high school students visit colleges during spring break. While it can be convenient to visit colleges during your vacation, it’s not a good idea if your high school’s spring break happens to coincide with the college’s spring break.

So, before you schedule a college visit, call the admissions office to check the college’s calendar. Avoid college holidays, like Thanksgiving weekend, Christmas week, winter break and spring break. Don’t visit during final exams, since classes will have ended and students will be under a lot of stress. The admissions office can also arrange for you to stay overnight in one of the dorms with a current student.

Try to visit in the fall, before you decide whether to apply. Not only will this help you narrow down your list of colleges, but college admissions offices keep track of who visits the campus and what they did during the visit (e.g., went on a tour, sat in on classes, stayed overnight in the dorm). This is called demonstrated interest and can have an impact on whether the college admits you.

One possibility is to visit in mid-to-late August before the start of your senior year in high school but after the start of the college’s academic calendar.

If climate is a concern, consider visiting during inclement weather, not just on a warm, sunny day with blue skies.

The best time to visit during the week is during the first few weekdays, Monday to Thursday. Visiting on Friday or the weekend might give you a sense of the social life, but not the academic environment.

A virtual tour is not a good substitute for an in-person visit. While virtual tours can give you a sense of a college, viewing a few pictures and videos is not the same as actually being immersed in the college environment. You can’t get a real feel for the campus without actually visiting the college. For example, you can’t taste the cafeteria food virtually. If you don’t like the food in the dining halls the first time you try it, you’ll hate it after being forced to eat it for four years.

You should revisit your top choices after you are accepted. But, keep in mind that you may have only a few weeks to visit and make a decision before the National Candidates Reply Date on May 1. Some colleges host special open houses or other events for admitted students.

Besides serving as a source of transportation to and from the college, parents can provide you with a different perspective on the campus visit. But, parents need to learn to let go and let the student do most of the talking. You need to feel comfortable asking the questions that matter to you, without having your parents constantly looking over your shoulder. One solution is to split up after you arrive on the college campus. Tell your parents that you can cover more ground this way, especially if you’re going to be at the college for only a few hours.

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