You’ve probably felt the pressure to go on college tours, but just how important are they? Are they an essential part of the college planning process, or is it not a big deal if you opt out?
This guide will go over the most important reasons to visit a college, along with some circumstances when you might choose not to tour. We’ll also discuss how you can prepare to make the most out of your college visits.
First off, what are some reasons you should tour your prospective colleges?
Why Should You Tour Your Colleges?
There are several strong reasons to visit your colleges of interest. For one, seeing and learning about the school in person can be a huge help in determining where you want to apply. You can find out more about the college from firsthand sources, like your tour guide and other current students.
All of these impressions can serve as useful material if you need to have a college interview or write a supplemental essay about why you want to attend. Finally, having your name on the tour rosters can mark what many admissions officers call “demonstrated interest.”
Let’s take a look at each of these reasons in more detail, starting with how useful it can be to see a college and its surrounding environment in person.
See the college campus and its surrounding environment with your own eyes, like this intrepid explorer.
Reason #1: To See the School and City in Person
One of the most compelling and important reasons to tour your college is to see it firsthand! These are the classrooms, dorms, and library you’ll be living in for the next four years; you want to check them out in person before committing. Walk around, soak up the atmosphere, and listen to what your intuition tells you about how it would suit your personal and academic goals.
A college tour will let you see the buildings inside and out, including classrooms, dorms, dining halls, gyms, music rooms, and science labs. You can get a sense of what’s happening on campus on flyer-covered bulletin boards, and see the places where students congregate - especially if you visit when classes are in session.
The official tour will show you around campus, and you can check out the surrounding environment too. Some students are drawn to the busy, active vibe of New York City; others would prefer to study in a peaceful countryside setting. Some would love to see fall colors paint the trees on campus; others want to get as far away from the possibility of snow as they can.
As you explore the surrounding scenes, find out if there are cafes and movie theaters around, or if most students stay on campus to socialize. You may want to find out if the area's affordable or generally a safe place. If you're looking for mountains to climb, a suburban feel, a large music scene, or a big city full of business internship opportunities, you can see if the area has what you want.
Virtual tours and photos can only take you so far, and descriptions of colleges may be biased to promote it. The best way to get a genuine sense of the place is to explore it in person. You’re the one who will be attending, so you should first see it with your own eyes.
Learn about the college by going straight to the source.
Reason #2: To Learn About the School from Firsthand Sources
If your searches for school info have led down dead ends, then you know that admissions websites don’t always have the answers to all your questions. Tour guides will be there to answer any outstanding questions, plus they’ll teach you fun facts and history that give you a deeper insight into the college.
Most tour guides are current students who are big fans of the college. Since they’re students, they can give you firsthand knowledge of the student experience. In addition to getting your own questions answered, you can learn from the questions asked by others in the tour group.
Some tours involve an hour or so walk around campus. Others, though, involve a much more involved itinerary. You might be able to sit in on a lecture, meet with admissions officers or a professor, or even arrange to stay overnight in a dorm. That way, you’ll get tons of personalized guidance and stories from all different perspectives: faculty, administration, and perhaps most importantly, current students.
All of this can serve to fuel your excitement and enthusiasm about a school, which may empower you to produce an even stronger application. On the flip side, it may save you a lot of effort and an application fee if you discover, in the end, that the school’s not for you. Either way, clarifying your desires and reasons to attend is key before you apply.
Spark some ideas for any supplemental essays.
Reason #3: To Write a Killer “Why Us?” Essay
Besides amping up your motivation to create the best application you can, a college visit will help if you need to write an essay to the prompt, “Why us?” Not all colleges ask for this, but there are many that require a supplemental essay in which you delineate your reasons for wanting to attend.
Colleges want to ensure that you have specific knowledge of their culture, courses, professors, and other opportunities. If you can include something unique that you learned on a tour, rather than repeat info from their website, then your essay could stand out even more.
You don’t know what stories you’ll gain from your tour and exploring the surrounding area, so go with an open mind and see how your impressions translate to any supplemental essays that you may need to write. Just as some colleges ask you to write about your interest, some also keep track of their tour rosters to see if you “demonstrated interest” via a tour or communication with the admissions office.
Having your name on a campus tour list might officially document your "demonstrated interest."
Reason #4: To Officially Demonstrate Your Interest in the School
So far, we’ve talked about how personally illuminating it can be to tour your college and its surrounding environment. You may have also heard that touring can strengthen your chances of admission, because it shows you did your due diligence. So what’s the story with this idea of “demonstrated interest”? Does it really help you get accepted?
Admissions committees are, generally speaking, rather secretive about their processes. They emphasize that their process is a holistic one that considers the “whole student,” rather than pieces of data. While this system has its strengths, it also means that we don’t have clear answers about exactly how officers consider each piece of your application. In the end, we’re often left with the frustrating answer, “It depends.”
So as for how far demonstrated interest makes an impression on admissions officers, I’d also have to say, “It depends.” Generally speaking, the conventional wisdom seems to be correct - it can be in your favor for the college to have your name on its visit records.
The more you can connect with a school, by going on an official tour, emailing admissions officers, and/or speaking to faculty, the more interested in the school you’ll appear to be. It will seem as though you’ve been thorough in your research, and admissions officers can be fairly confident that, if given an offer of admission, you will accept and enroll.
Since colleges are looking to improve their yield - or increase the number of students who accept admission offers - they appreciate your “demonstrated interest.” A few admissions officers, furthermore, have said that they would perceive it as a lack of interest on the student’s part if she lived close by and didn’t ever take a tour.
This definitely isn't a make or break part of your application, but you certainly don’t want to come off as disinterested. Admissions officers value enthusiasm, excitement, and commitment.
On the other hand, some schools, probably for the sake of fairness or because they already have more than enough information to evaluate, don’t track your interest. Yale, for instance, says, “Yale does not track visits to campus or contact with our admissions staff for the purposes of evaluating applications." They want people to sign up for tours, so they have a sense of numbers, but they say they won’t look at it later.
Admissions officers understand that not everyone can tour a school. If you live far away, then they shouldn’t hold it against you. In the end, taking a tour is not essential, nor should it affect your admission chances very much.
If you live close to a college, then you should make every effort to demonstrate your interest by signing up and touring. If it’s geographically or financially difficult for you, don’t stress about it. In fact, there are a few reasons why it might not make sense for you to tour a school. Let’s look at what a few of these reasons are.
Don't worry if your college is just too far away.
Are There Any Reasons Not to Tour a School?
As I said above, don’t stress if it’s just way too difficult for you to visit a school. Some students apply to colleges across the country, and they might not have the time or money to visit all, or any, of their far-off prospective colleges. Others may be busy with after-school jobs or babysitting siblings, or they simply might not be able to afford the planes, trains, or automobiles to get there.
Distance and finances are two very understandable reasons for not being able to tour a college, despite your interest in seeing it firsthand. Hopefully, you can still reach out to administration and current students online and check out the photos and virtual college tours offered on many school websites.
Now, if your only reason for forgoing a tour is that you already know a lot about a school - perhaps a sibling already attended - I wouldn’t advise skipping it. It’s still a good idea to visit, demonstrate your interest, and shape your own impressions.
To reiterate, if visiting a school is burdensome or otherwise just not feasible for you, then don’t worry about it. If you have the means and time, then check it out! In that case, your next step should be signing up.
Like any good guest, make sure to RSVP to your college tour.
How Do You Sign Up for College Tours?
You can find tour schedules and sign-ups on each college’s website. You’ll often find this info on the admissions site under the heading of “Visit.” To get there most directly, you could search for “Name of College + Visit.”
If you want to check out what a few of these pages look like, you can see the tour information for Penn State, University of California at Berkeley, University of Chicago, and Harvard here. For colleges of historical interest, like Harvard, double check that you’re finding the tour for prospective freshmen, rather than a general historical tour!
You may notice that many schools offer a morning and afternoon tour. If you’re looking at schools that are close together, should you fit in two tours in one day?
How Many Tours Should You Sign Up for On the Same Day?
Since many schools offer two or more tours a day, some students try to fit in two or more in one day. While you may be able to check out two colleges if they’re close together, I recommend giving each visit the time it deserves. In addition to the one to two hours that most tours take, you may be able to sit in on a lecture or meet with an admissions officer.
Beyond the tour itself, you also should take some time to explore campus and the surrounding area, searching out the cafes, movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls, hiking paths, or whatever else you might be looking for in your life as a college student. So rather than rush around checking colleges off your list as fast as possible, make sure to take your time and make the most of your visit by focusing on one tour per day.
Most high school students are granted several excused absences in junior and senior year to visit colleges, and you may be able to find extra time by visiting on weekends. That being said, when’s a good time to visit colleges?
You'll see a much different college if you visit during the semester versus winter or summer break.
When’s the Best Time to Tour Schools?
Considering your school visits can help you determine what schools make your college list, it’s a good idea to visit in junior year or earlier. Most junior students are granted 3 to 4 excused absences to visit colleges. If you can’t miss a school day due to your high school's policy or a large workload, many colleges also offer tours on the weekends or over the summer.
The only drawback of visiting over the summer or, to some extent, on weekends is that you won’t get to see the college in full swing. There’s a big difference in the atmosphere if students are walking between class and studying on the lawn or the library versus cleared out and empty. Plus, with summer tours you may not have the opportunity for an overnight visit or to sit in on a lecture. Touring in the summer still beats no tour at all, but if you can, try to visit during fall or spring semester.
Colleges, by the way, usually have different vacations than do high schools. So if you’re too busy with assignments and after-school activities to tour during a school week, then you might go during February or April break or certain high school holidays that fall on a Monday.
You’ll be on vacation, but college students won’t be. This plan probably won’t work for the December holidays, though - colleges tend to have several weeks off, usually from early to mid-December to early to mid-January. Besides this big winter break, what other times are not ideal for touring?
Hey, where'd everyone go?
When’s the Worst Time to Tour Schools?
Colleges have a different schedule than do high schools. You can take advantage of your vacation times to visit colleges when classes are in session, but you also should probably plan to avoid college break times.
In addition to winter break, colleges have breaks over Thanksgiving and typically in the second or third week of March (spring break!). Before the December holidays vacation, they usually have a “reading period,” a week or two during which students study for finals and then take their exams. Classes won’t be in session. Reading periods and exam weeks usually precede the end of the fall semester and end of the spring semester.
Finally, if you’re interested in visiting admissions offices, then you should check ahead to make sure this is a possibility. Admissions officers get busy with application review season in March and April, so if you’d like to visit at this time and meet with an admissions officer, just make sure they have time to talk with prospective students.
However, you can still gain a lot from walking around campus and checking out the facilities and the surrounding city even if classes aren’t in session. But if you plan ahead, you can make the most of your visit by visiting during the semester and getting the truest sense of the college in action.
Apart from signing up for the tour, you should also prepare some questions to connect with your tour guide and find out more information about the college.
Before you visit, prepare some questions to ask your college tour guide!
What to Prepare for Campus Tours
College tour guides are there to help! Most tour guides are current students who are enthusiastic about sharing info and insight into the school. Make the most of your visit by preparing questions to ask. It’s especially important to prepare a list of questions if you’re meeting with an administrator.
So what should these questions look like? They might include,
- How much time do you typically spend on homework?
- What’s the average class size? (You may specify this question for a certain department.)
- What kind of orientation programs are there for freshmen?
- Are there opportunities for research in nanoengineering (or whatever the subject might be)?
- Can you talk about the community service clubs?
- Is it common to study abroad?
- What are the dorms like?
- How would you rate the food, on a scale from decent to inedible?
Do a lot of students belong to frats or sororities?
Really, you can ask anything you want to know that’s specific to your unique interests or goals. Find out answers to your questions that aren’t already available on the school website.
Now that you’ve made it this far, let’s summarize what you need to remember about why, when, and how to visit your prospective colleges.
To Sum Up...
If you're able to find the time, money, and transportation to visit your colleges, I highly recommend doing so. Not only will you learn a ton of important info about the school, but you'll get to see and sense the general atmosphere of the campus and its surrounding area. Since this is the place where you could learn, live, and grow for four years, you want to make sure it fits your goals and personality.
Most schools give juniors three to four excused absences to tour, plus you can go during your winter or spring breaks since colleges have different vacation schedules. Try to prioritize visiting when classes are in session. That way, you'll have more chances to sit in on a lecture, meet with administration or faculty, and get an authentic sense of the college when it's in full swing.
Sign up for tours online, and spend plenty of time exploring. Show up with some questions in mind. Your tour guide can especially give you genuine insight into the student experience and social scene on campus.
Visiting colleges will be a huge help in determining where you do and don't want to apply. In addition to weighing the courses and facilities the colleges have to offer, you should also make sure to listen to your intuition.
Take some time alone to sit on a bench or steps outside the library, look around, and see if you can picture yourself there. If you feel it would be a great fit, you may, after your visit, be even better equipped to communicate why in your application. Then, hopefully, admissions officers will feel the same way!
Just as you should explore the surrounding environment when you visit college campuses, you should also take the time to think about what kind of place would best fit you. Do you want to go to a big school or a small school? Do you want to stay close to home or look farther away? Check out these guides for more on how to decide and what other factors to consider when creating your college list.
Another concern when making your college list may be financial aid. If this is important to you, check out these 27 colleges with the best financial aid!
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.