College Tours and Decisions: 8 Tips

By Maxine Seya

A parent of a college bound senior called me this week.

She was distraught because her child got multiple offers of admission, but…

Parent wanted Child to attend the small, private Christian college with excellent academics. Child also got into a large public state university with a party scene and Greek life. While the academics programs aren’t as stellar, Child wants to go there instead.

What did I say?

“Well, have you visited either campus?”

“No.”

“So go visit with kiddo and you’ll be surprised what you might find.”

I wish I took my own advice when I was 17, applying to college. I didn’t visit Northwestern’s campus before applying. But the paper brochures were enough to sell me on the classic campus ashore a shimmering blue lake that ended up being gray 75% of the school year.

I’ve visited countless colleges since, on behalf of my students. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Treat the admissions office’s campus tour as just a start, not the complete package.

The campus tour, usually a group of 15-25 prospective students and families, is typically led by a current student with a part-time job or volunteer position in the admissions office.

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The tour usually starts with a brief PowerPoint presentation somewhere in the admissions office that goes over the basic facts about the university, popular majors, and FAQ regarding applications. Think of it like the college’s elevator pitch to you.

Then, the student guide leads the group outside.

This is where the walking tour starts.

What to expect on a college tour?

Tours are not always standard from campus to campus, but having attended many myself, they typically focus on the academic buildings, the history of the university, and a few folktales or anecdotes about past or present university associates.

Some parents think that the campus tour is enough to get a feel for the college. I find that these tours focus so heavily on the architecture and history of the collegeswhich may not have any impact on your student’s experience there.

Additionally, the student guides typically don’t have the knowledge — or permission — to answer detailed questions on selection processes, the overall culture of certain academic departments on campus, or the career prospects of every single major on campus.

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Instead of following the guide around campus for two hours taking pictures of squirrels on trees, try:

  • Getting to know the other tour participants (they, or others like them, may one day become your student’s future peers/friends/spouses!)
  • Walking alongside the tour guide when transitioning between buildings to ask personal questions

Guides often wish more tour participants asked questions or approached them during walks because not enough people take advantage of the resource!

Questions to ask on a college tour

Some questions to ask may include:

  • What other colleges did you get into and why did you choose this one?
  • What are common complaints about the college, campus, and major that you hear from your peers?
  • What do you and your roommates wish you could change about the campus?
  • Considering the campus, culture, academics, etc. etc., what makes you proudest of this college?
  • Is there any type of student you feel like wouldn’t be happy or succeed here?
  • Among the people you know who transferred out to another college, if any, what were the common threads?
  • What are little known perks or downsides of the college that the admissions office can’t tell us or doesn’t know about?
  • Considering the students in your major, dorm, clubs, department, sports team, etc., what would you say is the overall student personality of this college?
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Investigate the dorms, residences, and housing.

Dorms are not always what they seem. Online photos might look lovely, but photos don’t share any details on smells, noise level, or surrounding safety. Considering how many colleges require students to live on campus for one to two years, your student should at least believe that the rooms are tolerable.

If the college doesn’t offer a designated residential housing tour, make an appointment with the housing and dining services department.

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Maxine Seya
Maxine Seya is a former investigative journalist, college consultant, and admissions interviewer. She studied at Peking University (Beijing, China) and Université Paul-Valéry (Montpellier, France) and investigated for CNN and Huffington Post before graduating from Northwestern University. She founded SocratesPost to share the human stories behind the admission gates and offer parents clarity as they help their teens with college.