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Top 10 Things I Learned from 23 College Tours

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

I consider myself a professional college tourist, having taken my first-born across the country to 23 schools on his long list, starting in sophomore year. To save you time and money, I’ll let you in on a few secrets to maximize your opportunities and get the most out of your experience.

1. All College Tours are the Same

Yes, it’s true. Each tour guide walks backward and makes the same joke about doing so. Each school has its quirky legend about not walking through a gate or stepping on a seal for fear you won’t graduate/pass an exam/get in. Each school flaunts its 400+ clubs and Quidditch team. Still, I say that...

2. College Tours are Essential

How can that be if the tours are all the same? First, there is no substitute for setting foot on campus and picturing yourself living there for 4 years. I never expected to have a visceral reaction to walking the grounds, but both my son and I “felt” the fit or lack of within hours. Secondly, the trick is what you do while you’re on the tour, which has very little to do with listening to the spiel. But before we get there, make sure you’re set up for success.

3. Plan Ahead

I recommend spending a day devoted to campus-related activities and staying overnight if possible. This allows you to maximize your time on campus and the surrounding areas. As tempting as it may be to book a summer road trip, try to make your tour while school is in session. Reserve a tour and an information session on the school’s website. Note: tours fill up quickly on school holidays. Many schools track interest, and signing up for a tour is one way to demonstrate interest and get on their mailing list.

4. Know Your Lane

If your student is interested in a particular major or department, be on the lookout for interest-specific tours to sign up for such as Engineering or Music. Call ahead to see if you can arrange to sit in on a class or conduct an interview while you’re on campus (but only if you’ve prepared and practiced for the interview.

5. Fuel Up Before You Tour

Our favorite activity before a tour quickly became seeking out the local coffee spot and grabbing a table before the morning class commute. This is an ideal time to student-watch. Are students meeting with professors or classmates and engaging in discussion? Do they look stressed and harried or relaxed and confident? Do they look excited for their day?

6. Take Notes in the Info Session

I often find that though the content is largely the same, the presenters will give you tidbits about what they are most proud of at their school. These are great nuggets to pay attention to because they reflect the culture of the school and may help your decision and also to include in your “Why X School" essay later on.

7. Multi-task on the Tour

As stated earlier, the tours will largely be the same. Spoiler: they have a library! Your job on the tour is to listen second and observe first. Watch the students walking to class. Do they have AirPods in and heads down, or are they engaged in conversation? If it’s a nice day, are they out in the quad exercising or relaxing? Do passers-by greet your tour guide or each other? Are they smiling? Look at the notice boards--are there interesting student clubs, performances, internship opportunities, or events? Do the students reflect the level of diversity that you are looking for in a learning environment?

8. Walk Fast and Engage your Tour Guide

I find this is one of the best sources for getting any questions answered. Don’t monopolize his/her attention, but get yourself to the front of the group once or twice and ask questions about your specific interests. Do students have access to recreational dance classes? How easy is it to get involved in research as an undergrad? Are their freshman-specific residence halls? What study abroad opportunities are available?

9. Record Your Observations

Write down (or use the recorder on your phone) to record your thoughts. Do it right after the tour especially if you have a few planned. They will start to run together. This will come in handy later when you are trying to be specific about why you are interested in the school and in making your final decision. What stood out to you? Where did you see yourself fitting in? How did the school differentiate itself in your mind?

10. Get off-campus

Before leaving the tour, ask your student tour guide for a restaurant recommendation. They will likely recommend a spot popular with the students. Think of yourself observing students in their natural habitat. Are students out and about in the town? Is there a town to be out and about in? Is there the appropriate amount of diversity of food and activities to pique your interest? Once we toured a promising school that fell off the list when we realized in the 2 days we were there, we had exhausted 60% of the restaurants in town. If you’re in a large city, try out public transportation getting to museums and other attractions.

Following these guidelines will help you optimize your time and energy and make for a more intentional application and decision process. Happy touring!

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