Visiting US Colleges: Top Tips

Guides / USA

The US college road-trip is a rite-of-passage for many families. Everyone heads off, visiting two colleges a day, staying in hotels and exploring the future. They have become such a staple of popular culture that a few years ago Yale did a widely-imitated spoof of the whole thing:

For international families there is a variation on this, typically involving a long initial flight, and they might not have the opportunity to go more than once. These trips can sometimes feel very pressured, with a lot riding on the time spent to really choose where to apply.

So, to help, here are some tips:

  • Understand the format. Having done many, many US college visits, I’m used to what will happen. Typically an admissions officer runs an information session, perhaps with a video, takes some questions, and perhaps has some interaction with the audience. Then a group of trained student ambassadors will take you on a campus tour (typically while walking backwards), answering more questions and showing you the key things. Don’t be surprised by this the first time, so that you miss the opportunity to make the most of the visit.

  • Make sure you research the universities you are visiting in advance. When you are on campus, you want to be able to spend time getting a feel for the environment, the people and anything that you can’t work out from the website. Spending some time in advance taking notes means you can use your time on campus more effectively.

  • Take photos on your phone of things you want to think about later, or discuss with your family. If you are seeing two colleges a day over a week, it’s easier to forget things at a later date. When you arrive on a campus, take the first photo of something with the college’s name on, so that you know which photo relates to which college.

  • If you can, when you leave each campus take some notes. If you do choose to apply to this college, you’ll most likely have to explain why you are applying as part of the college’s application supplement, so noting down your first impressions (perhaps while in the car on the way to the next place) is helpful for later.

  • As a common courtesy (and, of course, for the purposes of demonstrated interest), make sure to write an email to the admissions officer thanking them for their time and asking any follow-up questions (if you have any). Making a good impression can be important in this process.

  • Most importantly, when you are in the midst of the campus tour, give yourself a minute or two to disengage from what’s going on around you. Don’t be swayed by the comments of others in the group, or your family, but take time to ground yourself and look around. Can you see yourself at this institution? If not, why not? What would it need to have for you to feel that this place was somewhere you could call home for four years? When I’m visiting a college I like to hang off the back of the group while crossing an area of campus and take it all in, giving thought to which of my students I could see at this institution.

Clearly, as the University Guy, I’m a bit of a geek for all of this as I love visiting new universities. Hopefully these tips will help you in your college tour experience.