College Visits

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College visits to the UCs and East coast - what works, what doesn't?

May 2014

Our elder daughter is now a high school sophomore, so we're starting to think about college visits... we'd be interested in hearing from those who've done them, what works and what doesn't, when's the best times for visits, and what things to look (or look out) for. What did you do on campus, e.g., sitting in on classes, extracurricular activities, etc.?

She'll likely be applying to one or more of the UCs, but also schools in the East, and we're thinking that a spring break trip to some of the latter would be good.

Future Grad Dad

Our kids are juniors and we just went through this process. Since we live in sunny California and have just visited the snow for a few days every year, we told them if they want to apply to a college in a cold weather area, we were going over winter break.

They decided to stick to UC & CSU schools and so we visited the ones that had tours during winter break (Cal Poly SLO & UC Santa Barbara) (most UC's don't).

We visited UC Santa Cruz on the Friday of President's Day weekend (which they had off, but UCSC was still in session).

Over spring break we visited: UCSD, UCI, & UCLA on one trip to southern CA and then UC Davis on the Friday of spring break.

That was a whirlwind week, but helped solidify which schools they liked best.

We visited UC Berkeley last fall during homecoming weekend when they had tours led by students. I would say that we got the most out of the tours when school was in session (during spring break), so I would make sure you visit the schools your daughter likes the most when school is in session.

Watch carefully when tours are available to be scheduled. We missed the deadline for UCLA, but checked back a few weeks before we were going and a spot opened up. All UC's have self guided tours (we went on our own at UCSB), but the student led tours are much better. So check every day once you decide which schools you are visiting.

While on our visits, we made time to look around the surrounding area to see what else there was to do (the beach was popular with our kids. :))

We didn't sit in on a class because by the end of the college tour and sometimes a separate housing tour, they'd had enough. Visiting dorms is definitely a must (At UCSC it was part of the tour, but at other places it was separate). They were able to start imagining living there in a couple of years. We also ate lunch on every campus to get an idea of what food was available besides the dorms. Try not to get too depressed by all the downer admissions presentations you'll attend and articles in the paper about how it is getting harder to get into UC.

Good luck. We are finding the process very stimulating as they approach the biggest decision they've had to make so far. -parent of twins

College visits are so much fun! Spring break of junior year is the perfect time to do visits to distant locations like the East Coast. I did a huge trip with my son then and we both had a great time. I think it's wise to visit a lot of colleges so that your student can begin to figure out what they like and don't like: does it feel too big/small, too remote, are the students the kind of people you could see yourself hanging out with, are the academics in line with your interests, what is dorm life like?

Schedule a variety of schools that are in her range of interests so that she can get a sense of what she likes. Talk to a college counselor in advance so that you are looking at schools that she has a shot at getting into, and see a variety on the selectivity scale.

Look at all of the school schedules in advance, some might be on spring break at the same time. I don't think it's worthwhile to visit a campus when students aren't there; there's so much you don't see. Stay flexible. We went to one school with 10,000 students and my son said after seeing it that he didn't want to go to a school that big. So we crossed other big schools off the list and adjusted our visits to fit in more small schools.

We typically did student-led tours, which give you a good overview. Some schools let students visit classes, which is great if available. Eating in the dining hall is a must, not only do you taste the food, but you sense whether students are all hunched over their phones and laptops or sharing meals and conversation. Info sessions are good at the beginning but get old after a while, most of the information they give you is about admissions and can be found on the website.

It's a popular time to visit, so book early. Have a great time! Anon

My daughter just finished her first year of college and is really happy! She also applied to UC and private schools back east. We were able to go to the east coast twice--spring of junior year and spring of senior year after she already had her admissions. this was really great. She didn't visit all the schools twice but was able to visit her top two choices twice (well, she didn't get into her top choice but she was able to visit the two schools that became her top choices twice!). Visiting was so important in making the final decision. She was depressed after visiting one and happy after visiting the second--it was very clear. She/we mostly just did the official tour and info session--a lot became clear from that. At one school where she knew a current student she spent the night. best wishes

We did most of the college visits in the summer between Sophmore and Junior year. The good thing about going then is the visits are big motivators for doing well Junior year. It was also a nice way to spend time together. If any of your friends' children are at a college they are wonderful tour guides -- we saw Santa Cruz and Reed that way. Overnights during the spring of junior year and the fall of senior year are invaluable in making choices. The other thought I have is that if you need financial aid, you may want to consider what places are worth visiting. For example, we visited Macalester and they didn't come anywhere need meeting our FAFSA demonstrated financial aid. In those terms the best places were the Ivies and the Women's Colleges. In a way it is sort of annoying because schools say they will meet demonstrated need, but many consider offering you thousands of dollars of loans a way of meeting need. UCs are better, especially with the new middle class subsidy they are offering. That said things worked out for our child at an Ivy in the end. anon

We have just come through the college process and are getting ready to send my daughter off in three months so here is my best advice:

1) Don't bother doing a big tour of possible schools;

2) Visit different campus sizes/locations to get a sense of what your child likes (around here you can go to St. Mary's, Berkeley, Stanford, USF, etc.);

3) In the winter/spring of junior year if your child has an absolute top choice go visit that school, if it stays their top choice consider doing early application/decision;

4) Once your child gets their admits, assuming there is not one winner, go visit the top 3-4, most schools will offer overnights at this point and let your child take classes (which makes a huge difference for decision making).

5) If you child does have a clear top school that they are sure about, do the early decision thing - the difference in admit rates for early decision to regular decision can be as big as 20% (e.g. early admits 25-30%, regular admits 8-10%).

Take a deep breathe - relax - and know that you will get there! Maggie

I have done many, many college visits as both a high school teacher and parent, and the most important thing IMHO is to be sure that school is in session when you visit. Do not go on weekends or during the school's Spring Break. A college campus feels entirely different as a bunch of empty buildings versus with actual students milling about. The students create the ''vibe'' that your kid will feel and like or not like. Take the official tour, but be sure that you stick around and see what it looks and feels like between classes, in the eateries during lunch, etc. --BTDT

SoCal College Visit Trip

March 2012

Hi, thinking of heading down South for Spring Break to look at colleges with my son who is math/science oriented. Just trying to figure out the best way to go about this and how many schools we could realistically expect to visit in 3 or 4 days. is there a good central place to stay to be able to hit several such as UCLA, USC, Caltech, maybe UCSD? Are tours the way to go? Any and all input appreciated! Mom just getting started

We did best touring one college per day, and signing up for the official tours, but we had one week to see 6 colleges, most of them miles apart. It's hard to get the flavor of a campus without talking to students, although some schools' admission offices sponsor online student blogs for this purpose, and the students will answer emails. When you're on campus, remember to notice subtle things like body-language and expression: Are students walking alone only? Do they look oppressed, animated, thoughtful, cheerful, defensive? Are conversations going on around you? Are any students having fun together? What do the posters at the student center and dorms say-- are there activities, problems, upcoming concerts? Do you see any professors? Is there recycling and bike paths? Do the students look like people your student would like to know? The student newspaper (if any) is also a good source of flavor. Try to have a good time, too!


How to organize college visits?

Jan 2010


Our daughter is a sophomore in high school, and beginning to think ahead to college. She's very interested in attending a small liberal arts college on the East Coast, but that is pretty abstract and not connected to any college in particular. I'd like to take her back East over spring break to begin the process of identifying which school(s) might be a good fit. I know that there is a current discussion here about organizing oneself for the college application process, but we have specific questions about college visits: how to sort out which of the many prospective colleges a student should actually visit, how to narrow down the field, how many visits to fit into a week's time on the East Coast, how to see the student body in action, and so forth. Anything else we should be thinking of? We are in the earliest stages of the process and want to make the best use of our time back East in the spring. Early planning stage

This is a great website: Have you tried it yet? It really helps to sort colleges by types and regions, also admission requirements, and financial info is all there. Best of all its FREE. Before you buy anything start with that website.

The problem with Spring break visits is that the colleges may also be on Spring break. It all depends. I don't know if there is an ideal time to visit. We visited in early June at the end of a High School year. Downside: classes were not in session at most schools; Upside: students were on campus getting reading for Summer Sessions and we were able to get a lot of inpromptu one on one tours, and get a real feel for the schools.

We overestimated how many schools we could see, and underestimated how much time it would take at each campus and to travel between schools in regions we did not know well. 2 schools per day really is max. In Boston I think we saw 4.

We also liked this website and bought some of the guides:

My student was very interested in student quality of life, and looking for peers she with whom she felt connected.

Every campus tends to have a distinct style, especially since colleges often have a type of student they are looking for. You often see very diverse ethnic and racial student bodies, yet there is a definable narrow range of personality types to each school. Hard to see that on the standard scripted tours, but you get more of a feel by walking around, talking to students, or sending your student to spend an overnight visit. Hate to stereotype but small colleges are more like villages than cities IMHO. If you find a comfortable fit, it goes a long way.

Beware, you might want to attend college too


Are college visits helpful? If so, when to visit?

Dec 2009


My son is junior in High school and I am sure this question must have come many times, what is the best time for High school student to visit colleges, should they visit college during junior year? My take is that they should visit after they have been accepted by few colleges then to make a decision between those colleges they should visit only those colleges. I want him to apply to all the good colleges based on college ranking. Please share your views and experience on this. N

Late Winter early spring. Were the visits helpful? NO!

My child found more info about the colleges he was intersted in on- line. (And not on the college's web site either, use the sites the studnets use.

Many colleges have class lectures on-line now which is a good way to get a feel for what classes are like. (My child actually took a full semester class from MIT while in High School to see what it was like.) He purchased the text on Amazon, took the exams, graded them himself and took the final all for a class that took place 2 years ago. (This was done all for fun, no credit was received.)

Once my child was accepted we did visit the school that was the first choice just to make sure he would like it and be happy there.

Use on-line resources. Look at instructors web site, studnet web sites/forums, and YouTube videos. ANON

I felt visiting colleges was essential for my children. They both had the chance to see the layout of the schools, observe the population (diversity), sit in on some classes, get a feel for the culture (a central meeting place for students, near stores, dorm life, necessitating a car, etc). Back East--the weather (we went over spring break here--it was snowing there). It was really important to go while classes were in session. They had the opportunity to talk with students to see what they liked/disliked about the school and why they chose it. That said, it's not cheap to go East. We planned it so we saw several in the general area--it takes some work to pull it together but I'm glad we did. It made her choices so much clearer. Good luck. been there, done that

With 2 kids in college and a nephew who is a senior, we found college visits to be an absolute neccesity to assist the kids in deciding what felt right for them. We are lucky in the Bay Area that there is close proximity to many many schools and its easy to do. Your child should first look at the different school and decide what they are interested in and which school might have it. We went to a few schools we knew she wasn't interested in but they were nearby and it was good to see a variety.

We did alot of school visits over spring break junior year - the UC's and CSU's we went to were all in session and they all have great tours - you need to book far in advance for some schools and others you can just show up - check the web sites - they all have prospective student websites. We did a 6 day trip south and managed to see UCLA, San Diego State, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach. My daughter went on to Davis on a bus offered by Davis that took kids from the local high schools. She went with other families to see a few other schools and we also took some other kids with us. At many of the sites she knew some kids who were older and attending and we met up with them to see dorms and talk to them about their experiences. The kids also traveled on their own to a few schools where they had friends they could stay with and attended the tours and visited with friends and were able to stay in the dorms to also see more schools than I had time to take them to.

My daughter did apply to several private and out of state schools, where it would have been necessary to get some financial aid to attend. We decided to wait to see if she got in and if they offered aid and then we could schedule a trip to visit if it was a viable option. good luck

The College Board website is a good place to start - This is a free website with lots of info

Everything will cost time or time + money, so first thing set aside time every week, if your teen is not interested maybe cook a fav lunch or bake cookies, find something to engage her in the search since she is going to college.

You can visit local campuses after school, on a teacher's work day or on weekends. Even if she is not interested in that school, you can get a feel for other campuses, - an older campus vs a modern one, a commuter school vs one with dorms etc. Traveling to out of state campuses or out of town ones is very worthwhile but again will either entail a lot of driving or some cash or credit card miles to buy plane tickets. Most colleges will require appts and will have tours at specific times, and certain days.

Make an appt with her college counselor ASAP, even if they are busy - hopefully her school still has one. If not the public libraries probably have college catelogs, and the main books that list all the schools. Contact schools online - they all have websites, send for catalogs from only the most interesting ones - or you will have too much to look at.

Private colleges are incredibly expensive these days. Full scholarships are rare, though we are supposed to get better breaks from the Feds soon. You might look at state schools like University of Texas, or Canadian public colleges that have much lower tuitions.

She can also attend a Community College for two years and take the track that helps her transfer to a UC. CSU however has many campuses with great programs so I would not overlook, or underrate that option. Coming out of college without a backbreaking load of debt is an important consideration, very few professions help you pay off that debt quickly. been thru college apps, looking at grad school now

We waited until our daughter received acceptances, then we narrowed down our visits for Spring of her senior year. We made plans to reserve time to do this and visited three schools up and down the west coast, including Canada. There was one east coast school that we would have made a trip for, but that was the one school to which she was not admitted. We were able to make appointments at each school and often on-the-spot were able to get tours of specific departments. This worked out well for us, however, if your son is set on a non-west coast university, then it may help to check some of them out ahead of submitting applications. Mother of a Sr in college


Pre-organized trips to visit various california colleges?

April 2009


My daughter is a sophomore in high school and next year we will have to start deciding on colleges to which she will apply. Does anyone know of any college trips that are pre-arranged? When I was growing up, my parents paid for me to go on a trip that was organized and led by a woman who did this for her living. We visited most state and UC schools-stayed overnight for a few nights- it was quite fun and very helpful. I am a single mom with another teenager and cannot imagine planning a trip to various schools on my own-the logistics of when to visit-who to meet-campus tours-where to stay-all overwhelms me a bit. Any advice helps! thanks! anon

Yes, I can highly recommend a local resource: College Choices 4 U, Judith Flannery, San Leandro, (510) 276-7021. Judith is an independent college advisor. My daughter and many of her friends went on a well-paced organized 7 day trip to I think 7 or so colleges (public and private, big and small, coed and all women, religious and not) in SO CAL with Judy in 2006 when my daughter was a sophomore in HS, during Easter break. It was very well planned, structured and open at the same time, and was reasonably priced. It included fun outings( a day in Disneyland)with all the campus tours, etc. My daughter had a great time and got all the information she needed to take the next steps. Excellent approach, professional and both parent and girl-friendly. Louise


Visiting Colleges during Spring Break

Jan. 2002


We're parents of a junior. During the Spring break and summer we'd like to tour some college and university campuses in Southern California and the Southwest or the Northwest? Any ideas of where to begin in terms of joining an organized tour anytime? Help! Cathleen

Some high schools sponsor trips for groups of students to certain sets of colleges the school considers to be interesting. But that kind of 'tour' (back east, say) may not hit the places that your student is really interested in. Also, the tours I've heard of have been for the students (and a few teachers or advisors) only, not for families. (I could be wrong.)

If you want to go as a family and to visit several different kinds of places, I suggest that you narrow your focus ahead of time. So where to begin your campus tour - at the bookstore! The problem with choosing a college is not that there are too few, but that there are too many. I'd suggest that before you go off to Southern California, the Southwest, or the Northwest with your High School junior, you pick up a copy of the latest annual 'Fiske Guide' to the most interesting colleges in the US. It will tell you a LOT - my daughter and I read it almost cover to cover. My son skipped over almost all of the liberal arts colleges and concentrated on technical/research institutions. Also pick up a copy of 'The College Admissions Mystique' by Bill Mayher. Talk as a family about what your own student is interested in. We made up matrixes with colleges down the side vs. desired qualities (according to your student) across the top. From 25 or 30 to start, we narrowed the list to 10 or 12. Even that was too many to visit for us, partly because they were really spread out across the country.

Before making travel reservations, find the web sites of the colleges you are most interested in. Take their virtual tours. They are fun and give you a beginning impression of the campus. Also check the college ratings online or in a magazine (Business Week?). Then make up your own itinerary of what you what to see. Call to get reservations at the individual campuses, and also for interviews on-site if they are available or necessary. Either through friends or by calling the Admissions Office, it can be arranged for your student to stay overnight at the dorm, to go on a tour, etc. If you are interested and get on the mailing list, the campus may send you flyers about open houses or special events for prospective students and their parents. You may want to be with your student part of the time and then to let them off on their own part of the time.

It is good to visit before applying if you can! After getting the acceptance letters, if you still haven't seen the colleges, you can visit then (April of Senior year). Nice to know your student is accepted, but then he or she is under pressure to decide pretty quickly. And the air-fare at short notice can be costly. My daughter turned in her response in person at the campus of her choice on the deadline day. Whew! (She's in grad school now.) Good luck and have fun!



Do parents go with teens to visit colleges?

Aug 2000


My daughter is going to be visiting some colleges this fall. Her father or I plan to go with her, which annoys her greatly. She says that No one's parents accompany their kids on these visits. Since visiting the financial aid people is the main item on our parental agenda, something our daughter can't do effectively herself, we figure she will just have to get over it. However, I am wondering if parents do or do not generally go with their kids on these visits. Also, how is this handled when the college invites the child without mentioning the parent? Louise

When I went to a college with my daughter last week, every student was accompanied by at least one parent. The tour was for everyone - parents and students. The interview was for the student alone. While the student was being interviewed, an admissions officer conducted an informational session for the parents. I believe this is standard procedure. Cynthia

Reply to Louise re: Visiting Colleges: I went with my almost 17 year-old daughter the first 2 weeks of August to visit a few colleges down in Southern California (this trip was combined with a vacation). Although I have come to accept the fact that teens do not want their parents around and want to handle their lives themselves, I can tell you that my daughter never said one word against us going together and, as a matter of fact, she was somewhat relieved and even glad that I was there with her (there are a lot of questions to ask!). I can also tell you that, from what I've seen this summer (we toured 5 colleges) most high-school students had at least one parent--if not the whole family!--touring the campus with them. There were just a few students without a parent, but they were in a small group with some of their friends or colleagues. Even though the colleges' invitation is in the student's name, parents are always welcome and to a certain extent, expected. Patricia

I just sent my daughter off to her freshman year at Mt. Holyoke. I think she made a marvelous choice. Her college counselor stressed that kids should take their own look at colleges, so when we went for visits, I toured on my own unless she really wanted me there. She flew to Massachusetts by herself to visit Mt. Holyoke, Smith, etc., and discovered that Mt. Holyoke was just right. I could take care of all the financial aid negotiations by phone and letter. Sally

I teach at a university and I have seen many parents on campus with kids who are prospective students. My feeling (as a parent and a professor) is that it is a very good idea for parents to get a sense of the environment their child will enter -- the total environment, not just the curriculum and the dorms and the financial situation. For instance, where I used to teach, the only shopping and entertainment area within walking distance was a long strip of tawdry bars, where on any given night, a parent of a prospective student could have seen the current students drinking themselves into oblivion. Safety, lifestyle, community resources, cultural outlets, etc. become much more obvious on a visit. You are quite right that you should talk personally to the financial aid people if you are paying for your child's education. Where I would urge parents to be more reticent is in the area of planning course work or majors for their children. A prospective student should make his/her own academic choices. Perhaps it is just because my field is in an under-subscribed discipline, but I think parents who try to guide their kids into useful majors are doing both their children and the general academic endeavor a disservice. Perhaps if you promise your daughter to stay in the background on all questions except those having to do with your pocketbook and her safety, she might be less resistant. But she is wrong to think that parents don't accompany their children... they do and I think they should. She's lucky that you want to take the time to do it! Good luck! Linda

My husband and I have gone on numerous college visits with his daughter over the last year. Not only were parents ALWAYS present for the tours but frequently other family members were there as well (younger kids, most looking horribly bored, but present). The college may invite the student individually as a matter of form because that's how they keep track of the applicants, but parents definitely go (it's not like a wedding invitation). The parents, however, are not present for the interviews with admissions officers. And we never met with any financial aid people; that seems to be all done via paperwork. Fran

Of course other parents accompany their children on college visits! Not only for the practical reason you mentioned, but just because it's a big step for the parents as well, and you're just as interested/excited/anxious about her choice of new environments. I don't have a child that age myself, but I do remember what's like to be that age - pushing parents away, but secretly hoping they don't listen to everything you say. And if you didn't go with her, she'd probably regret it - she'd see other kids with their parents and feel a bit envious that she can't share her excitement and fears with you. Accompanying her shows that you still care, that although you'll miss her like heck (and everyone wants to know they'll be missed), you're still supportive of this next phase in her life. As for the phrasing on an invitation from a college - omitting parents/guardians/etc - I would just assume it's potential student plus guest(s) and they don't need to be explicit.

Perhaps things have changed since I visited colleges about 14 years ago, but I couldn't have imagined going WITHOUT my mother. As a parent I think you should have at least some say in the decision, even if it is simply sharing your point of view, since I imagine you will be making a significant financial contribution. I would consider it very strange for a high school student to visit a campus without a parent, since the child is just that, although he/she may not believe it, and if only for safety needs to be with a parent. All of my friends visited colleges accompanied by parents, except if they went for a second overnight visit which some colleges offer. As for colleges addressing materials only to the student, this seems normal as he/she is the prospective freshman and I think it is implicit that parents be involved. Hope this helps. Erin

It would be very unusual for a prosepctive college frshman/high school senior to do her college visits alone - without a parent or other close adult. I have dozens of friends who have been doing this the past few eyars, and not one has sent their teen alone.- except on an occasional campus tour. In some cases the parent stayed away during the actual tour with other students - or waited in a waiting room of coffee shop during an interview. Sometimes, the student does the meetings, and the parent goes to toehr events on campus that are especailly arranged for parents of visiting students. A quick call to the admission office can let you know what is available. We found that the choice of school is generally a joint decision of student and parent, and if the parent is completely unexposed, then it is hare to have an informed discussion. In our family, due to finances, my borther (the dad) my mom (the grandmother) and me (the aunt) took turns taking her to various places so that she had someone to help with logistics, finances, and just to be supportive. Several other family members have started college in the last few years and none of them went to visits alone unless they had a friend already living on campus and stayed with them to see dorm life. Perhaps you and your daughter could compromise and you would be present at some activities - and make yourself scarce - like at the bookstore - for others. Good luck. Anonymous

I totally subscribe to parent-visiting -with -teen for all the reasons already mentioned. I did have one element of this issue that hadn't been raised. The colleges visited aren't often easily accessible. Addtionally, usually, one is trying to visit several colleges in a few days. This is done reasonably easily with the advantage of a car. If you are going to a location at some distance from Berkeley, a rental car is required. It is very difficult for someone under 25 to rent a car on their own. Even if you are doing a california circuit with the family car, I don't know many who turn over the car to a junior to take around the state to visit UCs and other schools.

There are some college counselors who offer rather high priced trips to New England to visit schools. In this case parents didn't go. Can't say I subscribe to this but it is an option.

Although the majority probably visit schools in spring of junior year or fall of senior year (we chose November so she could see what New England really looked like when all turned gray), there were several families I knew that went through the application process and when acceptances were received, visited the schools that were in the final decision process. This can sometimes be difficult to schedule in mid-April but for some people it worked well.

At the end of our daughter's senior year, when she was deciding between 2 schools, she flew to them on her own, took public transit, stayed in the dorm, and attended classes with older friends. She went to each school for 2 days. This was a key experience (and well worth the money) in helping her sort out the final two schools. But we would never have sent her on her own in the spring or fall to visit 6 locations in 5 days .