The College Admissions Game, Part 4: The School Visit

I selected colleges to apply to without ever visiting most of them.  I even decided which one to attend without visiting the ones that accepted me. Looking back, I was pretty lucky that I ended up with a good experience. For The Daughter, college visits were a critical part of the selection process. For Number One Son, high school visits, a formal process known as shadowing, were just as critical. In this installment of the College Admissions Game, we take a look at the school visit.

The college campus tour can seem like a sales pitch that makes you do a lot of walking. I remember a number of them showing their great recreational and gym facilities, and others would show off amazing cafeterias. Colleges, both public and private, typically use the campus tour as an opportunity to market themselves to prospective students. Many ask prospective students for their contact information and when they might be ready to apply. Some colleges will give tours to anyone who asks, but some only give them to prospective students.  Others end the tour with a general Q&A session.

So what should you ask on a college visit? If you are on a tour, sources like US News and World Report  suggest you ask questions like the following:

  • How was the transition from college to high school?
  • What are class sizes like?
  • How are residence halls?
  • [To a student tour guide] Why did you choose the school?
  • [To a student tour guide] What don’t you like about the school?
  • What career services are available?



While some of the high schools that Number One Son applied to give tours, the visit that they rely on is something called shadowing. In this process, a prospective student is assigned to a student at the school, and the prospect follows (shadows) that student through a regular school day. That way, they get a feel for the typical day at the school. Colleges sometimes have similar visits – I remember prospective students and their shadows when I was an undergraduate.

So are these visits important? They can be. From what the admission officer said in the last segment, colleges like to see a track record of contacts, and the campus visit is one of those contact points. It does seem far from an academic admission criterion, but I can understand that if you have to break a tie between students, it would make some sense to pick the student who seemed more interested.

“Web site photos don’t do a campus justice.” – The Daughter

The real importance of the school visit, despite the sales pitches, is giving a prospective student a chance to see and feel the atmosphere of where they will spend some of the most important years of their lives.   The Daughter, as I mentioned in Race and School Selection, eliminated one school as she experienced an uncomfortable lack of the diversity.  Number One Son eliminated one of his top choices after his shadowing experience.  Nothing racial for him, but more of a general unfriendliness that he experienced and didn’t like.

In my day, I did very few school visits – it was not only not economically feasible for my family, especially for the schools back east, but I just didn’t think about it. Looking back, I was pretty lucky that things worked out. The school visit has proven useful for my kids, and if you get the chance, I’d encourage anyone applying to colleges or high schools to do the same.

Tune in for Part 5:  The Admissions Consultant.

(Flickr Photo Credit: Paul-W)

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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