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The Best Thing to Do on Your College Tour? Get Off It

Photo by Redd Angelo on Unsplash

Before you buy a car, you take it for a test drive, and before you commit to a college, you visit. At least, you should, and that visit should be an official one, with a guided tour.

“A college visit is crucial for two reasons,” says Allen Koh, CEO and co-founder of Cardinal Education. “First and most obviously, it helps students and parents get a feel for schools and construct a prioritized list of colleges to apply to. Secondly, tours are an excellent way of expressing interest in a school, and can be a concrete boost for a student’s application there.”

Admissions experts agree a lot can be gleaned in a short time on an official college tour. They’re invaluable for getting a lay of the campus, and for getting access to input from current students, who typically serve as tour guides. Most advise students to make sure to come prepared with questions.

Crystal Olivarria, Founder & CEO at, says you should put yourself in the mind frame of someone who’s just started at the school. “Act like you are a student who is lost and needs a lot of guidance figuring out where things are located on campus and what resources are available. Imaging you are a new student will help you think of questions you may have not thought to ask otherwise.”

However, one of the best things you can do on a college visit is go beyond the tour and explore both the campus and the town on your own. This gives you a chance to not just see, but actually experience what it’s like to be a student there.

Be Your Own Guide

“How to get the most out of your college tour? Get off the tour!” says Benjamin S. Baum, Director of Admissions at St. John’s College. “The best way to find your college fit is to dig deeper. Take a seat in the library and read a book. Try the food and listen in on conversations in the dining hall. Ask a stranger for their favorite spot on campus. Observe a class. At St. John’s College, the most magical college visit happens when a prospective student walks out of a seminar on Plato with butterflies in her stomach because she can’t wait to join the discussion herself.”

Think Beyond Studying; Think About Living There

“In addition to taking in the campus and facilities, you should get a sense of the cost of living in the area,” says Adrian Ridner, CEO and co-founder of “Many students are so focused on tuition that they don’t think of the many other costs associated with getting a degree, like housing, food, transportation and more. Check out local restaurants, bookstores, and potential housing options outside of dorms. College tours are the perfect time to learn more about how much money you’ll actually need so you can budget accordingly.”

Brian Morris, communications coordinator for, agrees. He advises to “look beyond your freshman year” and think about how you’ll manage life not just on campus, but as a young adult in town. He suggests students:

  • Find out what housing options are available once they move out of the dorms. Are there student budget-friendly housing options available in good neighborhoods?
  • Consider how other expenses such as rent, utilities, travel expenses (how you’ll get to classes), etc. will impact overall costs.
  • Ask themselves how they will eat once dining halls aren’t their main source of food. Are there discount grocery stores nearby?

Make a Night of It

Surprisingly, your college visit doesn’t have to have a curfew. At many schools, it’s possible to request an overnight visit. This allows prospective students to spend a night and sometimes a full day with a student on campus to get an even better sense of what living at the school full-time is really like.

“Overnight visits are an excellent opportunity to separate the student from parental guidance and expectations,” Koh adds. “This independence allows them to make judgments that are entirely their own.”

If a school-sanctioned overnight isn’t an option, Koh says they can be arranged through family friends or alumni from their high school. However, he adds that if students arrange these visits through unofficial channels, they should take care to officially register at the school’s admissions office so that there is a record of their stay for demonstrated interest.

“The real advantage of an overnight stay is that it provides an unfiltered version of college life at the school,” Koh says. “Students are more likely to get natural, honest answers to their questions, outside of the marketing pitches of the admissions department, and a real sense of the rhythm of college life can be gained. There is the opportunity to check out a variety of classes and clubs/activities alongside their host, and visitors should request meeting many different types of friends and social groups. Note-taking is essential during an overnight stay, as the details learned can be included in application essays to great effect.”

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Author: Ali Trachta

Ali is the former Content Writer/Editor at Niche. She's a content strategist and award-winning writer, as well as a former editor at LA Weekly and NEXTpittsburgh. As a mom of one who's lived and worked all across the country, she's glad to have once again found her niche in her hometown of Pittsburgh.