By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

Alone or in a group, you need a canny strategy for your college visit, and timing is crucial.

One of the most attractive features (if we may say so) of our four-week College App Boot Camp is its emphasis on timetables, on knowing when to carry out each of the multitude of tasks associated with applying for colleges. Though we recommend that you begin developing a college strategy as early as ninth grade, junior year is prime time for the intense activity that leads to getting what you want and finding ways to pay for it.

Once the winter of junior year arrives, it’s time to draw up a list of colleges you intend to visit. Try to avoid missing any more school than you have to; if your spring break occurs while some of your target colleges are in session, that’s an ideal time to visit. Not only are you not missing school, your experience of the college campus will be representative of what life there is really like, whereas forming a clear picture is more difficult if the college is not in session during your visit. (George Washington and his men dropped by Princeton during Christmas break, very much against our best advice.)

Most colleges will have a junior visiting day designed for students and parents. Some will host overnight events for students only, and you should avail yourself of any such opportunity. It’s also possible to line up a solo trip at a time suitable for yourself and the college. One way or another, first-hand experience of an institution and its people is of incalculable importance and should be a high priority. Yes, college visits can be expensive (see Beyond Tuition, Fees, and Books: The Other Costs of College, June 7, 2018), but not nearly as expensive as choosing the wrong school and having to transfer.

We recommend that you start with institutions close to home. Find out what they have to offer, perfect your to-do list for visits, and hone your technique before you invest time and money in more distant venues. There is definitely a technique to getting the most from a college visit, and practice makes perfect. You should:

Participate in the campus tour if you’re offered one. This is an efficient way to learn your way around and get a feel for the campus, but bear in mind that the students who give the tours are under instructions to act like fans of the place. As we explained in Meet the Deciders: College Admissions Officers and What They Do (October 27, 2018), they often go on to become admissions officers. Don’t be difficult, but feel free to ask questions. Take note of anything that attracts your interest and invites further exploration, and then…

Make your own personal tour of the campus. Go exploring in your own way and in your own time, according to what matters to you.

Locate the dorm (one for which you would be eligible) closest to the offices and classrooms of your intended major. Finding pleasant accommodations within reasonable distance of most of your classes is essential. But we offer one caveat: During your first two years, you are likely to be spending most of your time on courses outside your major. If your major is headquartered at the other end of the campus, the dorm closest to your department might not be the best place for an underclassman. That said, proximity to other, more advanced students in your field can be advantageous. If possible, visit the dorm in question and try to get some indication of its atmosphere, especially during the hours when large numbers of students are present.

Spend some time in other buildings you would frequent as a student. What state of repair are they in, how well are they designed for their purpose (and yours), and what’s going on there? The library is obviously important, or should be. Does the campus offer places for conferences and study groups as well as classes?

Spend some time in the town and surrounding area. As a collegian, you won’t be spending all your time on campus. You might in fact live off campus at some point. What sort of neighborhoods surround it? Does the local area have the sort of eateries, stores, and service-oriented businesses you want and need? If you will be taking a car to college, is there a dealer or other service center that can accommodate that make of car?

Try to make arrangements to attend a class in your intended major. We see no need to elaborate on this. If a class in your major isn’t available, try to find a required course that you can expect to take as a freshman.

Arrange interviews with an admissions officer and with the chairman of your major department. An interview presents you with the opportunity to establish a personal connection and make yourself stand out distinctly from applicants who are known to the staff and faculty only via email. For further guidance, see our article, Cleaning Up Well: Appearance, Speech, and Demeanor at College Interview Time, June 7. 2018.

Talk to someone in the financial aid office and find out how that particular college calculates financial aid. If you get an outside scholarship, will that amount be deducted from what the college itself offers you? What percentage of students have grants? Scholarships? Work-study plans?

Read the school newspaper. This can be a good way to assess the social and political climate and gauge the culture of the school. The subjects covered, how long the articles are, and where they appear probably are indicative of the campus community’s priorities. The school newspaper also is likely to report on crimes and scandals that the institution itself understandably does not publicize but that could affect your informed judgment of it.

Familiarize yourself with the various offices providing student services. Are internships readily available? Tutoring? Counseling? If you have a chronic health condition, a visit to the health center should be an especially high priority.

Talk to students who are not giving a tour or otherwise serving in an official capacity. Seek out a variety of students in terms of their attire and comportment. You’re likely to get a variety of opinions that way, which you will then have to weigh for yourself. Bear in mind that college students, like soldiers, love to complain. To hear most students tell it, their lives make Andersonville look like Mar-a-Lago. Talking to students in your intended major is especially beneficial. You would be wise to ask why they chose that particular college, what they think of the teaching and the homework load, how responsive teachers and administrators are to their needs, the overall strengths and weaknesses of the school, and what they wish they had known before enrolling.

Eat the institutional food. Consider the cleanliness of the dining environment also. If the school has multiple dining halls, visit all of them, as they can differ from one another to a surprising degree.

Take notes. Jot down reminders all along of what you’ve learned and encountered, then do a more thorough write-up after you return home. Remembering every detail even for a day or two can be difficult, and your experiences can all run together after visits to multiple schools. You may think you’ll never forget which school put its health center next to the mortuary science department or had the cutest graduate assistants teaching freshman sections, but you’d be surprised.

Be prepared for all of the above with questions formulated and written down beforehand. A comprehensive list of suggestions is beyond the scope of this article, but we recommend that you consult the references below for dozens of ideas.

The Coaching Educator takes pride in having helped thousands of students get into and succeed at the right college—and find ways to pay for the experience and avoid the devastating effects of student debt. We know how to keep you on task, on topic, and on schedule throughout, and we also can provide continued academic success coaching during the college years. To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

References and Recommended Reading About College Admissions

Culp, Paul. “Beyond Tuition, Fees, and Books: The Other Costs of College,” The Coaching Educator, 7 June 2018, http://tce.local/2018/06/07/beyond-tuition-fees-and-books-the-other-costs-of-college/

Culp, Paul. “Cleaning Up Well: Appearance, Speech, and Demeanor at College Interview Time,” The Coaching Educator, 7 June 2018, http://tce.local/2018/06/07/beyond-tuition-fees-and-books-the-other-costs-of-college/

Culp, Paul. “Five Favorite Unusual Colleges,” The Coaching Educator, 1 April 2019, http://tce.local/2019/04/01/five-favorite-unusual-colleges/?fbclid=IwAR1cnOiP5rVLug_sQdSubRprfZAtq-t73ojWuKGmP3F_fqBErEIxwXUiCj0

Culp, Paul. “From Petite to XXL: College Size and You,” The Coaching Educator, 10 November 2018, http://tce.local/2018/11/10/from-petite-to-xxl-college-size-and-you/

Culp, Paul. “Meet the Deciders: College Admissions Officers and What They Do,” The Coaching Educator, October 27, 2018, http://tce.local/2018/10/27/meet-the-deciders-college-admissions-officers-and-what-they-do/

Culp, Paul. “The Prez, the Prov, the Profs, the Veep, and the Redge: Who’s Who on Campus,” The Coaching Educator, 17 December 2018, http://tce.local/2018/12/17/the-prez-the-prov-the-profs-the-veeps-and-the-redge-whos-who-on-campus/

Culp, Paul. “Technology, Intangibles, and the Brave New World of College Admissions,” The Coaching Educator, 29 May 2018, http://tce.local/2018/05/29/technology-intangibles-and-the-brave-new-world-of-college-admissions/

Culp, Paul. “Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for College,” The Coaching Educator, 31 August 2018, http://tce.local/2018/08/31/ten-common-mistakes-you-must-avoid-in-applying-for-college/

Culp, Paul. “What Accreditation Is and Why It Counts,” The Coaching Educator, 10 October 2018, http://tce.local/2018/10/16/what-accreditation-is-and-why-it-counts/

“Get the Most Out of Your College Visits,” Princeton Review Accessed 8 February 2019.

O’Shaughnessy, Lynn. “36 Questions to Ask on a College Visit,” U.S. News, 19 October 2010,

Safier, Rebecca. “118 Great Questions to Ask on a College Tour,, 11 June 2018,

“60 Questions to Ask on Your College Tour,” Princeton Review, Accessed 19 February 2019.

“10 Things You Should Do on Every College Visit,” CollegeXpress, Accessed 8 February 2019.

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