If you’re about to start visiting colleges, I’m pumped for you. Know why? Because going on college visits is honestly one of the most fun parts of the college search—plus, it’s probably the most helpful. There’s nothing better than being able to get the vibe of each campus firsthand before you decide on THE college.
But I know that actually planning the visits can feel like a huge burden, especially if you’re not sure how to go about it or what to expect. That’s why you need a step-by-step plan for what to do before, during and after each visit.
Not only will this plan help you manage your stress (you’ve got a lot to think about right now), but it’ll also help you really get the most out of the experience so you can make the college choice that’s right for you.
When Should You Start Visiting Colleges?
Best-case scenario: You’ll start making college visits during your junior year of high school. I usually tell students to spend some time narrowing down their list of colleges to just three to five schools they’re really serious about, and then plan to visit at least three of those schools during the fall of junior year.
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There’s no rule that says you can’t start visiting colleges sooner than eleventh grade. And if you’re already a senior and still have schools to visit, don’t stress. You might have to speed up the process or go to fewer colleges than you wanted, but you can still get it done.
Now, you might be thinking, Bro. I’m in high school. I have the ACT, grades, extracurriculars and my crush in geometry class to think about. How am I supposed to plan college visits on top of that?
I get it. Here’s the plan, you guys—and it’s actually not as complicated as you might think!
How to Prep for a College Visit
Once you’ve narrowed down your list of dream schools—and before you do anything else—I want you to ask yourself: Could I actually afford to go to these schools without taking out student loans? I want you to dream big and get excited, but I also don’t want you to waste time and money visiting (and risk falling in love with) a school that’s WAY out of your price range.
There’s always a chance you can get financial aid, and that’s great. But if you know you won’t be able to swing tuition for an Ivy League school even with scholarships and grants, don’t visit the campus! You’ll just get hooked on their state-of-the-art dorms and bougie dining hall options.
Instead, focus on finding schools you love and that you can afford. Trust me—it’s worth it to be totally free of student loan debt when you graduate!
Okay, now that you know which schools you actually want to visit, what’s next?
1. Define what you’re looking for.
Before you even step onto the campus, I want you to have a clear idea of what matters to you in your college experience. That way, you’ll know what to look for when you visit each school. Do you want small class sizes? A ton of clubs and student activities? Volunteer opportunities? Someplace where everyone knows each other? Or do you like the busy vibe of a big campus?
Make a list: Write all this stuff down so it can be in your mind as you tour the schools.
2. Do your research.
You’re probably going to have a bunch of questions during your college visit—and you should! Questions are awesome. But do some homework on each school ahead of time. A lot of info can usually be found on the college’s website, so answer all the basic questions on your own first. Then you’ll have more time to ask some in-depth questions when you meet professors, guidance counselors or current students in person.
3. Talk to the admissions office.
The college admissions office is there to help students, and they want to talk to you. Don’t be afraid to get in touch with them beforehand! Ask about the official campus tours or preview days, and see if you can set up a time to meet with students or professors (or maybe even coaches, if you’re going to college to play sports).
You should also ask if you can sit in on a couple classes that interest you. Not every school will let you do this, so make sure you get the green light from them before planning to go. If they do allow it, definitely take advantage of that.
And one more pro tip: Don’t forget to talk to your high school to make sure you’ll be able to get excused absences for the days you’re visiting colleges.
What to Do on the Day of Your College Visit
When the big day comes, it’s normal to be kind of nervous. But remember, there’s little to no pressure here—this visit is all about seeing if this school is a good fit for you. Know that your visit might not be perfect. If something doesn’t go as planned, don’t sweat it and try not to let that change how you view the school as a whole! Just have fun and keep an open mind. Sure, you want to make a good impression, but if you follow the steps I’ve laid out, you already will.
Here’s a few things to keep in mind the day of:
1. Connect with people.
It’s a good idea to connect with as many people as possible on campus (if they have time). That includes students, teachers, resident assistants or whoever. If you meet with someone, ask if it’s okay for you to get their contact info and follow up with them later if you have more questions.
And honestly, as basic as it sounds, one big thing you can do to make a good impression on the people you meet is to be on time (or a few minutes early) to all your appointments and scheduled events. That shows you’re respectful of busy schedules, and you take this experience seriously. (Manners are dope—what can I say.)
2. Get familiar with the campus.
You’ll probably want to take a legit campus tour, but you should also take some time to just check out the campus (and the surrounding town) on your own. Obviously, don’t go anywhere that’s just for students or faculty, but walk around and get the vibe. Look around the student center. Spend some time in the library. If this is going to be your hangout spot for the next four years, you want to make sure you like it, right?
3. Explore your opportunities.
While you’re on campus, get a sense of what kind of experiences you’ll have as a student at that school. A super important one is the classroom experience—which is why I would totally sit in on a class or two once you clear it with the professors and admissions office. This will help you understand if you like the teaching style and content, know how formal or informal classes are, and see if the students seem like they’re actually interested in the class.
You also might want to check out the Greek life on campus (unless sororities and fraternities aren’t your thing—that’s cool too). Look into anything that interests you—fun clubs or student-led organizations, fitness programs the school offers, job fairs and career counseling, and anything else that would help you get the most out of your time in college. You could even go to a campus event, like a play, basketball game or concert, to scope out what it’s like to be a student there.
And while you’re checking it out, make sure you’re clear on all costs and fees—everything from tuition to memberships to sorority dues. Because let’s be real: College can be super expensive. You need to know how much all of it costs so you can compare the price tag with other schools!
Questions to Ask on College Visits
Remember earlier when I talked about asking great questions? Let’s go back to that real quick. I know it can be hard to come up with questions in the moment, so take some time before your college visit to think about what you want to know.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
What are the best ways to save money on tuition and expenses here?
How does the career center help students transition from college into the real world?
Who should I talk to about work-study programs on campus?
What’s the graduate success rate? How many students find jobs after graduation?
What has your experience been like at this school?
Where are the best places to study on campus?
What are some things you wish you’d known before your freshman year here?
How does the school help students who are feeling overwhelmed or struggling in their personal lives?
What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about attending (or teaching) here?
What makes this school different from any other school?
When you ask good questions, you’ll get good answers that can really help you narrow down your college choices!
Next Steps After Your College Visit
1. Reflect on your experience.
Once you leave the campus, take a few minutes to write down some notes (even if they’re just on your phone) about what you liked and didn’t like about the college. Jot down any first impressions you got that you want to remember. This info will be helpful to look back on later when you’re in the decision-making process.
Review the list you made before your visit and ask yourself: Does this college line up with my list? Can I see myself going there? Do I want to be there for four years?
2. Follow up with your contacts.
Send a thank-you note or a nice email to anyone who met with you and showed you around. It also wouldn’t hurt to send one to the professors who let you sit in on their classes. Let them know you appreciate the time they took out of their schedules to help you plan your future. If you have any follow-up questions, now’s a great time to ask!
3. Visit a second time.
Hey, there’s no shame in going back to a school if you need to see it again. I know you might feel some pressure to make a choice right away, but you don’t have to. Ultimately, you need to make sure the college you think you want to go to is really the wisest and most affordable choice for you. This is a big life event, you guys. Spend some serious time thinking and praying over this decision—and always go with your gut.
Okay, I know this is a lot to remember. But don’t even stress, because I have a checklist you can print and fill out as you go to make this whole process easier.
Listen, guys: I am all about helping you have the best college experience possible—from your first college visit all the way to graduation and beyond. You already know that school can be crazy expensive, but one of the best ways to set yourself up for success after college is to get your degree WITHOUT taking out any student loans. (Yeah, that’s a real thing.) I’ll walk you through how to do that in my new book, Debt-Free Degree!
About Anthony ONeal
Since 2003, Anthony has helped hundreds of thousands of people make smart decisions with their money, relationships, and education. He’s a #1 national bestselling author of Debt-Free Degree and national bestselling author of The Graduate Survival Guide. He recently released Destroy Your Student Loan Debt. He travels the country spreading his encouraging message to help teens and young adults start their lives off right and people of all ages succeed with money. You can follow Anthony on YouTube and Instagram @AnthonyONeal and online at anthonyoneal.com or facebook.com/aoneal.