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Everything You Need To Know About College Tours as a High School Student

When developing your list of prospective colleges, research is essential — the place you’ll live and study for the next four years should be an ideal match for your interests and goals. While prestige can be treated as top criteria for a college, it’s incredibly important not to dismiss the other features of a school. While academic strength and reputation might be equivalent, other factors can vary wildly between schools. 


While exploring college websites is crucial to gather information on majors and minors, course offerings, and student groups, subjective factors such as size, location, and atmosphere are almost impossible to evaluate without actually visiting campus. College tours can be a great way to evaluate the level of fit you feel at a school — and learn extra information from admissions officers and student tour guides. 


In this blog, we’ll discuss the logistics of college tours — from what you’ll experience to the ideal times to visit — then walk through five important things to know before you start planning your visits!


What does a college tour consist of?

The general structure of a college tour typically consists of an informational session and Q+A led by an Admissions Officer, followed by a student-led walking tour of campus. The informational session will usually address elements of the college’s application process, academic structure, and student opportunities. While the student tour guide will dwell on many similar topics, you’ll learn more about the elements of campus life, extracurriculars, and student perspectives on academics and beyond. Since it’s paired with a walk through the campus, the topics covered on the tour will usually correspond to your location on campus. 


For example, you might learn about dining options when stopping by a dining hall, speak about student research outside a campus lab, or hear about the school’s background at a historic building. 


How much do college tours cost?

College tours are always free to prospective students, though if you’re visiting from out of town, you’ll need to coordinate the costs of transportation and lodging. Because the expenses for flights, gas, and hotels can be high, it’s recommended that you plan to visit multiple colleges during a single trip (ex. Checking out Harvard, Tufts, BU, and Brandeis in Boston) to make your travel investment worth it. If there’s only one college in a given area you intend to visit, it’s probably best to only visit if you have a serious interest in the school. 


Who is eligible to participate in college tours?

There are no restrictions on who can attend tours — even high school freshmen are welcome to visit — though be aware that tours are far more useful once you’re an upperclassman. Since students usually will not have solidified their academic path, extracurricular passions, or preferences for campus size or location until later in high school, campus visits will hold less relevance. Learning more about their academic offerings and admissions process will be far more helpful once this information has significant potential to shape your application process. 


When should I attend college tours?

Colleges offer tours year-round, so you can choose when to visit based on when is most convenient for your schedule. Nonetheless, there are some particularly advantageous times to consider if you’re able. 


Generally, the spring of your junior year is the best time to start visiting schools — your preferences will be fairly established, and you’ll have a head start on planning your application strategy. Since courses will be in session, you’ll get a sense of the campus atmosphere. 


While the summer is usually the most convenient time to visit, few —if any — students will be on campus, so you’ll miss out on seeing active campus life. Nonetheless, you’ll avoid missing classes and ensure you get a chance to visit before Early Decision and Early Action deadlines.


Visiting in the fall of your senior year is the next best option. You should do so primarily for colleges to which you do not intend to apply to in the early round since you may have limited time to make your decision whether to apply or to incorporate information you learn into your essays. 


Whenever you ultimately decide to visit, make sure to sign up for a tour at least two weeks in advance! For special admissions events, such as major-specific tours, you should plan to sign up as early as possible. 


Five things to know about college visits

  1. See if you can drop in on a course If you’d like a taste of academic life at the college, look into whether you could drop into a course lecture. If this information is not available online, feel free to ask the admissions officer leading your info session or your student tour guide.  Before you do so, ensure you’re aware of any rules about which classes you can attend and guidelines for your behavior. For the most part, visitors are limited to lectures rather than small classes or seminars, and you’ll be observing rather than participating in a class.  Note that this will usually only be possible Monday through Thursday — typically, colleges have few course meetings on Fridays — and ensure that classes are in session when you decide to visit. 


2. Spend some time exploring on your own An official tour will give you information you can’t find just from walking around, but its structure leaves little room for lingering, and you won’t stop at every location on campus. Whether you’d like to spend more time in a given building or check out some places you didn’t get to explore, block out some time in your day to independently tour the campus.  Make sure not to limit yourself to just the campus. The surrounding area of your college can have a massive impact on your experience! Colleges can be in urban, rural, or suburban settings, which will inherently determine what you’re able to do when not attending class. Students often neglect to consider this factor and think that academics and extracurriculars are all that matter to them. However, you’re not just picking a school; you’re picking a place to live for four years.  Other things to keep in mind while you tour include nearby restaurants and cafes, the safety of the location, and entertainment or activities.  


3. Touring has little or no bearing on your odds of acceptance A common misconception is that visiting a school can help win over AOs when evaluating your application. Unfortunately, this is mostly untrue. Some colleges track demonstrated interest from applicants, which can factor into admissions considerations. Essentially, they marginally prioritize applicants who seem committed to attending the school if they’re accepted. This is mostly the case among colleges with lower yield rates, meaning significantly fewer students attend than are accepted.  For the vast majority of selective schools, applicants’ level of interest is neither tracked nor taken into consideration. Since most applicants are highly invested in attending, these schools needn’t worry about attaining a high yield rate.  Even for schools that do track demonstrated interest, touring the campus is a lower-priority factor. This is mainly because campus tours are one of the least accessible ways of showing interest. For example, a low-income student from Nebraska will be far less likely to tour schools on the East Coast than a wealthier student living in the region. However, both students have equal ability to join a mailing list or attend a webinar info session. As such, more universally accessible ways of showing interest will be of greater interest to admissions officers.   So, if your primary motivation for visiting a school is to boost your odds, it may be worth reconsidering.


4. Search for specialized events If you’re hoping to learn more about your intended field of study while touring a college, check out whether the school has discipline-specific tours or events for prospective students. While you’ll still have the core elements of an info session and campus tour, you’ll receive extra programming on the subject in question. These additional opportunities can range from touring departmental facilities to hearing from professors and/or current students in the program.  For example, WashU does particularly well in this regard, offering multiple Academic Theme Days, which provide specialized information sessions for students wanting to learn more about a specific discipline or academic track ranging from Business to Pre-Med. Usually, these events are quite limited in terms of frequency and capacity. So, be sure to keep track of these visit dates and sign up ASAP!  Colleges also have specific campus visit days for students who have been accepted, so try your best to attend if you’re admitted. You’ll have access to much more detailed programming and special events to encourage you to commit to attending the school. So, to save money and time, if you’ve applied, you should hold off on touring.


5. Have realistic expectations At the end of the day, touring a college should be motivated by an interest in seeing the school in person and exploring its surroundings — though there are undoubtedly benefits, keep your expectations reasonable. My general rule is that visits should be motivated only by interest, not strategy. Though you will get to hear information not available on the college’s website during information sessions and tours, remember their motivation for offering tours. During prospective student visits, colleges aim to convince all attendees to apply — not only to get highly qualified applicants but to lower their acceptance rates.  You’ll likely hear most of the same talking points at each school — the exciting and accessible research opportunities, the approachability of professors, the massive number of books in their library, and the exciting achievements of their students. And while this information is true, keep in mind that you won’t exactly be learning insider secrets (even from student tour guides). 


Our Thoughts

I encourage students to view college tours experientially — you’re studying the atmosphere at and around the school, seeing the campus in person, and getting to engage with a current student. If you can get more academic exposure by visiting a class or subject-specific visit day, the experience will be even more valuable. Put aside ideas to impress the admissions officer, and carefully think about your life at that school. 


One more option - Create an independent research paper. Work with top researchers.

If you’d like to participate in a rigorous research program open to high schoolers, you may want to consider the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students founded by researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here


Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students. Last year, we had 150 students on full need-based financial aid!


Alexej is a graduate of Princeton University, where he studied Linguistics, Cognitive Science, and Humanities & Sciences. Alexej works in college admissions consulting and is passionate about pursuing research at the intersection of humanities, linguistics, and psychology. He enjoys creative writing, hiking, and playing the piano.


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