Visitation Rights: Get the Most Out of a Campus Tour

On college tours, prospective students should act like ‘social detectives’

Luke McGarry
Illustration by Luke McGarry

“Please warn me—I’ve got some practice, but you never know when a telephone pole will come out of nowhere.” And so begins many a college visit, as a guide makes the same sophomoric joke about walking backwards to a crowd of eye-rolling high school students and their parents.

Campus tours are just one element of the college visiting process—a rite of passage that has transcended the road trip packed with drive-bys. While admissions offices still offer info sessions and student-led tours, many college counselors deem the other aspects of campus visits as an opportunity for applicants, and their parents, to gain intelligence that can inform what may be the most important decision of their young lives.

Prospective applicants must conduct prior research and act like “social detectives” during visits, said Jamie Davis, a private college advisor in New York. Students should investigate the campus atmosphere, hunting for clues. Many people wearing school apparel, for example, can signify a proud and content student body. And though construction noise may mar a visit, “it is a sign the school has funding,” Ms. Davis noted.

Another way to learn about the character of the student body is to pretend you’re lost. “Try to interact with random people, to see if they are happy to help you,” Ms. Davis said.

Watching potential classmates in action offers a chance for more social sleuthing, suggests Meredith Greenberg, an admissions consultant in Brooklyn. Ms. Greenberg recommends student-visitors attend a collegiate event, such as a play or art show.

Many admissions offices now allow visitors to audit classes, meet with professors and check out the dining hall atmosphere. “Listen to the conversations around you,” counseled Ms Davis. “Are kids sitting on their phones, or are they interacting?”

Columbia University offers overnight dorm stays—an important opportunity to test out campus culture. Ms. Davis suggests overnighting on Thursdays, which often marks the beginning of the social weekend, but allows visitors the chance to attend classes on Friday.

When time constraints prevent an in-depth visit, it is vital to make the most of a whirlwind tour. Applicants and parents should take separate tours to gain two different perspectives.

Visitors should come armed with thoughtful, open-ended questions on topics, ranging from academics—class size, professor availability, research opportunities and workload—to social life—diversity, politics and extracurricular activities. Popular questions can include, How much time and energy do professors dedicate to undergrads in comparison with grad students? And, What are your favorite days on campus?

No matter the answers, it’s important not to become fixated on any one guide’s presentation. “One of my students came back from a tour where the guide’s every other word was ‘like,’ and the parent started to count the number of likes,” recalled Ms. Davis, pointing out that it isn’t fair to judge the school’s academic standing on a single guide.

But at New York University, a guide may prove to be the school’s president. “[John] Sexton has been known to commandeer tours if he sees a group in the library … on his way to and from the class he teaches,” wrote Marcos Rivera of NYU’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions, by email.

After all of the preparation and research, the decision on where to attend college can boil down to gut feeling.

“One kid went to visit Middlebury, and he told his father that he didn’t want to go there because there were too many mosquitoes … It wasn’t about the mosquitoes. There was something in his gut that told him, ‘This isn’t the right place for me,’ “ Ms. Davis said. “There are enough good schools that you don’t have to push kids to go to [one] that doesn’t feel right.” Visitation Rights: Get the Most Out of a Campus Tour