College campus visits are a ritual. A rite of passage. A requirement. And they also are mostly a waste of time and money.

As the summer winds down, my team and I have been busy debriefing our students and their parents about whatever summertime college campus visits they have done in the past month or two. While my colleagues and I have done scores–if not hundreds–of campus visits as a way to research colleges, our families are embarking on these adventures for the first time.

In our conversations, here are some of the things that families tell us that we wish the admissions offices around the country should hear.

Information Sessions Are Virtually Identical From School to School

The father of one of my juniors said to me the other day, “after three of these sessions, I could have given the information session myself.” The canned presentations, the gee-whiz videos, and the obligatory references to “undergraduate research opportunities,” “our robust study abroad program,” and “the surprising accessibility of our professors.

It’s true: I hate sitting through these presentations. Every once in a while an admissions officer is able to channel something fresh or genuine that helps his audience understand the essence of the school. But mostly these are just superficial, once-over-lightly overviews of college life. It’s virtually impossible to differentiate these presentations. And it seems that admissions directors don’t really want to. They want and need to be relatively generic and run-of-the-mill.

Why? Because they don’t want to say or do anything that might deter a student from applying. They need to hit all the major highlights–which happen to be the major highlights at the school across town or across the state or across the country. They have to appeal to the widest audience.

Because the more applicants they get, the more selective the institution can be, which will help raise the college’s ranking, which will then drive more applicants and continued improvements in the ranking.

Thus if the admissions office said something really distinctive about the university, that distinction might not appeal to certain people. So you have Jesuit universities that downplay their religious nature to broaden their appeal (“everyone is welcome!”). You have super-geeky institutions that play up the amount of fun kids have (“we have 106 different clubs!”). You have campuses where the overwhelming majority of students belong to fraternities or sororities emphasizing that Greek life is just a small slice of the social scene (“there are all kinds of non-Greek events on campus all the time!”). Or academically non-selective schools that emphasize their academic research programs (“seriously, lots of kids participate in this program”).

Information sessions have to promise all things to all people. So they end up not being very informative, and there is very little variability in the presentations from one school to the next.

So why spend the time and money on a college campus visit if all you’re going to get is a bland, repetitive, uninformative presentation?

The Student-Led Tours Are Scripted

I was once a tour guide at Dartmouth. I picked up a few bucks every week by working for the admissions office conducting tours of prospective students. It was pretty easy money, and I got to spend an hour or so three or four times a week with a group of eager people who wanted to know about this place I called home.

But before I could give a tour, I had to take a test. I was given information about the College, the tour route was mapped out carefully (though you could start the tour clock-wise or counter clock-wise). There were certain must-see items (the Tower Room in Baker Library), and there were certain spots that were emphatically not included on the tour (Fraternity Row and the ugly dorms of the Choates and the River Cluster).

Of course, I gave the tour from my perspective of a religion major, a kid from Colorado, and as someone involved in the arts at Dartmouth. I wasn’t super well-informed when it came to recruitment of varsity athletes. And I always shared that I thought the dorm where I lived was the very best one on campus.

Expert college counseling in Denver Colorado and Westfield New Jersey

But the admissions director made sure that I rattled off statistical and historical information about the college. I knew how many books were in the library (lots) and that students hailed from 49 of the 50 states (North Dakota was sadly unrepresented). I knew when the Orozco murals were painted, when Dartmouth Hall was reconstructed after a fire, and where the offices for pretty much every academic department could be found–in case someone asked. I knew exactly how to introduce folks to the Hopkins Center, what to emphasize as we entered the Collis Center, and exactly how to brag about the computer science department and the mainframe computer housed in Kiewit.

And so it goes with every campus tour in the land. The senior staff of the admissions department puts together an itinerary and outline of the campus tours, and the students hired to deliver them are told to memorize the itinerary and outline, and given a test to make sure they know what is expected by the employer. It’s really no different than any other job: know the “standard operating procedures” and implement them dutifully. Do the job as expected, and collect your paycheck.

Easy schmeasy.

But ultimately pretty darned boring for the students and their families who have traveled sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles to hear my spiel. And pretty darned identical to the tour given at Williams, Bowdoin, Yale, or the University of North Dakota (where all those North Dakotan students apparently stayed). Just change the dates, the names, and the name of the college student giving the tour, and you have an identical experience at any college.

Oh, and don’t get me started on jokes the tour guides make as they begin to walk backwards. It’s the same joke everywhere you go.

Prospective Applicants Mistake Fellow Campus Visit Participants for Current Students

This one is going to sound crazy. But it’s a real problem.

The other day, one of my students told me that he had taken a tour at a small, very selective, liberal arts college. He said he was surprised how many kids and their families were also on the tour. I asked him how he liked the tour.

college admissions Sacred Heart University
Mark makes a friend while on a visit to Sacred Heart University.

“I hated it,” he sputtered.

“Why’s that?”

“All the other kids on the tour really weren’t my type. I found them really annoying.”

I had to stifle a cackle.

I had to remind this young man that the other kids on the tour actually were not representative of the students who attend this particular school. They are looky-loos, just like him. These kids, however annoying they may be, haven’t even decided to apply, and the admissions office certainly has not invited them to join the student body. They are just schlepping from campus to campus, attending the repetitive information sessions and shuffling along behind the well-trained tour guides–just like he is.

Again, this may seem downright silly for a high school student (a smart one at that) to mistake fellow campus visit participants with the sorts of students who attend a particular school.

But think about it: the information sessions and the tours do not really provide opportunities for prospective students to interact with current students. Tour participants may view “real” students from afar as they walk to and fro across the campus. Or they may passively observe “real” students in the dining halls or libraries. But interact? Not usually. At least not as a part of the official college campus visit.

So what else does the poor prospective student have to go on to make judgments about the campus “vibe”? Only on what he is experiencing–and that is the “vibe” of the tour group, itself.

Is the tour guide nice? If yes, then all students on that campus must be nice. If no, then all students on that campus must be dorks.

Are the other kids dressed like me? Do they behave similarly? Do they seem to value the same things I do? Do they seem like people I’d want to be friends with? If so, then this campus is perfect. If not, get me away from these goofy people.

And then there is the parent-child dynamic that also messes things up. Kids trudge through the tour in silent mode (which is mostly a reflection of their utter terror in choosing a college), while eager-beaver parents ask myriad annoying questions about things like “where can my daughter do her laundry,” or “are the beds all extra-long,” or “where can my son park his car on campus.” Don’t get me started.

The bottom line is that these tours generally do nothing to give prospective students a sense of what the community is really like. Admittedly, this is a very difficult aspect of a school to put a finger on in a short, one-day (or more usually, two-hour) college campus visit.

Different schools definitely have different personalities. But you’re probably not going to get a good sense of that on your college campus visit.

Prospective Families Have No Clue What They Are Looking For While on A College Campus Tour

Quite often, as soon as a family hires us as their private college planners, mom or dad calls us up and asks, “so which colleges should we visit?”

Everyone knows they should visit campuses. And everyone knows how to make the travel arrangements: book the flights, pick the hotels, reserve the rental car. It’s also easy to figure out how to sign up for those tours and information sessions.

So let’s GO, already!

But wait.

What, exactly, are you hoping to find while on that tour? How will you know you’ve found the right campus when you see it?

What are the criteria by which you plan to choose the right college for your student and your family? And how will the college campus tour help you to ascertain whether the college fits those criteria?

One of the primary reasons to hire a college admissions consultant is to help nail down the college selection criteria. The process of choosing a college can be very emotional. And while it’s true that a lot of subjective factors and plain, old gut instincts do play a strong role in how most of us choose a college, it’s also true that the enormous expense of college requires that we try to keep the decision as rational as possible.

This is why we spend so much time sussing out the factors–the criteria–that will drive the college selection process. What are those factors? Well, there can be a whole lot of them. We have an exercise that includes nearly 120 different criteria to consider. But really they boil down to these six categories.

  • Finances: does this school likely fit your budget?
  • Academics: what are the curricular structures, degrees, majors, and other academic programs you seek?
  • Activities: what activities are you now doing–or hope to do–that will be part of the selection process?
  • Campus Culture or “Vibe”: social structures, political activism, religiosity, political persuasion, diversity, etc.
  • “Atmospherics”: geography, campus setting, architecture, landscaping,
  • Admissibility: how likely are you to be accepted?

As you review this list, how many of these can be ascertained in ways other than the college campus visit?

Virtually all of them, in fact.

You can figure out whether this school fits your budget by doing research both on the college’s website and on third party websites that publish basic financial aid data.

You can have a very strong understanding of the academic opportunities offered by a university simply by spending enough time on specific pages of the college’s website.

You can research what activities are offered at the school, and you can easily connect with others (students, coaches, administrators) who can help you gather more information about how you might get involved.

Campus culture or “vibe” is perhaps the most difficult for prospective families to get a handle on. But as I mention above, the campus visit isn’t necessarily going to help much. Best is to try to connect with as many current students on campus as possible–which frankly can be done through the power of the InterWeb.

Atmospherics can be first ascertained by using a good map, Google Earth, or the virtual tours most universities provide on there websites. Plus there are all those pretty pictures of beautiful buildings in beautiful weather surrounded by beautiful students that you can find on every college’s website.

And admissibility? Do you really have to traipse all the way across the country to learn the admissions statistics or look up the statistical profile of the kind of students the college generally admits?

As the advertisement for those ancient “Yellow Pages” phone directories put it, “Let Your Fingers Do the Walking.”

Point.

Click.

And do your homework BEFORE you go on those college visits.

I have actually worked with quite a few students over the years who NEVER visit a college campus before they submit their applications. Of course, I don’t generally advise this approach, for there are other, very important reasons to visit a college campus as a way to give you a better chance of admission (this is called “demonstrated interest,” which you can read about here and here).

But it is undeniable that the Internet has mostly obliterated the usefulness of the campus visit as a way to gather helpful, objective, and otherwise unobtainable information about a college or university. You really can find it all online.

[Which is part of the problem, to be honest, and why so many families find it hard to make solid college lists and discern which college might suit them best. Sometimes too much information is actually much more confusing than too little of it. It is the surplus of information that helps to keep professional college advisors like me in business–because we help you sift through the information to find the stuff that is relevant to you and your family.]

Before you do your homework, however, you have to know what it is you are looking for. Thus we come back to developing that list of criteria. You will not find your criteria by zipping around the country looking at schools. Rather, you will find your criteria by looking in the mirror. By having a family conversation about what aspects of higher education are most important to you. By taking an inventory of your needs, wants, and aspirations. By being honest about things that are simply irrelevant to your own decision-making process. And first and foremost–by getting real about the costs and sticking to your budget.

Decide what it is you really want and need. Then develop a list of colleges that satisfies those criteria. Do your research in the comfort of your own home. Narrow the list. Then visit only those that really care whether you visit (see that stuff about “demonstrated interest” referenced above).

And remember that the college campus visit–by itself–is not going to be overly useful in helping you make a rational decision. The visit may give you a “feeling.” You may have a “gut reaction.” Your “instincts” may take over.

But don’t trust your gut until you have exhausted your ability to use your head.

You Can Do College Campus Visits the Right Way

Campus visits are an important part of the college selection process. And most families will do them at some point. But make sure you don’t waste time or money. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Establish college search criteria first. Don’t leave home on the Grand Tour until you know what you are looking for.
  2. Do your homework before you go. The web is a treasure trove of info on colleges. Use it.
  3. Remind yourself about the limitations of the information session and the campus tour

Then you can order your free E-Book on how to get the most from the campus tour. This comprehensive resource will help you avoid big mistakes that will cost you time and money, and tips on how to get beyond the tour to really investigate whether this is the right college for you and your student.

Great College Advice offers college admissions advice to high school students and their families around the country and around the world. We help students look differently at college admissions and navigate the changing educational landscape. We give our students a positive and insightful college planning experience with long-lasting effects. Because it’s not just about college—it’s about your life’s journey.

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Published by Mark Montgomery

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

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