College Visits, Campus Tours, and Infomercials

Most young people don’t visit a college campus until they have identified their dream school.  This is a mistake.

College visits have more in common with infomercials than they do with visiting a new city or town while on vacation.  Most people just sign up for the canned college tour and attend the standard information session.  These set pieces are directed and scripted by the sales and marketing divisions of colleges and universities, and are designed to tell you all the positive benefits of their product, while conveniently passing over any information that might portray them in a negative light.  Tours visit the nicest buildings on campus.  Information sessions highlight strengths, not weaknesses.

Furthermore, you’ll find that most tours and most information sessions are pretty much the same.  You’ll  hear how many volumes are in the library.  You’ll hear that professors hold office hours (they do at EVERY college).  You’ll see the blue light security system, whereby if you push the panic button the campus police will arrive in 37 nanoseconds.  You’ll visit the dorms and see a well-decorated, neatly kept room in which no one lives.  You’ll hear that there are tons of campus activities, and that anyone who wants to can start a new club. You’ll hear statistic rattled off as if they matter (faculty-to-student ratios, average class sizes).  And every tour guide you meet will be wildly happy about their choice of college.


These tours are not necessarily bad, but you have to view them in their proper perspective.

Which is why I tell 9th and 10th graders to get out there and visit colleges early in the process.  Go view the commercials, see how similar they are, and build up some immunity to the sales and marketing spiels.  Sign up for tours and sit in on information sessions.  And then when all that is done, spend a couple of hours just wandering the campus.  Get acquainted with the product yourself.  Look behind the pretty buildings to see the ugly ones.  Go to the buildings that were not on the tour.  Talk to people who were not trained by the admissions office.

Which campuses should be the ones you visit early in the game?  The ones nearest you.  It doesn’t much matter whether you are really interested in the colleges closest to your  home.  These will be the ones that will help you build your immunity to the campus visit infomercials.  They will also help you learn to ask questions, to develop your own list of things you like and don’t like about different campuses.  In fact, if you listen hard enough, you’ll start to develop a greater sensitivity for what really is different from one campus to the next.  But ironically, this sensitivity develops only after you’ve become desensitized to the marketing messages that the sales and marketing team (i.e., admissions) tosses your way.

So get out there and do those visits. Do it early, and do it often.  And then when it really starts to count, you’ll be able to separate the sales pitch from the interesting and helpful information.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant


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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  1. This was a very good article. However, I think it’s a mistake to tell people to begin tours of colleges in their freshman or sophomore year of high school. Students should start looking in their junior years when they have a better idea of what they are looking for, and what kinds of questions they need to ask. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time and money.

  2. Hi, Maurice,
    I don’t recommend that you trek across the country to begin your college search as a 9th grader. I do, however, recommend that student visit colleges near where they live, or to drop by a campus or two while they are on vacation. The point is not to “shop” for the perfect college during these visits. The purpose is to introduce younger students to the variety and range of options available to them. They need to begin to imagine what college life might be like for them in various contexts. Leaving all the “shopping” for the last minute under time pressure can have negative consequences, too.

    So you’re right: don’t spend money to visit colleges. But do spend a modicum of time introducing your kids to the concept of college well in advance of the final year of high school.

    Thanks for writing in!

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