Take that list of colleges your student’s been working on and pull out your calendar. 

campus2Before your student fills out their first application, they should have a few college visits under their belt. So the sooner you can step on a campus the better. With both of my kids, college tours helped them narrow their lists of prospective schools and learn about the real requirements for admission. Hearing these details and seeing the schools might just be the motivation your child needs to finally get serious about this whole “college thing.”

Now that Spring Break is only a few weeks away, note that school vacations offer great opportunities for college visits, especially for sophomores and juniors. Most colleges are in-session during the typical Winter (February) and Spring (March/April) Breaks, as well as many federal holidays. That means plenty of college students making their way across the quad and a chance for your child to get a sense of how well they might fit in at a particular school. Summer tours may be convenient, but most campuses are too quiet during June, July and August.

Make a plan Before you sign up for a visit, you’ll need to do some planning. Take a look at that list of colleges you and your child put together. Mark off the schools they seem most interested in, then try to group them by region. Or simply pick a couple of schools, maybe one small and one medium, an hour or two away.

Using my son’s list of his top ten colleges, I created three trips that I thought we could take in the second half of his junior year. One included three schools all within a reasonable drive of each other, and another involved only one college.

Work around when you can take time off from work and try to include younger siblings if they have the same school breaks. My kids are two years apart, so we took our son on most of his older sister’s tours. By the end of his freshman year of high school, he already understood what it took to get into college (which motivated him better than I could).

Consider these factors Look at your financial situation. Can you afford to fly to a school more than say five or six hours away? Is a night in a hotel in your budget? We decided a couple of far away schools had to wait for a visit until we knew if the kids had been accepted. If possible, keep the number of delayed visits to only two or three.

We made the most of our one airplane trip with each child. Since we’re from southern New York, we chose to fly to visit three Midwestern schools on my daughter’s list. We flew into Columbus, Ohio and rented a car to visit Ohio State University, University of Cincinnati and Indiana University, flying home from Indianapolis. Along the way, we informally checked out a few other schools she’d heard about.

Another factor to account for is admissions scheduling. Some schools offer several sessions daily, others only on specific days of the week. Sign up for both the information session, led by an admissions representative, and the campus tour, led by a current student. Simply go on the college’s website, click on “prospective/future students” and find the “visit” tab. Pick a few dates and see what’s available.

Expect to spend about three hours on a campus. If two schools are only a couple of hours apart, you might be able to see both in one day.

Make the most of your campus visit Sometimes you need to schedule the information session before the tour or vice versa. Most colleges time them close together so that you can move smoothly from one to the other. Also check on whether there’s a special session for the school that hosts your child’s major or a chance to meet with a department representative.

DSC02601With my daughter, we always scheduled the information session first and the tour second. But with my son, sometimes it was more convenient to reverse it. I liked that setup because he gained a feel for the campus right away and the mood was more relaxed to start. Switch it up among two schools and see what works.

If you have the time, linger after the official session is over to grab something to eat at the food court, sit on a bench outside or check out a part of the campus that wasn’t included on the tour. Take the opportunity to let your child observe the students and get a feel for the real campus.

In upcoming posts I’ll write about what to expect on the college visit and how to avoid being the embarrassing parent on the tour (your kid will thank you).

Share your advice on visiting colleges in the comments section below.