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Juniors & Seniors: It’s Prime Time to Visit Colleges


Now is the ideal time for juniors and seniors to plan visits to college campuses, particularly as you think about holidays and vacations through the spring and summer. St. Mary’s college counselors urge each student to visit and tour at least two colleges before applying. Brochures and webpages are valuable research tools, but nothing compares to visiting a college to see for yourself what the school is really like.

Junior year visits help students learn about campus resources, college residential life, academics and special programs. This basic framework informs all future research and shapes each student’s criteria.

Senior year visits focus on more specific criteria and desires. And spring is not too late to make additional visits. Final visits to colleges that have offered your student admission help them cement their choice and provide an intuitive sense of what life will be like if they attend that school.

Visiting colleges does not need to be expensive. Start by checking out places close to home. We are blessed with a variety of institutions within a reasonable drive, including liberal arts colleges, Catholic universities and public research universities. When your daughter discovers the type of school she likes, she can use that information to find other, similar schools to consider.

Planning Visits

Work together as a family (with your personal and St. Mary’s calendars in hand) to identify opportunities for visits. These time periods could include school holidays, in-service days and breaks.

Students can visit nearby colleges on their own. They should check each college’s website for information about arranging visits, including tour times and instructions on how to make reservations. Search the school’s website for “Prospective Students,” “Admissions,” or Campus Visits.” It is also helpful to check the college calendar to make sure school is in session, since that allows for interaction with students and a realistic sense of the place.

Other tips:

  • Colleges prefer that students, not parents, make visit arrangements. It indicates maturity and college readiness when students handle their own interactions and communication with the colleges.
  • Your daughter should call the college’s Admissions Office directly. She can ask questions about visiting and touring, or inquire about opportunities such as sitting in on a class, meeting professors or speaking to an athletic coach.
  • College admissions staff can provide additional travel information, hotel suggestions and information for itinerary planning such as drive times to nearby schools.

Families and students should visit colleges when they can, but be aware how different campus events, such as holidays, spring break or summer vacation, can shift the feel of a place. Most colleges offer spring preview days designed specifically with admitted students and parents in mind.

Next fall, schools will offer fall preview days for prospective applicants. A good number of schools provide fly-in programs to help students who might not have the resources to visit distant campuses.

The Campus Visit

Most schools offer information sessions lasting about an hour, and a campus tour of 60-90 minutes. Some colleges offer special tours featuring programs in engineering, STEM or fine arts.

Make a point of spending time away from the formal official admissions programs and tours. Visit the student union or library. The best way for a student to know whether the campus would be right for them is to talk with current students.

Encourage your daughter to chat with current students and ask why they chose that school, what they like about it, how students treat each other and if they anything surprised them. Look at bulletin boards for information about events and clubs and pick up a copy of the student newspaper.

The Parent Role

Your main job as a parent during a campus tour is to be an attentive listener. Let your student take the lead and ask the questions. After the visit, you can play a crucial role helping your daughter recap the visit. Help her remember things she liked or did not like and special aspects of the school she might want to look for at other schools. Encourage your daughter to jot down some notes during and after a visit, especially if you are touring several schools in a short span of time.

Financial Aid offices are generally also available for appointments during a campus visit. Parents will have the most specific questions, but students should participate and know the role that a college’s affordability will play in their choices.

How to Create a Good List of Questions

In the St. Mary’s College Counseling Handbook, we offer a list of suggested questions for students to ask during and after a campus visit. Digital copies of the handbook are available on each student’s iPad and in Naviance, which you can access through the St. Mary’s website.

You may want to review the list with your daughter before a campus visit. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) also provides an extensive list of questions for college visits in a pocket guide and mobile app. The college counseling office has copies. It is also available here.

About Preapproved Absences for College Visits

We understand that seniors have special responsibility for their college decisions. They may need to use school time to visit college campuses.

If your daughter will miss more than four days of school to visit colleges, she needs to turn in a note from you to  Patty Gorman at least two weeks before the visit. Gorman will give your daughter a “Pre-Arranged Absence Form. Her teachers need to sign off on the form before your daughter returns it to Lisa Thompson, attendance secretary.

If college visits are shorter than four days, then, like any other absence, it simply requires a note from parents to excuse the absence.

Of course, when the student returns to school, she needs to turn in homework and make up all tests, projects and presentations according to the due dates established by each teacher.

We also encourage juniors to visit colleges. However, we generally expect them to arrange their visits on holidays, in-service dates, over school breaks and during the summer before their senior year. Take time to sit together as a family and look over the school calendar to spot these opportunities now. It’s easy to let them slip away.

For more details on college visits, feel free to contact your student’s assigned college counselor.