Visiting College Early – Where To Start, When To Start?

Recently we noted that juniors, and even sophomores, in high school can benefit from college visits prior to the senior year.

If your schedule and budget allow, visiting the very high-on-the-list colleges early on can take a little pressure out of the over-scheduled senior year. Be warned, however, that it can also restructure your list.

There is no magic number of colleges to visit (or apply to, for that matter). A general guideline for visiting college is that one visit is not enough, and more visits than you can afford – in time and money – would be too many.

Where and when to visit

As with all things college-related, there is no “one size fits all.” When you travel depends on why you travel. Are you looking to shorten your list before submitting applications? Or are you so certain of your future university that you feel comfortable not seeing campus until new student orientation? Even if you’re positive that visiting college isn’t necessary, at minimum you should visit your Plan A and B schools before time to put down a deposit. What if Plan A doesn’t pan out? There simply is no substitute for being there to make a truly informed decision.

For more on this, read Don’t Skip the College Visits for insight from the Parent College Coach and her own experience.

RELATED: Visiting Colleges Before Senior Year

Quick start

Start with a list. For some, this will be a spreadsheet that can be sorted by distance, current tuition, and one’s own ranking system. For others, it might be hastily scrawled on the back of PTA minutes. (That may or may not be a personal example.)

You could begin with your top few choices, or colleges within a five-hour drive, or even a national ranking site.  (National rankings are fine, if that’s something you seek, but be sure to do some reading on their methodology if you’re going to use them to slash your list. Don’t risk eliminating what could be perfect for you based on someone else’s criteria.)

Before you travel

Do your homework.  (Wow – don’t you wish you had a dollar for every time you heard that?) Add “have-to” items and “nice to have” items to your checklist and be sure anywhere you plan to visit meets the minimum.

Take a look at the school’s site for information you need, such as whether they have adequate workout facilities, or offer your intended major. No sense wasting time and money on something that will simply not do. But wait! Don’t completely discount a university based on something that could, in the end, be negotiable. You may find an absolute fit despite program specifics. For example, you could learn that, even if they don’t have a law school, their undergraduate advising program boasts a high post-graduation admittance rate to top law schools in the nation. If you love the place but have concerns, ask!

Plan ahead

Make sure you check the colleges’ visit information well in advance. Many schools have very structured visit programs requiring advance reservations, while others are less formal. The undergraduate admissions office page is generally the place to start on any college site. If you’ll be traveling during peak visit times, go ahead and book your hotel as soon as you possibly can. Bear in mind that standard school holidays often will be peak travel times, with not only hotels seeing a surge in bookings, but campus tours and information sessions as well.

Leave room for a surprise or two

If you are lucky enough to be at the beginning of your search, consider the fact that there are literally thousands of colleges out there, including some that are perfect for you.  The advantage to starting early is that you can fit in some extra visits without having to wedge them all in between senior year activities and test dates.

RELATED: College Visit DON’Ts

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