If you’re a high school student about to start visiting colleges, I’m thrilled for you. Visiting college campuses is truly one of the most fun parts of the college search—and to be honest, it’s probably the most helpful. There’s nothing better than experiencing each college campus firsthand to help you decide on the school you want to attend.
But I know planning these visits can feel overwhelming, especially if you’re not sure where to start or what to expect. That’s why you need a step-by-step plan for what to do before, during and after each college visit.
Not only will this plan help you manage your stress (you’ve got a lot to think about right now), but it’ll also help you get the most out of your experience so you can choose the college that’s right for you.
When Should You Start College Visits?
Best-case scenario: You start visiting colleges during your junior year of high school. I usually tell students to spend some time narrowing down their list of colleges to just three to five schools they’re really serious about, and then plan to visit at least three of those schools during the fall of junior year.
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There’s no rule that says you can’t start visiting colleges sooner than your junior year. And if you’re already a senior and still have colleges to visit, don’t worry. You might have to speed up the tour process or check out fewer colleges than you originally planned, but you can still get it done in time to make your final choice and save enough to cover tuition.
Now, you might be wondering, Kristina, I’m in high school. I have the ACT, grades, extracurriculars and hanging out with my friends to think about. How am I supposed to plan college visits on top of all my other responsibilities?
Listen, I know where you’re coming from. And that’s why I’m sharing this plan with y’all—because it’s actually not as complicated as you might think!
How to Prep for a College Visit
After you’ve narrowed down your list of dream schools—and before you do anything else—I want you to ask yourself: Could I actually afford to go to these schools without taking out student loans? Yes, this is your chance to dream big and get excited! But I don’t want you wasting time and money visiting (or risking falling in love with) a school that’s way out of your budget.
There’s always a chance you can get financial aid, and that’s great news. But if you know you won’t be able to cover tuition for an Ivy League school even with scholarships and grants, don’t visit the campus. Seriously—there’s no need to. You might be tempted by their state-of-the-art dorms and bougie dining hall options, but these fancy features aren’t worth sacrificing your financial future.
Instead, focus on finding schools that you love and you can afford. Trust me, future you will celebrate your decision to graduate totally free of student loans.
Are we on the same page? Okay, fantastic. Now that you’ve narrowed down the schools you actually want to visit, what are the next steps?
1. Define what you’re looking for.
Before you even step onto a campus, I want you to have a clear idea of what matters to you in your college experience. That way, you’ll know what to look for when you visit each school. Do they offer the degree program you want? Do you want small class sizes? A ton of clubs and student activities? Volunteer opportunities? Someplace cozy where everyone knows each other?
Make a list. Write down these little (but important) details so you can keep this picture in your mind during your college campus visits.
2. Do your research ahead of time.
You’re probably going to have a bunch of questions during your college visit—and you should. Asking questions is part of the process. But do some homework on each school ahead of time. You can find lots of helpful information on the college’s website to answer most of the basic questions. (This includes questions about how many students go to the school, tuition range, types of degree programs, and even campus features like gyms, libraries and theaters.) Then when you meet professors, guidance counselors or current students in person, you’ll have more time to ask some in-depth questions.
Another tip is to browse the college’s social media accounts so you can see recent updates from student gatherings, cool places around campus, and news and updates. (Also look at college hashtags and the location to see what students post.)
3. Talk to the admissions office.
The college admissions office is there to help students, and they want to meet you. Don’t be shy or afraid to reach out to them before you visit the campus. Ask them about official campus tours or preview days. You can also ask to set up a time to meet with students or professors (and maybe even coaches, if you’re planning to play sports in college).
You should also ask if you can sit in on a couple classes that interest you. Not every school will let you do this, so make sure you get the green light from them before planning to go. If they do allow it, take advantage of that to learn more about the school’s teaching style.
And one more pro tip: Don’t forget to talk to your high school to make sure you’ll be able to get excused absences for the days you’re visiting colleges.
4. Stick to a travel budget.
If you’re spending more than just a few hours visiting a local campus, you’ll want to have your travel budget planned ahead of time. For college visits in other states or a city a few hours away, go ahead and start planning for expenses like gas, airplane tickets, hotels and food. (And for a really convenient option, some schools even offer free virtual tours of the campus that you can do from home.)
What to Do on the Day of Your College Visit
Your college visit is here, but don’t worry, it’s normal to be a little nervous. And remember, there’s no pressure to make any decisions right now. A college visit is all about seeing if the school is a good fit for you.
Here are a few things to remember the day of your campus visit:
1. Connect with people.
It’s a good idea to connect with as many people as possible on campus (if they have time). That includes students, teachers, office assistants or anyone else. If you meet with someone, ask if it’s okay to get their contact info and follow up with them later if you have more questions.
And even though it sounds super simple, there’s one big thing you can do to make a good impression on the people you meet: Be on time (or a few minutes early) to all your appointments and scheduled events. This shows you’re respectful of busy schedules and you take this experience seriously. Politeness goes a long way!
2. Get familiar with the campus.
It’s a good idea to take a guided college tour so you can experience all the must-see sights on campus. And I encourage you to check out the campus (and the surrounding town) on your own too. Don’t go anywhere that’s just for students or faculty, but feel free to walk around and soak up the experience. Look around the student center and watch how students spend time together. Wander around the library or enjoy an iced coffee on the lawn. If this is going to be your home and hangout spot for the next four years, you want to feel comfortable and enjoy it.
3. Explore the opportunities on campus.
While you’re visiting the campus, get a sense of the kind of experiences you’ll have as a student there. A super important one is the classroom experience—which is why I would definitely sit in on a class or two once you clear it with the professors and admissions office. This way you’ll get a good idea of the teaching style and content, how formal or informal classes are, and if the students seem like they’re actually interested in the class.
And look into anything and everything that interests you—fun clubs or student-led organizations, faith groups, fitness programs the school offers, job fairs and career counseling, and anything else that would help you make the most out of your college experience. You could even go to a campus event, like a play, basketball game or concert, to get a sense for what it’s like to be a student there.
Questions to Ask on College Visits
Remember earlier when I talked about asking great questions? Let’s revisit that real quick. I know it can be hard to come up with questions on the spot, so take some time before your college visit to think about what you’ll really want to learn.
Here are a few examples of what to ask during your college visit:
- What are the best ways to save money on tuition and expenses here?
- How does the career center help students transition from college into the real world?
- Who should I talk to about work-study programs on campus?
- What’s the graduate success rate? How many students find jobs after graduation?
- What has your experience been like at this school?
- Where are the best places to study on campus?
- What are some things you wish you’d known before your freshman year here?
- How does the school help students who are feeling overwhelmed or struggling in their personal lives?
- What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about attending (or teaching) here?
- What makes this school different from any other school?
- What are the options for learning on campus or remotely?
- How is student safety supported on campus?
When you ask good questions, you’ll get good answers. And this can really help you narrow down your top college choices to find the right fit for you.
And while you’re exploring the campus and asking questions, make sure you’re clear on all costs and fees—everything from tuition, to parking, to memberships and sorority dues. Because let’s face it: Up-front costs and hidden fees can add up fast. You need to know how much all of it costs so you can compare the price tag with other schools—and figure out how to stay debt-free on a student budget.
Final Steps After Your College Visits
1. Reflect on your college tour experience.
Once you leave the campus, take a few minutes to write down some notes (even if they’re just on your phone) about what you liked and didn’t like about the college. You’ll want to remember your first impressions, favorite campus features, and anyone who gave you helpful information. These notes will be helpful to look back on later when you’re in the decision-making process.
Review the list you made before your visit and ask yourself: Does this college line up with my list? Can I see myself going there? Do I want to be there for four years?
2. Follow up with your college contacts.
Send a thank-you note or a nice email to anyone who met with you and showed you around (including the professors who let you sit in on their classes). Let them know you appreciate the time they took out of their schedules to help you plan your future. If you have any follow-up questions, now’s a great time to ask.
3. Visit the campus a second time.
Here’s a helpful hint: There’s no shame in going back to a school if you need to see it again. I know you might feel pressured to make a choice right away, but you don’t have to. Ultimately, you need to make sure the college you think you want to go to is really the wisest and most affordable choice for you, and this takes time. Deciding on a college is a big deal. Spend some serious time thinking and praying over this decision—and always go with your gut.
Here's the thing, y’all: I’m all about helping you have the best college experience possible—from your first college visit all the way to graduation and beyond. You already know school can be crazy expensive, but one of the best ways to set yourself up for success after graduation is to get your degree without taking out any student loans. (Yes, it’s totally possible!)
If you're looking for more ways to get ahead of college costs, check out my friend Anthony ONeal’s book, Debt-Free Degree. It’ll show you exactly how you can prepare for college without student loans.