The end of summer is a great time for family college visits. Universities tend to start classes a few weeks before high schools, so your teen can check out a busy campus while getting back into the academic mindset.
College admissions consultants agree that campus visits are crucial. “I can’t underscore enough how important it is for students to get on college campuses,” says Robert Franek, senior vice president and publisher at The Princeton Review. “You have to be an educated consumer about where you’re going to live and go to school.”
In addition to giving you a sense of the campus you just can’t get from online research, doing a tour show the schools that you’re a candidate to be taken seriously.
More than half of schools polled last year by the National Association for College Admission Counseling said that a student’s “demonstrated interest” was an important factor in the admissions decision. That’s especially important for school’s that are within driving distance of your home. Call the admissions office or visit the website to sign up for the official tour and information session to make sure the school knows that you’re there.
The visits don’t come cheap, however, with some parents laying out thousands dollars for their kids to see schools in person. Some spend even more—with uber-wealthy families spending tens of thousands on college tours by private jet. If your budget is more Buick than Bombardier, read on for tips to keep the costs of your college visits in check.
1. Start close to home. It doesn’t take much to take day trips to local colleges, even if they’re not on the top of your list. Try to visit schools of various sizes to give you a sense of where you will feel the most comfortable. “Visiting schools nearby can help a student learn the differences between a small, liberal arts school, versus a bigger school, versus a state school,” says Kat Cohen, CEO and Founder of IvyWise, an educational consulting company in NYC. “That can save you thousands on flights and hotels.”
2. Trim your travel list. The easiest way to save on college visits is to tour the fewest schools possible. In addition to the academics, consider each school’s size, location, and proximity to major cities, and transportation. Then use CampusTours or YouVisit to virtually tour the schools on your list before ranking them.
Once you’ve ranked the schools, visit only the ones at the top of your list, although you can tack on schools lower in your rankings if they’re geographically convenient to a more promising contender. Northeast cities like Boston and Philadelphia, for example, are home to more than a dozen schools each and determined families could squeeze in four schools over two days.
3. Visit midweek. Not only will it make traveling less expensive, but seeing a camps during the week also gives you a better sense of what the school is really like for students.
4. Take turns. Team up with another family looking at similar school. “Let one parent go and take the kids to see several schools, and then the another parent can take them to others,” says Lisa Marker Robbins, president of LEAP, the Learning Enrichment & Assistance Program. “That’s a great way to cut costs, plus it’s more fun for kids to be with their friends.”
5. Live and eat like a college student. Check with the admissions office to see if the school offers dorm accommodations or dining hall food vouchers to visitors. Even if the college won’t pay for you to eat on campus, doing so is generally cheaper than eating out and it will give you a chance see what kind of food and ambiance a freshman can expect. Get a day pass to try out the gym, and see if there is a free or low cost campus event like a lecture, play, or festival, that you can attend while you’re there.
6. Use a tour company. Companies like GoCampusing or College Visits take groups of kids to visit multiple schools on preplanned tours. The tours typically hit at least a half a dozen schools over a few days and cost a few thousand dollars, not including airfare. “They are usually a lot less expensive than doing those trips on your own,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors, an education resource site. “The downside is that they are going to take you to a bunch of related colleges, some of which may be of no interest to you.”
7. Skip the swag. At least for now. Wait until after you’ve been accepted to your dream school to stock up on gear. Once you’re in, you can splurge on a hoody or two.
8. Tack it onto a family vacation. Some college towns are located in or around tourist destinations. If you generally take an August vacation, plan one that’s near one of the schools on your list and set aside a day or two for school visits. Vacationing in the area will also give you a chance to see what region is like beyond the borders of the campus. After all, if this school ends up being “the one,” both student and parents may end up spending a lot of time there over the next few years.