Post-pandemic college tours are back and in high demand. Here’s how to navigate the fall visiting season.
By Emma Whitford, Forbes Staff
The price of gas is rising. Air travel is a mess. But this fall, many college-bound high school seniors and their parents will spend days—sometimes happily, sometimes not—exploring far flung campuses. They may ask blunt questions of undergraduate guides; wander through dorms where the students aren’t yet dressed; listen to lectures (if they get there on a weekday); snap touristy selfies with scenic views (at parents’ insistence); or find that tours at the schools highest on their lists are already booked up, at least for fall weekends.
While college visits done right (see the tips below) are still a valuable way to determine whether an institution is the right fit, taking an official tour of Princeton, Yale, Stanford, or Harvard won’t earn you any points with the admissions office. Yes, many colleges do still consider what is called “demonstrated interest”—how eager a given applicant appears to be to attend the school—in their admissions decisions. And historically, taking the tour was a good way to show interest.
But today, no members of the Ivy League and none of the top 15 schools on Forbes’ 2023 America’s Top Colleges even consider applicants’ interest as a factor in admissions. Looking at the top 100 on the new Forbes list, only 48% of private schools and 23% of public schools take demonstrated interest into account, according to the latest information they’ve provided to what’s known as the Common Data Set. By contrast, 81% of those same private colleges (including all eight Ivies) consider legacy status—meaning whether an applicant is the child of a graduate, and particularly a wealthy one who might be or become a donor. (Among state schools in the top 100, only 27% consider legacy.)
Moreover, even those admissions officers who care about demonstrated interest measure it by a lot more than just who schleps to campus. They count interactions at college fairs and high school visits and how many times the student contacts the admissions office. And, like any good marketer, they track open rates and click through rates on emails.
Then there’s the University of Michigan (the highest ranked public college on the Forbes list that’s outside of California). It doesn’t track clicks or visits, but factors in a student’s interest based on how they respond to an essay question asking what attracts them to the program they’re applying to, reports Kelly Cox, senior associate director of recruitment and operations with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Rice University in Houston does the same.
Giving extra points for a college visit has fallen out of favor for several reasons. One is equity (though that doesn’t seem to have killed legacy preference). Not everyone can afford a cross-country flight or weekend road trip to visit campus, says Jaime Soto, senior associate director of admissions for recruitment and communications at the University of Washington. Another reason is volume, he says. UWash, which received more than 55,000 applications across its three campuses for the 2020-21 academic year, doesn’t have the time or resources to track the engagement habits of all of those applicants. This is a widespread problem: With more colleges using a common application form and going test-optional, high school seniors aiming for college are each applying to more schools. In 2022, according to Common App data, the average student put in 6.2 college applications, up from 4.6 in 2014.
Finally, there’s the enduring impact of the Covid-19 pandemic—a time when colleges temporarily canceled in-person classes along with applicant visits, and beefed up their online campus tours. Kevin Donohue, assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College and a 2021 grad, gave live virtual tours during the pandemic—as an undergraduate, he’d walk around campus with a gliding camera and answer questions that viewers submitted through a chatbox. One student loved the experience so much he attended Donohue’s tour three times, he reports. Most schools have retained these virtual offerings.
So why do parents and students bother coming to campus? Because it really does affect students’ decisions. A fall visit is particularly important if a student is going to apply to a school for early decision. Under the rules, if a student is admitted through early decision and receives adequate financial aid, they are required to commit to that school and withdraw their applications from any others. (This differs from early action, where students apply and receive a decision ahead of time but do not need to commit to the school.)
Donohue offers his first, junior year visit to Dartmouth as an object lesson. “It was a rainy April day. It was just miserable out … and I remember just loving it.” At lunch he told his mom he was going to Dartmouth and applied early decision the next fall. “The joke that we make in college admissions is that if you visit a campus on a less than ideal weather day and fall in love, it means you found your home,’’ echoes Jennifer Ziegenfus, assistant vice chancellor for admissions at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Ziegenfus notes touring parents can sometimes seem more enthusiastic than their kids—but that doesn’t mean the students aren’t influenced. The tour starting point at her campus is a statue of a mascot buffalo (Ralphie, he’s called) framed by the Rocky Mountains. “The picture is one of the most iconic photos you can take on the entire campus. I have seen family members take a photo and the students be extremely resistant to taking the photo because they were essentially dragged to the visit,” she says. “They might be coming from across the country or right down the street, and mom and dad make them take this photo.’’ Later, she adds, some of those same students become graduates with a different attitude. “They take this iconic photo, they keep it on their phone, and then years later they come back to show us.”
Embarrassing selfies aren’t the only potentially problematic dynamic involving parents. Michigan’s Cox notes it can be less than ideal “when the parent is an alumnus of the institution and they’re excited to be back and they had a positive experience and are hoping to share. They can take over the tour a bit and not leave it to the tour guide.” There’s also the game day visit, “if there’s tailgates and you see some activity on a Saturday morning from students pregaming so to speak.’’ (That, for you parents, means drinking in advance of a game.) “Parents may look at that and think, ‘Oh, I dunno if this is really what we want for our students. And on the other hand, students might be looking at that thinking, ‘Wow, this is awesome,’” he says. Then there’s the issue of coordinating dorm tours. “We’ve had a couple of reports back from our guys where they got there, entered the room and surprised some people who either are still in bed or not fully dressed for the day, and there’s a group of 15 strangers walking in” says Cox. “It’s part of working with college students early in the weekend morning.”
Now that campus visits are back in vogue, the biggest issue may just be getting all the tour slots you want.
Between their twin sons and 13-month-younger daughter, Greg Tole and his wife Tosia of Denville, New Jersey, have three children who will be starting college next fall. During their 2023 spring break, Tole took his sons to visit schools in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, while his wife did a separate swing with their daughter. “I prefer that my kids view quite a few schools because I think there’s a certain vibe that you can get that’s either going to be really appealing, or not,” Tole says.
Their efforts to plan the perfect trips were thwarted, however, when he realized that openings at several of their target colleges were already full. Tole couldn’t get a guided tour at Clemson University or James Madison University, and his wife couldn’t snag a time at the University of Georgia.
Indeed, though the admissions cycle for fall 2024 has only just begun, listed weekend tour dates at some highly selective colleges are already booked. At Harvard University, currently scheduled tours run through mid-November, and all weekend slots are filled. At Princeton, weekend tours are booked through October. (Early action applications are due by November 1 at both those Ivies.)
If you’re keen on a tour, but all of the available times are booked, admissions officials suggest calling their offices—it’s possible the school might add additional time slots or keep a waitlist. (CU Boulder’s Ziegenfus also suggests clicking on a full date online, because that sometimes takes you to the sign-up page for the wait list.)
One tool Tole found helpful in his planning: College Scoops, an online service that for $99 a year (or $9.95 a month), offers virtual guidebooks to 101 colleges, designed to be useful to both parents and students. There are hotel recommendations, lists of nearby restaurants, interactive maps, links to register for guided campus tours and self-guided trip itineraries for each campus.
Moira McCullough, an Osterville, Massachusetts, mother of three, says she launched the service in 2019 because her first college visit with her oldest son was a disappointment. “I was so excited to get one kid in the car, drive six hours, learn everything I can about my son—all his desires and what he wanted to be and what he wanted to study,” she says. “And it was an absolute disaster.”
What her son wanted was “the experience of a dress rehearsal,” she says. Instead, “he walked away from that visit thinking ‘This is where I’m going to live, learn and grow, and all I learned was what I had read about on the website and the brochures.’” So College Scoops offers answers from current undergraduates to such real life questions as where they eat, workout, party and park their cars, enabling kids considering a school to check out where they’ll actually spend time—beyond the classrooms and what’s in the glossy, admission-office produced brochure.
Five Tips From Admissions Pros
🧭 Build an itinerary.
🧠 Brainstorm questions.
🗒️ Pay attention to small details.
🌄 Get off campus.
🎯 Go local.
MORE FROM FORBES