College Tours this Fall: Tips for Success in Uncertain Times

Touring a prospective college is one of the most exciting parts of a high schooler’s life. But just like everything else in the world, college tours have changed in the COVID era, and they might not go the way you always pictured.

Never fear: the experts at Garrett Educational Consulting have given us several tips for making sure your student’s college tour is as informative (and fun!) as possible, whether your desired campuses are open, closed, or restricted.

Why tour at all?

Touring campus is the best way for a prospective student to get a feel for what college life might be like if he or she enrolls. It’s a chance to get a look at the dorms, classrooms, common areas and lots of other facets of student life.

Photo courtesy of Garrett Educational Consulting

Katie Garrett, founder and president of GEC, has personally visited hundreds of college campuses and regularly meets with admissions personnel to be sure she stays up-to-date on the ever-changing landscape of college admissions. Here’s some of her best advice in the current environment:

Don’t wait to plan your tour

The big change to college tours since COVID is the need to plan in advance. Far in advance. Gone are the days when you could just walk up to any college campus and get a tour that instant. Just like getting into your favorite restaurant these days, you’ll likely need a reservation. And you’ll need a way to get status updates.

Typically students start touring colleges their sophomore or junior years. Of course, you can start as early as you like. And Katie says it’s smart to start making your plans now. “With so many campuses just now reopening there are going to be a lot of people trying to get on campus,” she says.

So how do you start planning your tour? Your first stop should be the school’s website. Check under the “Admissions” tab for online scheduling options and make your appointment because walk-up tours may not be permitted.

If you’re planning to travel out of state specifically for a college tour but find out that all tours are full at your school of choice, have your student call the admissions office and let them know you’re coming. “Many schools will still fit you in for a tour,” Katie says.

You’ll also need to ask about how the campus will update any visitor status changes as well as their mask policy — it would be awful to arrive on campus to find out there’s been a change in policies and you’re not prepared.

One last tip for scheduling: Make sure you schedule the tour in your student’s name.
“This will get their name into the admissions system and will be a part of the ‘demonstrated interest’ category for admissions decisions for many schools,” Katie says.

Decide when to go

Katie recommends visiting when school is in session if possible. It’s (hopefully) a chance to get to go to a sporting event, eat lunch at the student union and generally get a feel for what college life will really be like. “Campuses are very different when students are on campus,” Katie says. “sometimes seeing just how big/small a place is during class change can be eye-opening — and a deciding factor.”

However, lots of students’ school year weekends are packed with sports, clubs and other obligations. In that case, opt for a tour whenever it works for you.
“You can still get a great overview,” Katie says. “It won’t be a football Saturday but at least you can get your feet on the ground, see the layout of the campus and see what the surrounding area is like. It’s not the same as sitting in on a class but we kind of have to take what we can get right now.”

Take advantage of family travel

Going on a family trip for the end of summer or during the holidays later this year?
Katie says that’s the perfect time to schedule a school tour, especially if you live far away from the school you’re interested in.
“You don’t have to do an organized tour — just check out the campus if that’s all your time allows,” Katie says. 
Again, check the school’s website. Many offer information about self-guided tours or will at least have maps at the Admissions Office.

Ask specific questions

Once you’re able to get on campus, you may find some areas aren’t open for tours (the dorms, for example).
Be sure to ask your tour guide plenty of specific questions about the parts of campus you won’t get to see and find out if there are other ways you can get a feel for them. (Think: “Where can I find pictures online?” and “Is there an option for a virtual tour?”)

If campus is closed

With the changing landscape of COVIDand its variants, it’s unfortunately possible that your dream school may not be offering in-person tours at all. In that case, your student will need to call the admissions office to see what options they are offering (i.e. virtual tours).

Of course, it can be tough to figure out whether you like the school if you’ve never been there IRL, but there are a few other options to get a better mental picture:

  • Take a virtual tour. If it’s not available or as comprehensive as you’d like, try using Google Street view to get a look around campus.
  • Talk to current students. If you don’t know any, the admissions office should be able to connect you.
  • Join the school’s social media pages. Read comments from current students, browse photos, try to mentally put yourself on campus.
  • See if you can Zoom with a virtual tour guide. They’ll likely have the answers to most of your questions, including some you probably never even thought of.
  • Take advantage of virtual information sessions. It may sound boring, but they’ll likely be packed with information you can use.
  • Drive through the area. Even if you can’t get on campus and walk around, driving through the area will help give you a better idea of what college life might look like there. Stop and grab a bite at a nearby restaurant and you might even be able to chat with some current students.

Tips especially for parents

Katie’s Number One piece of advice for parents: Keep in mind it’s your student’s campus tour, not yours.

“Remember when touring that this is where your student will be spending four years — not you. Don’t be disappointed if your student doesn’t like a campus as much as you do or vice versa,” she says.

Let your student take the lead

It’s only natural for a parent to ask some questions while you’re on campus, but don’t dominate the tour or info session.
“This trip is for the students to get information,” Katie says. “You might be surprised … sometimes you can get insight into your student’s interest level by their participation (or lack of) during the tour.”

Another tip to keep in mind: most tour guides are current students, not professional administrators.
“Don’t be upset or offended if these kids can’t answer ‘parent-type questions’ about finances, tuition, fees, etc.,” Katie suggests. “Also, don’t base your opinion of a school on your opinion of the tour guide. That one tour guide doesn’t represent the entirety of the college community.”

Plan an excursion to the school store

“It’s fun to visit the campus store and let your student pick out a souvenir if they are interested,” Katie says. “The kids like wearing these things when they get back to school, and potentially this will be your student’s first piece of ‘swag’ when they do pick their college.”

With a little advanced preparation, college tours in the COVID era can still be fun, informational and the ultimate key to finding your perfect school.

Need more advice? GEC makes college admissions a breeze. Call Katie at GEC at 980-677-0311 or email her at [email protected].

Garrett Educational Consulting, LLC is a full-service, academic consulting firm based in Charlotte, North Carolina. With over twenty years experience in education and counseling, Katie Garrett guides and supports students and families that are navigating important academic decisions. Services include all aspects of academic advising, comprehensive college planning, independent day school consulting, and boarding school application guidance.