You’ve taken the SAT, begun to draft your personal statement, and started to draft a college list—carefully composed of a handful of safeties, targets, and reaches. Now what? Many students will assume that the next step is to visit every college on their list in order to decide where to apply. But for many students, this can seem overwhelming. In many cases, it also may not be the wisest choice.

Indeed, college visits can be time-consuming logistical nightmare if squeezed into weekends during the busy school year. Not to mention, if you are considering schools that are located throughout the country, travel can be uncomfortably costly. For these reasons, it is worthwhile to consider a more strategic schedule of college visits. Below, we’ll outline a more nuanced approach to the College Visit itinerary.

Top-Priority (or First Tier) Visits

You should consider scheduling your top-priority visits before their respective applications are due; perhaps, you’ll carve out the time to visit these campuses during the summer before your senior year or during the opening weeks of school in September. First and foremost, the campuses you visit should be schools to which  you are considering applying during the EA/ED admissions cycle. In particular, if you are applying ED to a school—which, as we’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog is a binding decision should you be accepted—you will want to visit this school before applying. You can further prune your college visit list by considering not only whether you’re planning to apply early, but also how knowledgeable or passionate you are about the schools in question. For example, if you are planning to apply EA to two schools, you should prioritize a visit to the one that you know less about or are more unsure of.

Additionally, you should consider visiting your first- and/or second-choice schools before applying to them, as adcoms increasingly care about accepting applicants who have demonstrated significant interest and passion about their specific school. Oftentimes, it is clear to an adcom when a student has made an effort to visit a school. For this reason, you will want to make clear to your first choice school that you are in fact committed.

But this is not always the case. Some schools—especially Harvard, Yale, and Stanford—already welcome thousands of tourists to their campuses as visitors each week. These schools, which are tourist destinations in their own right, are less worried about bringing you onto their campus as a preliminary step to applying. If you visit these or similar schools, it should be for your own edification rather than with the hopes of strengthening your candidacy. If in fact the latter is your reason for visiting, it is all the more important that you make the most of your campus visit by going on a university-organized tour, attending any available programming provided by the admissions committee, and organize an interview or meeting with an admissions officer if possible.

In all of these cases, top-priority or first tier visits will help you decide whether or not to apply to a school. You can use these visits as an opportunity to prune your college list before you start filling out applications.

Second Tier Visits

Your second tier visits, similar to the first tier ones, should be scheduled before their respective applications are due. However, these are different from first tier visits in that they will be to schools that you are applying to on the regular admissions cycle. Again, these visits should be reserved for cases in which you must decide whether or not to apply to a school. If you know for certain  that you want to apply to a certain university, you may consider postponing your campus visit until you receive news of admission, rejection, or a spot on the waitlist.

Third Tier Visits

This brings us to a discussion of third tier visits, which will take place after you have submitted an application and received an admission decision from the university. The beauty of waiting until this point to plan campus visits is manifold. Firstly,, this timeline will save you the trouble of visiting a school from which you receive a rejection. On the bright side, postponing a visit to a safety may save you time, money, and trouble if you learn that you have been accepted to your first-choice reach.

At this point, it is important to reiterate the note we’ve made above in the first tier section: that you should prioritize visits to your first- and/or second-choice schools if you want to make it clear that you are committed to their communities and would be honored to attend if offered admission. While it is prudent to approach college visits economically, it can also help your application if you make a campus visit before applying because it demonstrates your genuine interest in attending the school. Specifically, by taking the time to visit a school and truly get to know its campus before applying, you communicate your commitment to its community. You should consider a campus visit as a valuable investment in your application—you can be careful about where you invest, but you should also keep in mind that the right investments will yield benefits.

Lastly, we encourage all of our students to make their best effort to visit a school before committing to it on the universal college commitment day, May 1st. Obviously, we do not advise students to put themselves or their family through discomfort if this is a complete impossibility. On the other hand, many students will find it a worthy investment to visit the one or two schools to which they were accepted before they choose one.

In fact, many schools will invite the students who have been offered admission to an admitted students visiting weekend, designed for the express purpose of giving you a taste of life at their school. Some universities will even offer to completely cover the cost of travel to and from this special weekend in the special case that you are exceptionally accomplished and would like to partake in this visiting weekend but cannot afford it.

Whether you decide to visit every school on your college list over your junior summer or you choose to make more conservative plans regarding your college visits, make sure you take a peek at this article before you set foot on campus. It is designed to help you zero in on a university’s unique culture and vibe, which is ultimately the most important reason to visit a school’s campus rather than simply its website.

Lily Calcagnini

Lily Calcagnini

Lily is a History and Literature concentrator at Harvard University who is doing her darnedest to write a thesis about all of her favorite things at once: fashion, contemporary culture, art journalism, and Europe. A passionate learner, she cares deeply about helping high school students navigate the process of college admissions, whether it be through private essay tutoring or sharing advice on the CollegeVine blog.
Lily Calcagnini