The process of visiting colleges can be an exciting — and overwhelming — time. Nerves are likely high for both parents and students and, depending on how many colleges are on your wish list, trips to every one of them could become costly. Luckily there are some ways to cut back on stress and potentially even save some cash when planning college visits.
1. Start Locally
If you're nervous about visiting colleges for the first time, starting in your own backyard is an easy, low pressure and cost-effective way to get your feet wet. Even if no colleges in your area are on your list, making some local stops can help you get used to the process before moving on to the schools you're most interested in.
Jessica Fahner, a 22-year-old who graduated this year from Saint Mary's College of California in the Bay Area, applied to 10 colleges when she was starting off. However, she made sure to first visit all the colleges in Los Angeles, where she lived, even though she only applied to a few of them.
"I recommend visiting local colleges in your area, ideally during junior year, before jet-setting across the country, to give you a chance to get comfortable with college tours, and it won't necessarily break the bank," said Fahner. "You can also visit local schools on the weekends and don't have to take off time at school."
2. Make Use of Other Trips You Already Have Planned
Another cost-effective and convenient way to do college visits is to plan them in conjunction with other travel you've already booked.
"When taking summer vacations, I researched colleges nearby and visited those too, since I would already be in the area," said 19-year-old Maggie Rodriguez, a rising sophomore majoring in economics at Northeastern University in Boston.
Rodriguez also tacked on some extra college visits while she was in Boston visiting Northeastern. "I visited many schools in the city, even if they weren't something I would have chosen myself," she said. "But it definitely helped me get to know what type of school I was looking for."
3. Plan Some Breaks
If multiple colleges are on your list, it might make sense to break up your visits. Dez Brooks is a 16-year-old rising senior at Norman High School in Oklahoma. To plan for upcoming college applications, Brooks took an 11-day road trip up the east coast to look at colleges.
During a seven-college tour Brooks felt the hardest part was keeping all the incoming information about the different schools straight. "When I got back, I made a spreadsheet comparing all of them" Brooks said, "but in the moment, it's impossible to remember which college has what program or what housing or what tuition.
"While in the end, I think the road trip was valuable because it helped me get a much better sense of what I wanted from colleges," Brooks added, "I would not recommend doing something like that.
"Rodriguez agreed that visiting too many colleges can be overwhelming.
"Remember that after being accepted into a school, there are 'admitted student days' where you have the opportunity to hear about, and tour, campus again," she said. "So it's okay if you forgot information or didn't have a chance to visit prior to applying."
4. Go in Prepared
You likely have dozens of questions to ask on your college tours. Rather than trying to remember them all, Fahner recommends keeping a running list on your phone instead.
"Have your mom and dad help with this, that way your parents won't be hassling your tour guide and asking embarrassing questions like mine did," she said. "You can also check off your questions discretely on the tour and ask any questions or concerns that your guide missed at the end.
"Fahner also said her mom and dad were eager to talk to the tour guide and students at the college, but that she was too embarrassed and shy.
"My dad didn't even want to go on a tour of the school," she said. "Instead he wanted to go visit a school and walk around and talk to the students.
"In hindsight, Fahner admits her parents had the right idea to speak to students, and she wishes she had followed their lead
."Students at a college are more than willing to talk to you and are more likely to give you an honest opinion of their experience at the school," she said. "I also think it's important to reach out to students who previously graduated your high school, especially if they attend a school that you're interested in."
5. Time Your Visits Strategically
While it makes sense to see schools over the summer when you won't have to miss classes to do so, there are other factors to consider when deciding when to schedule your visit.
"For me, the feel of the campus is very important," said Brooks. "I wish I didn't visit during the summer so I could actually see what a campus looked and felt like with students on it
."While Brooks still got a good sense of the school from visiting, to actually pick which school to attend, the soon-to-be-college student would like to go back when students are there and sit in on a few classes, too. "That could possibly be a deciding factor if I was choosing between colleges," Brooks added.
Visiting when school is in session may also afford you the opportunity to actually stay overnight on campus with a current student if you or someone you know has an acquaintance there. Some schools also have programs that match prospective students with current students for a stay if there is enough notice. If you normally bunk in your own hotel room on school trips, this can bring your costs down and help you learn more about on-campus culture.
Following these tips will hopefully alleviate some of the stress associated with planning college visits. If you're still feeling the strain, though, consider this: you've done the hard part already by narrowing down your options to a couple select schools you might like to attend. Now is the fun part where all those college descriptions come to life. It's a once in a lifetime experience to visit colleges, so have fun!