How important is it for kids to visit a college before they decide to go there? Very. It’s even better if your child can visit before applying. Here’s why — and how to make it happen.

Why visit?

Visiting a college is one of the best way for students to decide if that college is right for them. As Joshua Weintraub, a college and career advisor at the Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, CA, reminds his students, choosing a college is a major life decision. “I tell my students to find out as much about the colleges they are applying to as possible,” says Weintraub. “College is a huge investment of time and money, so do as much research as you can to make sure the college you choose is a good fit for you.”

If your child is considering a small private school, visiting is also a good way to let the college know they’re interested. Why does this help? The more a smaller, private school knows a student really wants to go there, the more favorably the school will see that applicant. This dynamic doesn’t hold true for large, public universities, which are considering so many applicants each year, but it can be powerful at smaller, private schools.

But visiting colleges in person, especially if they’re far-flung, is expensive, and it’s out of financial reach for many families. Luckily, there are a number of practical alternatives.

Virtual college visits

Teens (and parents) can learn a lot about colleges by spending time online. College websites offer a wealth of information about the majors offered, faculty, cultural programs, and student life. So do their official Facebook pages. Look for photos, videos, and articles about campus employment, dorm life, internships, travel abroad opportunities, and more. School sites typically publish information on acceptance rates and student demographics and different ways to visit the school, such as guided student-led tours, sitting in on classes, maps for self-guided walking tours, and even virtual tours, like this one on the University of California, San Diego website.

If you want a quicker route to a school’s virtual tour, there are a few one-stop websites where teens can take virtual tours of many different schools for free. On, students can look up stats and virtual tours on more than 1,700 schools. Similarly, hosts 360-degree virtual tours of about 1,300 schools.

If your child likes what she sees on a website or virtual tour, she should request information (just go to the college website’s admission section and sign up for the mailing list). She should also email the college admissions office to let them know she’s interested in going there, the date she took a virtual tour, and to ask a question or two that show she’s doing her research. One questions to ask is whether any admissions representatives will be coming to your area for information sessions, interviews, or college fairs. If they are, be sure to attend and make the most of it beforehand by letting the school know she’ll be there and after by sending a thank-you email.

When the school comes to you

In the fall of each year, college admission representatives visit local high schools and college fairs around the country; some also set aside time for individual interviews with prospective students. If admissions representatives aren’t coming to your area, you can request a meeting with local alumni. These interviews and information sessions are a good way for your child to find out more about the college — and for the college to learn more about your student.

While not all schools interview applicants — and some recommend interviewing but don’t require it — it’s a great idea for your child to schedule an interview with a local representative or alumni if it’s an option. “Attending an admissions interview is a good way for you as a student to let a college known you’re interested,” says Ligia Alberto, who worked as a high school counselor for many years and is now Director of Assessment for the Bergenfield Public School District in New Jersey. Students can find out if a particular college offers interviews by checking the school website.

College fairs are another excellent way for applicants to check out schools from afar. At these fairs, teens can talk to college admissions representatives about the school. They can put their name on the college’s mailing list and find out if the school will be doing admission interviews in your area. The National Association for College Admission Counseling sponsors college fairs around the country; it also organizes fairs for colleges with a specific focus, like STEM or visual and performing arts. Associations of colleges that share a philosophy or are located in the same region, like Colleges That Change Lives and The Northwest 5 Consortium, for example, also organize college fairs and information sessions. Keep in mind that some college fairs require students to register in advance. See this college fair checklist for more tips.

College fly-ins

Many colleges now offer “fly-in” programs for minority, low-income, and/or first generation students. These programs cover transportation, housing, and meal costs for eligible students. Each college’s program is different, but most give preference to traditionally underrepresented applicants, and most invite students to spend a few days on campus, attend classes, and meet faculty and students. Check out the website, College Greenlight, for a list of fly-in programs. The list isn’t exhaustive, so if your child is interested in a college that isn’t featured, check that college’s website. Most colleges schedule fly-in programs for the fall, but applications are due in advance, and some require an essay or/and a recommendation from a teacher or high school counselor, so your teen may need to do some extra legwork to make this happen.

Practice locally

Visit a college in your area, whether your child is interested in going there or not. If you take a tour, you’ll learn more about the college; you’ll also get the chance to see areas of campus (college dorm rooms and classrooms, for example) that may be off limits if you explore campus on your own. But even a self-guided tour of campus and lunch at the cafeteria will help inspire your child and inform her college quest.

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