Get more without a tour: Evaluating the pros and cons of college tours

Melissa Block

As a group of eager parents dragged their kids to the front of the tour group, bumping past me and interrupting the tour guide with their anxious and obnoxious questions, I was begrudgingly pushed to the back of the crowd unable to even hear my tour guide describe the “awe-inspiring” historical significance of the building in front of us. I had already spent over $500 on the plane ticket and hotel rooms that I needed for the weekend to Southern California, and was not ready to leave the tour early. But, as I irritatedly trudged along with the rest of the group, I began to wonder what, if any, were the benefits to college tours. From the various college students I’ve talked to it seemed clear to me: if you don’t go on a college tour, then you’re not a strong candidate for your top schools.

Especially in our community it appears that college tours are a necessary part of the college application process. But if you’re the average high school applicant (like me) who doesn’t know what they want to do or where they want to go, then what do you expect to learn on an hour-long tour that you could easily learn in some other form?

Before I begin, if you are going on a college tour to show your “demonstrated interest” then so be it. That’s fine. However, if you’re going on a tour because you think you have to, it’s not worth your money or your time. There are multiple alternatives, two of which I will be exploring below, that can provide you with similar insight from the comfort of your own home.


Why you should visit reason 1: The money

College is a financial decision, like buying a car or a house, and you need to see it with your own eyes. If your parents will be spending thousands of dollars on tuition, or if you will have to pay back student loans, then you should visit it firsthand to see if you want to make that decision.

Why that’s wrong:

Yes, college costs a lot of money. That’s a fact. But, is it necessary to spend additional money to travel and see it in person? The tours provided by colleges are no different than visiting their online site and watching a virtual tour of the school. Trust me— I’ve spent hours perusing schools on college websites, and I end up finding out even more information online than I ever received on a tour. On a computer you have access to view all the facilities, see the study halls (places you often don’t even get to see on a standard tour), and from there you can read about opinions of the school and of the programs. Some helpful college search sites include Niche, Cappex and College InSight.

Why you should visit reason 2: See the people

You want to walk down the main quad and see sophomores throwing a frisbee back and forth on the lawn, or students working on a paper in the library. You want to look in the student section of the football stadium and watch them cheer enthusiastically at every play. I admit, it’s important to get a sense for the community at a school and to see how they connect.

Why that’s wrong:

While it’s important to see people and understand the culture on the campus, the whole touring experience is arbitrary. You don’t know who you’ll see and how that will make your experience different. For instance, you could be on a tour with a really enthusiastic athlete who majors in biomed and that makes you even more interested in the club he mentions. Or, you could have a lackluster tour guide that’s there just for the paycheck each month. You could walk into the dining hall and see your favorite restaurant serving food, or the hall could be closed for maintenance and you could starve all afternoon. According to New York Times writer Erica Reichner, “Whatever students see or experience during a brief campus visit—whether it’s a sunny day or an ill-prepared tour guide—will inevitably stand out and have a disproportionate effect on their decision-making.”

In other words, the whole experience is random, and sadly one bad day could ruin your interest in applying completely.

For those of you juniors, who even after reading this piece, are still dying to go visit schools first-hand, I have some advice to make your visit more impactful. One suggestion is to visit a school with a prescribed list of questions and search for regular students to ask. Don’t just ask the students who sign up to tour because it’s clear they love their school. Instead, ask the students who will give you a honest answer, and address some of your more personal concerns. If you want to learn more about what it’s like to be in a club, or to take a particular class, you should hear their original, personal perspective.

One thing you should not forget while going on a tour is the fact that you may be very different than the students you encounter. During a visit, you may connect with a student that has an appealing experience. But, for all you know, their interests and values are quite different than your own. It’s important to be considerate of that.

And lastly, remember that you shouldn’t rely on a college tour to validate your decisions. There are so many other ways to get affiliated with and knowledgeable about a school, so spending the money for a quick visit is not worth your time.