College Visit Checklist & Must Do’s

By Joanna Nesbit

Nothing beats visiting a campus in person to get a feel for a school. Sometimes students visit before applying to rule a college in or out of their application process. But if a campus is far away, you might wait until after you’re accepted to visit. Here are a few things to think about and a checklist for your campus tour.

For an in-person tour, contact the admissions office to schedule a visit. Typically, most colleges provide student-guided group tours, along with a staff presentation about the college where you can ask questions. Beyond those elements, you may need to make additional requests to dig a little deeper.

Take the Official Tour

The official tour gives you the basic layout of the campus and some of the facts you need. It’s also an opportunity to ask the student tour leader questions about their experience as a student there.

Walk Through a First-Year Residence Hall

Many official tours include a tour through a residence hall, and there’s no better way to get a glimpse of college life than to see where you might actually be living. Things to pay attention to: whether it’s newer or older, size (double, triple, or suite-style), location of bathrooms (down the hall, in the suite), same-gender or gender inclusive options, affinity housing based on shared values or interests, and common areas like lounges and computer areas. Some colleges can help you organize an overnight stay in a student’s room, if you ask ahead of time.

Eat a Meal in the Dining Hall

Check out the actual food you’d be eating as a student. If you are gluten-free or vegetarian or have other dietary needs, you can get an idea of whether the current meal plans provide options for you. You can also find out what the hours of operation are. Some campuses don’t offer as much on the weekends or shut early on weeknights. A poorly structured meal plan with limited access can end up costing you if you need to buy extra food off campus.

Grab a Snack in a Campus Coffee Shop

This is where students and faculty hang out, and it can give you insight into what students like to talk about, how they dress (is the campus preppy, casual, outdoorsy, or more formal?), how diverse the student body is, and generally how students interact. If the campus is small and doesn’t have a coffee shop or campus cafe, ask current students where they like to go and then explore those nearby off-campus student hangouts.  

Explore the Support Services

Possible places to visit include the career services center, library, academic resource/tutoring center, student health center, mental health services, disabilities office, and financial aid office. Many colleges also offer specific support to different student groups, such as first-generation students, low-income students, those with undocumented status, and students of color. Feel free to ask current students whether they think the college provides adequate support when students need it. 

Use this comprehensive list of campus services to figure out which you want to visit

Visit an Academic Department

If you already know what you might want to major in, visit that department and talk to a professor or two. Ask if they teach introductory classes or if TAs do. On some larger campuses, the professor handles the lectures, while the TA conducts smaller discussion groups and is your point of contact for much of the class. If you’re interested in research opportunities, find out if these are available to undergraduates or only graduate students. These opportunities can open doors to faculty connections, mentors, study abroad options, and summer internships.

Tour the Athletics Facilities

If you’re a high school athlete who plans on or is considering continuing your sport in college, you might want to take a walk-through of the training facilities. You could also talk to coaches and current athletes to get a better idea of their lifestyle on campus, the services available to them, and more.

Sit in on a Class

Usually you will need to schedule this before you arrive for your visit. Sitting in on a class can give you a window into the size of classes, such as large lecture style or small seminar style. Even at a large university, your upper division classes may be small. At a small liberal arts college, all classes might be small. Think about what style would work best for you.

Ask About Study Abroad Options

Most colleges support study abroad semesters, but some make it easier than others. If you’re interested in studying abroad as part of your program, find out how the college handles it.

Look for Affinity Groups

Meeting new people who may have different backgrounds and come from different parts of the country or world is part of the college experience, but it’s also important to know you’re not alone. If you’re a student of color, a first-generation college student, an international student, or identify as LGBTQIA+, it can be really important to find a community where you feel at home. Find out how the college supports students from all backgrounds, what affinity groups there are, and what types of students attend the college.

Ask About Off-Campus Housing

Even if you plan to live on campus initially, it’s useful to know what the options are off campus. Some small colleges don’t allow students to move off campus at all or until senior year, while some large universities might not even guarantee housing for first-year students. Some cities are very costly, while others offer more affordable rents than the college’s dorms.

Colleges that expect students to move off campus as sophomores or juniors may help with the off-campus transition. Some offer guidance about being a tenant and where to look for housing, and online boards to find roommates. Ask around while on your tour. A current student might know about area rental costs and how easy or difficult housing is to obtain.

Walk Around the Neighborhood Surrounding Campus

Learn what’s beyond the campus grounds. Find out if the community is accessible and friendly to students or, for a rural campus, if you need to travel far to urban amenities like the local Target or restaurants.

Explore the Student Employment Office

If you know you’ll need a student job, visit the student employment office if the college or university has one. You can find out what opportunities are available to students and even talk to a current student-employee. You can also ask if it’s common for students to work off campus. Not all communities have jobs for student employees.

Explore the College’s Safety Protocols

Find out if the area surrounding campus feels safe and what the campus offers for safety, such as an escort shuttle, emergency blue light phones, and security guards who patrol the campus. 

Here are four questions about safety to ask college staff or research online: 

  • Does the college offer “safe ride” transportation to on- and off-campus locations? If not, what kinds of transportation are available?
  • What is your system for communicating to students in an emergency?
  • What is the reputation of the surrounding neighborhoods, and what should students be aware of on campus and off campus? For an overview of campus crime stats, look up the college and its annual security report (required by the Clery Act). Try searching “annual security report” on the college website or ask the admissions office where you can find the information. Also try the U.S. Department of Education’s campus data. To learn neighborhood crime numbers, look up the town’s police department and search by neighborhood. 
  • What safety resources such as safe escorts, emergency hotlines, campus call boxes, and emergency notifications are available to students? The school probably has a webpage listing resources and tips. 

Learn more about how you can stay safe on college campuses

Find Out About Transportation Options

Besides a campus escort shuttle at night, colleges may offer other kinds of student transportation, such as shuttles to nearby airports, bus transportation home for holidays, and transportation around the campus (if it is large) and surrounding area so that students don’t need a car to get around. Transportation can be a deal breaker if traveling home is extra difficult.

Read the College Newspaper

Or newspapers. Reading the newspaper can give you insight into some of the issues and concerns students have about their campus. 

Keep in mind that colleges view the campus visit as a marketing tool, and they do everything they can to present an appealing picture. If possible, see past the hype to the experience of actual students. Check in with your instincts rather than just accepting what the promotional materials tell you. How does the campus feel to you? What’s your take on the students you meet? Take notes—and refer back to them after you’ve visited a few schools.

Consider Virtual Options

If you’re not ready to visit in person, or it’s too far away to visit until after you’ve been accepted, check out our tips for a virtual campus tour.

If you’ve been accepted to a college and can’t afford to visit, you might qualify for a “fly-in” program. Generally, these programs are offered at selective colleges. They’re competitive and may be limited to high-achieving, underrepresented students who can’t afford to visit in person. The college pays the student’s transportation, housing, and meals, and possibly reimburses other expenses. It may also pay for a caregiver to come with the student. Ask the admissions office if the college offers this kind of program, and be prepared to fill out an application to be considered. You can also explore other options, like coordinating a visit with another accepted student from your high school or attending accepted student meet-ups the college may organize in different states.

If you can’t visit a campus, check out our tips for virtual visits

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