Your guide to touring colleges and universities

From speeding through an official tour to spending the weekend in a college town, here are our tips and tricks to touring your child’s future—including virtual options.

two students in archway
©georgerudy /

From the Publishers of Northern Virginia Magazine // Written by Jess Feldman and Jennifer Zeleski

If you have a rising high school sophomore, junior or senior in the family, touring colleges and universities across the country may be on your to-do list … or should we say, your must-do list. 

It can be tough to navigate and know just how important those first impressions and information sessions can be for your child, so we’re here to help you break down what your priorities should be, based on how much time you have.  Combine your favorite tips and tricks from these scenarios, and best of luck to your future college student!

If You Only Have Two Hours

We get it: Weekend schedules are tight, especially when your kids are in high school. If you only have two hours to tour a college or university, start with the official tour. 

Having a student or school representative spend time with you by touring the campus and answering your questions is the best way to get a proper feel of the school as a first impression, even if you’ve known of the school or visited it before. 

The tour guide will be able to offer useful information on not only the stats and facts of the school (student population, types of majors, extracurricular activities and more), they will also give you insight on student life on campus. (Is your child an all-night studier, or looking for a heavy sports presence?)

Use your free time walking between buildings and peeking into dorm rooms and encourage your child to ask necessary questions to current students:

  • What does a normal class schedule look like for a student of my potential major
  • What is the best food in the dining hall?
  • Is there anything you wish you knew about the university before starting your first year here?

The most important tip if you’re spending only two hours is to take notes after the tour, especially if you’re looking to knock out two school tours in one day (trust us, don’t do more than two!). The reflective notes afterward will help capture a future student’s priorities at the school, remember facts that could get confused with other universities, as well as collect tidbits that can be helpful later on while applying to or choosing a university. 

teacher and student shaking hands
©micromonkey /

If You Have the Whole Weekend 

When time is on your side, it can be to your and your child’s benefit when touring colleges. Having the whole weekend (or more than one day near the school), gives you the opportunity to take the official tour, but also your own unofficial tour of the university and its surrounding area on your own terms. 

After taking the official tour (which we still recommend, unless you’re back for campus experience round two), see if you can get the opportunity to speak with some of the professors in your child’s potential major. Professors play an essential role in a student’s success, and if a student can get face time with a future teacher, it could open the door to understanding classes that the department offers, or even to potential mentorship in the future. 

If no professors are available to speak with you, it never hurts to ask if you can sit in on a lecture. Some classes may be closed to visitors, but others may allow guests to get a feel for class size, types of work and topics covered. 

Spend time around town too. College life happens off campus just as much as it does on campus, so be sure to scope out a good restaurant to try, a place to grab coffee when you need it or a local trail to go for a run. 

Lastly, allow yourself (if you’re able) to take a few minutes to explore spaces at different times of the day (How safe does the campus feel at night?) and find those spots that you can see yourself in. Sit in the library or the student union; take a walk through the dining hall; or simply check out the views around campus. 

If You Can’t Make the Trip 

Future colleges and universities can be thousands of miles away from your home here in NoVA. Whether you’re hesitant to book the pricey flight tickets, are having trouble working a trip into your schedule or are simply hoping to tour from afar, there are quite a few options for you. Even if their first steps on campus are on move-in day, we’ve got you and your student covered. 

Here’s the run-down on getting to know a school without visiting the campus in person: Options include virtual tours, local campus representatives, local alumni and social media. You can learn a lot about a school through savvy technology skills. First, see if the university has a virtual tour on its website or through another provider. Many allow you to navigate the campus Google Maps-style so you can really get a feel for the look, architecture and surrounding areas. 

Next, do your best to make those personal connections you might be missing out on by forgoing an in-person tour. Have your child reach out to the college or university directly to find a campus representative in your area, as well as local alumni groups that are willing to speak with them. Whether it’s through email, a phone call or face to face, interactions with former students and campus reps can give them an idea of how their personality fits, and get those hard-to-ask questions answered.

Finally, use social media to your advantage. Check out the school’s pages and profiles for student groups that have a social media presence, and let your child do the digging on groups that fit their hobbies and interests. The more they know about who they would be involved with, and how campus life affects the students at the college or university, the better. 

two students walking up stairs
©Spiroview Inc. /

Fast Facts

Most popular major in the U.S. (according to most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics; from 2014-2015 school year)

18.9 million 
The number of students enrolled in colleges in the U.S. in 2018 (Census)

14.7 million 
Students in public institutions, as of 2019 (according to the National Center for Education Statistics)

5.2 million 
Students in private institutions, as of 2019 (according to the National Center for Education Statistics)

10 Essential Questions to Ask While on Tour

When looking for honest answers, go straight to the experts: the students. 

Get Personal 

  1. Why did you choose to attend this school, and end up staying?
  2. What do you wish you had known going into freshman year?

Talk Academics 

  1. How satisfied are you with academic advising on campus?
  2. What departments or programs have the best reputations?

Think Long Term 

  1. What is the process like for finding summer and semester-long internships?
  2. Are there opportunities to build leadership skills on campus that can translate into practical skills for the future?

Find Out About Campus Life  

  1. What various opportunities are there to get involved in outside of classes?
  2. What percentage of students live on campus?
  3. How would you define school spirit here?
  4. What are some of the most popular school traditions and events?

This post originally appeared in our March 2020 print issue. For more education-focused content, subscribe to our Education newsletter. 

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