It’s not at all too early to be visiting colleges. Think about your schedule by backing up: You probably want to apply to many colleges early action, which means getting the applications submitted by October of Senior year. That means you have to have a good idea of which colleges you’ll be applying to by July or August following Junior year so you can get started on your application essay and have it finished by September. That means you’ve got to visit colleges in the spring of your Junior year in high school BEFORE the students who attend college leave for the summer (so you can get an accurate sense of what sort of kids go there and whether you’d feel at home with them) so you can write your essay(s) over the summer. That means you’ve got to visit before May when colleges have finals week followed by a mass exodus of students from campus. That means you’ve got to visit colleges by March or April. What month is this? Do you still think you’ve got plenty of time to visit colleges?
Here’s some sensible advice:
1. You should plan to visit schools by geography. Many kids from my area of the US do a loop around Pennsylvania (Bucknell, Lafayette, Lehigh, maybe UDelaware), Or they do the Boston area run (Boston College, Boston University, Tufts, Brandeis, Northeastern, maybe Emerson). Or perhaps the New York State trip (SUNY Albany, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Cortland, Cornell/Ithaca College, Syracuse). You may want to visit a few colleges in the same general area, but I think you should limit yourself to two or three a day; otherwise, the whole experience can be overwhelming. Make hotel reservations if you think you’ll need them, and ask your parents to take a couple of Mondays or Fridays off work.
2. Sign up online for tours. Some schools print a schedule and you are welcome to go on any tour that’s convenient, but many others require you to sign up in advance. Do that. You’ll get a much, much better sense of the school on a tour than just wandering around on your own.
3, Find out if you can interview with an admissions person. Very often, they’ll have something called an information session or a one-on-one with someone in admissions. If that’s available, take advantage of the opportunity to make a good impression. Whether it’s a real interview or just a meet-and-greet, dress casually but be clean and neat, smile and shake hands, and have a few questions ready (and make sure the answers aren’t on the school’s website). Good questions might be about your major (How easy is it to change majors? How many professors are in that department? How many students graduate with that major? Does the school assign a faculty advisor to you?), about housing (Do they house all freshman together? Are there substance-free houses or theme houses? Do they guarantee housing for sophomores and juniors?), or anything else that interests you.
4. While you’re at the interview or while you’re walking around the science building/ performing arts center/ library/ other building of interest, send your parents to the cafeteria. You can meet them there afterwards. NO parents should go with you on an interview ever, even if the school allows it. Having Mom or Dad go with you to meet the admissions person gives the impression that your parents don’t trust you to handle the interview on your own. Instead, parents should be in the cafeteria, asking students questions that would embarrass their children to hear. Parents, your job is to find a typical student and approach him or her with questions like, “Would you choose this school again? If you had a cousin interested in economics (or whatever major your student is interested in), would you send him here? What’s the worst thing about this school?” You’d be surprised how honest students can be.
5. Take pictures as you go around on tours or write on brochures. Six months from now, you won’t remember which schools had the great dining halls or the up-to-date science labs.
It’s not imperative that you visit every school you will apply to, but you want to take a look at several schools that are on your “probably” list. If you get into Harvard, do you care what the dorms look like? If you only get into a school on the bottom of your safety list, who cares what the student lounges are like – you’re going or you’ll stay home. You might want to see one urban, one suburban, and one rural school. You might want to see a large school and a small school.
I do get that the very idea of visiting schools is intimidating. Sitting down to make a provisional list can seem overwhelming. Start with your guidance counselor. He or she can give you a great starting list if you share what your preferences and goals are. Or start online with collegeboard.org or get the paid subscription offered by US News ($30 for the year and VERY well worth it, in my opinion. Get a list going, plan your visits, coordinate your schedule with your parents, and go. After you visit the first school, you’ll find the next ones much less scary.
If you really feel stuck and don’t know where or how to build a list, I can help. Schedule a session with me and we’ll work it out together.