Dreaming about your child’s future is pretty exciting, but starting a college search can be daunting. Once you’ve identified a few schools you’d like to consider, the next step is visiting the campuses. And, that’s where it can begin to get murky since there are a variety of types of visits.

Open House Visit: also called a visit day or some other magical name (usually with alliteration – I like Meet Monmouth) which means a lot of students will be visiting this day. Schools will roll out the red carpet. They should have some of their best speakers and food available. Presentations will answer most of your general questions and, likely, you won’t have much one-on-one interaction. Almost always these visits include a tour of campus (often in a larger group), welcome address, and admissions presentation about the college process deadlines and requirements for that particular school.

Individual visit: also called personal visit or at smaller schools daily visit which means your visit will be more focused on what you are interested in and offer personalized programming. These visits often offer various options including but not limited to: a campus tour, sitting in on a class, meeting with a professor, watching a practice, talking with a coach and/or players, meeting with an admissions counselor, and eating on campus.

One tour tip: Let your students walk next to the tour guide and hang back so they can ask the questions they want to. Photo on Monmouth College campus.

Athletic visit: also called sports visit which means most of your day may be arranged and facilitated by the athletic program or at least involve the coach and players to a great extent. Likely this will still include many aspects of the individual visit, though many athletic visits can also be organized a bit like an open house if the school has invited a number of other athletes on the same day. The visit should also include information about the specific team and the coach typically meets with or gives a presentation to the visiting family and student.

Admissions interview: often offered at more selective schools, the Admissions Interview is an opportunity for the institution to get to know the student better. Students will sit down one-on-one with an admission staff member and answer questions about themselves. Here is my favorite College Interview Questions and Strategies webpage (part of BigFuture by College Board) because it explains why schools might be asking the types of questions and how to prepare.

One local mom, Beth Ford from Geneseo, shared the following perspective about how her first son’s college visit experience is influencing how she’ll organize visits for her second son, “After all of the visits, I think my strategy will be to try to attend open house visits first, preferably when school is in session or on a Saturday. Then, narrow his choices and follow up with individual visits. 

“I felt like the larger visits were great for information gathering. We were able to learn about all (or most) of what schools had to offer, without having to be equipped with all of the ‘right questions’. In essence, it was like the schools anticipated the common questions, joined by other families asking questions, so we were able to gather a lot of great information while getting a sense of the culture and atmosphere of the schools.

“However, I would not skip the individual visit, because that was essential in giving our son individualized attention and zeroing in on exactly his interests.” 

Beth Ford and her son, Ben. Various pictures from Augustana College visit events and Monmouth College’s campus.

*Note: understand the lingo
Group Visits
: most colleges offer this option and while this may seem like an Open House this name usually refers to an organization that is bringing a group of students (typically without their families) to the campus like a field trip. Often this is organized by a church, school, club or other interested professional such as a guidance counselor.

And, maybe the type of visit doesn’t  matter at all!

My friend, Tom Murray, is in the thick of the college visit circuit with his daughter and he said, “After a year of visiting a dozen colleges and universities at schools ranging from small (1300) to larger (2500-3000) private liberal arts schools, several research universities (5-10,000), one (20,000) urban public university and one Ivy…Where we attended information sessions at about half, not finding many of them all that valuable…For us, it always boiled down to the tour. Our tours ranged from just the two of us and a tour guide to tours that were 20+ people.”

Here’s Tom’s advice: get the best tour guide you can. It will make a world of difference.
Usually the best guides are ones that have been doing it longer, so gravitate to upperclass students.
Some schools will have tour guides introduce themselves and you can select which group you’re joining. So, choose wisely. Or, when you schedule your visit, consider asking for a junior or senior tour guide. Even better, ask for an upperclass student with the same major or activity interests as your student.

As Tom shared, “Despite the best messaging efforts of admissions offices, the most meaningful experiences we had were 60 minutes with a student tour guide.” This will likely be true for you as well. 

When to start:
Junior year of high school is a great target, though earlier is also good. Visiting early in a student’s high school career (even freshman year) can be a great way to start your student thinking about what schools might be good options. Typically colleges see some sophomore visitors and a significant number of juniors. Usually visits really become more usual for students during the spring of their junior year of high school. I’m an advocate for starting junior year in the fall and attending open house or large group visits.

Spring on the campus of Augustana College

What time of year: While it seems logical to visit on the weekends or over the summer when it’s most convenient, really consider whether the experience will be worth it. Early Saturday mornings are typically pretty quiet on a college campus and don’t offer a real feel for the campus. The same is true of the summer when most students and faculty are not around.

Beth Ford highly recommends you ask if school is in session. She even suggests, “A weekend is fine, as long as students are on campus. I was disappointed when we arrived at one of the schools, only to learn that the campus was empty due to it being their fall break. I was even more disappointed because I had emailed the admissions office to ask if it was a break and was told that school would be in session. It’s hard to get a feel for the campus vibe when it’s empty.”

Colleges typically offer more general visits early in the year and more specific visits as the school year progresses often starting with open house visits for earlier in the process and in the fall and moving to audition dates, admitted student days and scholarship competitions in the spring when they are more focused on seniors. You can often follow the lead of the opportunities offered at the different schools.

There are other types of visits that are typically reserved for applied and admitted student, but for now, at the start of a college search, this should cover the most likely types of visits you’ll encounter.

Have fun with your student’s college search. Parents often say the college search car rides are special because it provides some one-on-one time with their kids. And, what an exciting time to focus on your baby’s future!


A committed member of the boymom club, Meghan has five active, adventurous, crazy sweet men in her life she often calls her “favorite boys”. Charles is 10, Oliver is 8, Bennett is 5, Simon is 3 and her husband, Luke is a fun, patient, loving father to all these crazy characters. For 18 years, Meghan worked in higher education at a private college in recruitment, marketing, and social media. Now, working from home, she balances four boys, a great husband, freelance writing and social media consulting. Meghan grew up in St. Charles, IL (a western Chicago suburb), attended Augustana College, and is a true Quad City transplant - she loves living in this area! She likes to read, sing, plan adventures, travel and just be with her favorite boys.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here