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  • Writer's pictureNancy Fries

Lessons from College Visits: 54 and Counting

Updated: Apr 13, 2018

Cambridge University, England

Spring break is the ideal time to visit colleges. You can find plenty of good articles about how to approach college visits, so why write my own? Because the general advice given nationwide doesn’t apply specifically to the students I work with here in Orange County. We are in a unique situation: Students tend to apply in droves to the same colleges as their peers, with predictable lists based on grades and test scores. Our high achievers apply to über competitive colleges like Stanford, Ivies, UCs, USC, Vanderbilt and Duke… and then there’s a huge gap in selectivity. I would love to see more local families approach college visits as a time of discovery. Instead, most seem to use college visits to confirm what they already think they know.

Start Local

Before you start traipsing around the country on expensive college visit trips, spend a little time locally to narrow down the type of college you want. If you think you want a big university, start with UCLA or USC to be certain. You may say a liberal arts college is too small, but a visit to the Claremont Colleges might open your eyes to new possibilities. Chapman University in Orange and Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles are good mid-size colleges to visit. A day trip to San Diego can also be worthwhile, visiting UC San Diego, University of San Diego, and San Diego State all in one fell swoop. Even if you’re sure you want to go out of state, starting with local visits can help you focus your out-of-state trip on colleges most likely to fit.

Focus on Match Colleges

If you only visit, and fall in love with, reach colleges, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Focus your visits on colleges where you have a good chance of acceptance, and throw in some reaches just for fun. Let’s say you have almost straight As and amazing test scores and great extracurriculars. You’ll probably do an “Ivy Swoop,” visiting Harvard, Brown, Yale, and Dartmouth, and maybe you throw in Tufts since you’re nearby. Did you love New England? Can you see yourself there? Well unfortunately, your odds of getting into any of the schools you just fell in love with are in the single digits. Why not also visit Connecticut College, Trinity, and Holy Cross? Boston College, Boston University and Northeastern? Visit some less selective colleges that you can get excited about, rather than pinning your hopes solely on the most selective colleges in the nation.

Don’t judge the college by the tour guide

Some are great, some are terrible; some could be your future friend, some you’ll never want to hang with ever, no way no how. While we’d like to believe the admissions office only selects students who represent the “typical” student at their college, it doesn’t always work out that way, and besides, many colleges don’t have a “typical” student. Instead, eat in the dining hall, sit in on a class, and just look at the students milling around. Then decide if you fit there.

Listen for clues

We got some useful clues on a tour of UC San Diego a few years ago: The tour guide called herself a “third year,” not a junior. Why? Because she needs five years to graduate. She also told us she did not get her desired major because it was impacted. Although she is happy with the major she ended up with (environmental science instead of biology), these tidbits might factor into your decision. Be alert for clues and cues beyond the tour guide’s script.

Ask about core requirements and available majors

Students tend focus on the appearance of the campus, the nature of the student body, and the success of the football team. But once you’re at college, you will have to go to class. And the classes you’ll need to take will matter. So do yourself a favor and find out what’s required. If you have to take two semesters of English and you were hoping 12th grade Comp Lit was going to be your last English class ever, this might not be the college for you. If you want to study marketing but the closest major they have is economics, this might not be the college for you. It surprises me when a student applies to Brown with its open curriculum and Columbia with its extensive Core Curriculum—and when I suggest they write about the Core in their Columbia supplement they have no idea what I’m talking about. These features of a college will dramatically affect your experience, so do your research!

Take notes

After you’ve visited many colleges, you’ll realize they start to blur together. It’s a great idea to take notes and photos so you can remember what you liked and didn’t like. Plus, your notes will come in handy when you have to write your supplemental essays, such as “Why do you want to come to University of XYZ?” or “What appeals to you about the major you selected?” Anticipating these questions will also help you focus on key features that distinguish one college from the rest.

Have fun!

I love visiting colleges! It drives my family nuts, but whenever I see a sign saying, “Next Exit: University of PlaceYouMayNeverVisitAgain” I want to stop. I notice features like the inviting Adirondack chairs outside the Starbucks at Northeastern and the impressive art museum at Bowdoin. I also like to look through course catalogs to get a sense of the classes a student might take. But mostly I look at faces: do the kids look happy? What kind of student would fit here? Here’s a list of the more than 50 I have seen so far:


UC San Diego


UC Santa Barbara

UC Santa Cruz

UC Davis (as a high school senior!)

UC Berkeley

UC Riverside

UC Irvine

Cal Poly SLO

Long Beach State

Cal State Fullerton

University of Redlands

University of San Diego

Loyola Marymount U




Claremont McKenna

Harvey Mudd


Cal Tech


University of the Pacific (also as a high school senior!)

Pacific Northwest


Lewis & Clark

Univ. of Oregon

Puget Sound

Others in the West

Denver University

Montana State U (Bozeman)

East of the Mississippi











Johns Hopkins


George Washington





Bryn Mawr





Boston University

Boston College



Keene State

Across the Pond




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