Many of our parents ask, "When is the optimal time to start college visits?"
Our standard recommendation is to start thinking about college visits during junior year of high school. (Our blog posts here and here provide additional context on the benefits of junior year college visits.)
However, there are some cases where some students could benefit from college visits earlier in their high school careers. For some, a few well-placed, laid-back campus visits can reduce your anxiety around the college process, and give you a sense of what you’re working towards after high school. Let’s take a closer look at successful ways to approach college visits.
What Types of Students Benefit From Early College Visits?
- The Late Bloomer: Some students have lots of potential but don’t particularly love high school, and haven’t been fully engaged in their first year or two. If this is you, don’t fret; there are plenty of adults (maybe even a parent!) who blossomed after high school, and it’s super common to come into your own during your college years. This type of student can really benefit from an early college visit, as it will give you a taste for what lies beyond high school. It can be incredibly helpful to see that college is not just a bigger version of high school—that campuses offer a much broader array of opportunities and experiences. You may find that asking yourself “What will it take for me to get here?” is the motivation you need to work hard throughout high school so you can make it to the independence and freedom that lies just a few tantalizing years away.
- The Seeker: Some students are plenty motivated and engaged academically, but aren’t sure exactly what they want from their high school experience. If this describes you, visiting colleges early can provide a template for how you might want to shape the remainder of your time in high school. For instance, if you visited a technical institute and felt right at home, that might influence your decision to push yourself to take AP math classes. On the other hand, if you fell in love with the small liberal-arts schools you visited, maybe it’s time to join the debate team you’ve been wondering about.
- The Focused: Have you always known you wanted to be a Bruin, or a Badger, or a Gator? Is your bedroom decorated in your chosen college’s colors? Do you wear their sweatshirt to school every day? We love your focus and dedication, but here’s the brutal truth: it’s time to expand your horizons, because in today’s hyper-competitive college application process, putting all your eggs in one college basket tends to be a bad idea. Not to mention, both high school and college are times of incredible change, and you may find that the campus you’ve been picturing since you were 10 isn’t nearly as magical to 17-year-old you. Take some early, exploratory college visits to schools other than your dream school, and see what else is out there!
You don’t have to fall into one of the above categories to visit colleges early—they make sense for a lot of families. We do think that there are some students who should not visit colleges early, however. If this describes you, take a rain check:
Students Who Should Not Visit Colleges Early:
This is simple: students who already have a lot of anxiety about the college process. If you’ve been having SAT nightmares since the first day of ninth grade, what you need is less pressure, not more—and even an exploratory visit has the potential to create stress. Take a deep breath and put college visits on hold until you’re ready.
Tips for Making the Most of an Early College Visit
If you’ve read all of the above and decided that early college visits will work for you, it’s important to keep a few things in mind to make your college visits the most helpful they can be. First,
Understand the goal of the visit.
The goal of a college visit in sophomore or even freshman year is to paint a picture of the future, in broad, impressionistic strokes. The schools you visit do not need to be the places you eventually apply. Treat these visits as casual, fun opportunities for you and your whole family. If you’re passing through a college town on a family vacation, or need an easy weekend activity, an early college visit can be a natural fit. It can be as simple as a quick drive around a nearby campus.
Summertime can be a great opportunity for these relaxed visits, although keep in mind that many campuses are very quiet during these months. To really get a feel for the campus, it might be worthwhile to check the school calendar and try to visit when it’s holding summer classes. Again, there’s no need to set a goal for a particular number of college visits in a given summer, or to plan a trip around them. These visits are exploratory! Second,
Do a small amount of planning for your visit.
While we do recommend keeping an atmosphere of curiosity, we also recommend approaching early college visits in a similar way to other college visits, which means doing some planning to get the most out of the experience. See our downloadable college visit worksheet.
Even a casual college visit should reflect your interests and passions. If you love sports, look up the sports schedule—perhaps you can catch a game or watch a practice. If you’re the star singer in your school’s choir, look into sitting in on a rehearsal. Be careful not to over-plan, but a small amount of preparation can make a big difference!
Ultimately, like so many other things in the college application process, this is a judgment call. If you try out a college visit and it doesn’t go well—you or your parents are irritable, or you end the visit feeling down, or stressing about your GPA—put this process on hold. You have plenty of time, and it’s not worth adding to your stress.
If all goes well, however, you’ll walk away from early college visits with newfound motivation and a positive image of a potential future!