May 17, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

Once thought compulsory to your decision to attend college, the college tour is becoming optional.  Why wouldn’t you want to “test the waters” of your four years of undergrad?  For the same reason that you wouldn’t believe everything you see and hear in a typical sales pitch.  That’s what college tours are, at some campuses.

If you’ve ever been on a guided campus tour, you’re apt to tour the best dorm rooms, sample a taste of a premium meal plan, visit a state-of the art athletic facility, and poke your head into a smart classroom.  In other words, you dip your toe into a pre-selected set of experiences that you may not have as a student on that campus.

Why could you skip the college tour?  Lots of reasons.  Let’s take a look at #4.

 

1. Good idea?

In a New York Times article, Harvard researcher Daniel Gilbert, and University of Virginia researcher Timothy Wilson argue that we don’t do such a great job of predicting what our future selves will value and enjoy.  Dr. Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness shows that people who go to a new restaurant think they’ll be happier with a meal they choose themselves from the menu, but they end up happier with the meal selected for them by a knowledgeable stranger. 

How does this apply to selecting a college based on a tour?  It’s hard to tell what you’re going to want and like in the future based on your preferences now.  It’s not always a sure thing.  Why?  We’re relying on imagination, not experience.

 

2. Expensive

If you’re considering schools away from home, going on tours can get pricey.  One US News and World Report article suggests that it’s common for some families to spend as much as $3,000 on college tours—transportation, lodging, food, and other travel expenses add up quickly.  Even more budget-conscious families spend up to $1,000 by limiting the number of schools they visit and how they pay for transportation.

One way to trim down costs?  Decide which campuses are realistic choices, and narrow down the costs from there.  Got to the local ones, and if there aren’t any, pick your best bets—then wait for financial aid packages. You can always plan another trip for another time. 

 

3. Other Options

There are other ways to familiarize yourself with a college campus if you can’t go on a tour—and they all involve the internet.  Consider putting yourself on the mailing list—or the email list.  You’ll get notifications of events and local campus news. 

Check out the college’s financial aid page and familiarize yourself with how it works.  You can even call to schedule a phone or Skype meeting with a financial aid counselor if you have specific questions.  While you’re at it, check out department web pages that interest you.  If you want, contact that department and arrange another interview or question and answer session over the phone or Skype. Ask yourself: are these interactions positive?  Would you want to interact with these folks in real life?

Other ideas?  Check out the school’s Facebook page and Twitter feed to get a sense of what students are up to. Talk with current students and alumni—you can call the admissions office to set up these appointments.

All of these experiences will give you a sense of what it’s like to be a student on that campus—without going on a college tour. 

 

4. Timing

It needs to be right, and it’s hard to know when you have the wrong time.  Summer tours are popular—but they don’t give you a sense of what the campus is like during the hustle and bustle of the school year.  The same goes for school breaks or study periods—when students are holed up studying, not out and about going to and from classes.  Asking yourself “Do I fit in here?” on a deserted college campus won’t help you in your decision.

Consider when you go—and what you want to see.  If you go during the summer or a study period or break, ask yourself, “What am I not seeing?

Deciding to do a college tour can help you in your decision, but it might not be the best choice for you.  You could skip it and still make a great decision about where to study.  There are lots of options out there to learn about a campus—decide which ones work for you and make the best decision you can.

Still looking for colleges? Start your search here

 

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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