College Visits as Family Weekend Getaways

Campus visits allow families to get a feel for the future while providing an excuse for a long weekend vacation.


As a family, you’ve probably sifted through brochures, scoured the Internet and read as many books as humanly possible about prospective universities for your college applicant. Perhaps you’ve even created a spreadsheet to compare schools' pros and cons. While this abundance of facts and figures is helpful, it’s still quite two-dimensional. Sure, that university's quad looks pretty in the photographs and the students are all smiling (just like in every college catalog), but after a while everything just melds together into one big group of smiling students on a sunny day. You still can’t get a true sense of each place and what spending four years (and thousands of dollars) on and around a particular campus might be like. Time for a campus visit.

The Importance of Place

The days of first setting foot on campus the week classes begin are long gone. In recent years, as tuition increases and schools become more competitive, the need to pick the right schools to apply to has taken on a greater sense of urgency. Since college is such a huge investment, it’s no wonder students and parents alike want to take a closer look at potential schools. Thus, families have increasingly packed their bags and ventured out to discover the perfect college as their children near the nest-abandoning age.

Along with cost and academic reputation, location plays a crucial role in making one college perfect and another a frightening vision of the next four (or so) years. The communities beyond the quad can offer further opportunities to learn and gain experience during the course of study. From local cafes to museums to music venues, off-campus locales go a long way in determining if a school is the right fit, which can go a long way in determining scholastic success. By visiting campuses as a family, both students and parents can gain valuable insight into what the future might hold and put to rest some of the unease involved with selecting a school. While younger siblings may shout in protest, campus visits can be family vacations, allowing families to explore new destinations and everything they have to offer while helping to find the right school for one or more of the brood.

Top Locations, Big and Small

The best locations depend on your preferred environment: urban, suburban or rural. According to the College Destinations Index (CDI) by Collegia, a rankings system of school locations based on a combination of academic environment, quality of life and professional opportunity; the most popular major city destinations are Boston, New York City, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta. In addition to offering several schools in a concentrated area, each of these cities offers a wide array of activities beyond campus, crucial for a student’s future and, more immediately, those younger siblings in need of alternative activities.

If you’d prefer a smaller location, the most popular college towns are State College, Pa. (Penn State), Bloomington, Ind. (Indiana University), Champaign-Urbana, Ill. (University of Illinois), Iowa City, Iowa (University of Iowa) and College Station, Texas (Texas A&M). While these towns might not have the same number of choices as their urban counterparts, each have unique local offerings. Downtown Champaign, just outside of campus, hosts the Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival each April, a good opportunity to explore the burgeoning area. However, if you plan on visiting several schools in a region, travel times will be lengthy, perhaps to the displeasure of some in the traveling party (read: younger siblings).

Timing is Everything

If at all possible, plan your campus visits on a typical academic day during the spring or fall. You’ll get a sense of the campus and the community amid its everyday hustle and bustle. An ample number of students and faculty will be available to talk, a wide selection of classes will be available for you to visit and there will be more activities going on in the surrounding community. A weekday visit will paint a truer picture of what a day in the life of a student is like.

Schedule your campus visit at least several weeks in advance to make sure you get a hotel room and appointments with any administrators or representatives you wish to meet. It’s best to consult the academic calendar at a particular school’s Web site to try and avoid times when the campus may be empty, such as winter or spring breaks, or when students will be in hiding, such as during final exams. Sleep-deprived, anxious students are far less likely to stop for a chat. Many high school holidays are normal class days at colleges, offering excellent opportunities to visit when things are in full swing.

Being There

You’re on campus. You’ve taken the official guided tour with a very enthusiastic student happily providing anecdotes and trivia while walking backward. You’ve met with an admissions representative and visited a class. Now, you need to use your campus visit time to get a sense of the place itself, on campus and off. Look for things you find desirable and undesirable. Talk to students and find out where they go on weekends; talk to local residents and find out what’s popular in town. Find out what makes each campus and city or town unique, for better or worse.

Discover Discounts

While campus visits may help save money in application costs and the turmoil of choosing the wrong school, the cost of visiting multiple schools can add up quickly. Most admissions offices or campus visitors' centers can provide discount information for hotels and transportation in the area. Amtrak offers a two-for-one ticket promotion for prospective students and their parent or guardian through

Whether you’re visiting 10 colleges or two, taking the time to explore the campus and the surrounding area is well worth the time and money. Visiting as a family will give both students and parents confidence they made the right decision when it comes time to pack up and head off for higher education. And even if they don’t like it, younger brothers and sisters will get a head start on things, so that by the time it’s their turn, you’ll know exactly what to look for.

Themes: College Visits

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