Tactical College Visiting

03/11/2015 05:58 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015

This article was co-authored by Educational Director Alice Rothman-Hicks.

To college visit, or not to college visit? That is the question that high school juniors and their parents must consider as spring break approaches. Whether it is, in fact, nobler (or at least more useful) to visit colleges in person than to gather information from their websites is much-debated -- particularly since the in-person visits require time and energy that might instead be used for standardized test studying, decompressing, etc. The truth is, though, that college visits -- if done right -- are very worthwhile because they can provide a distinct tactical advantage in the college application process.

College applications' supplemental essay questions virtually always contain at least one question that is some variation on: "Why are you interested in this school, specifically?" These questions are a thorn in most students' sides, as it is difficult to avoid writing generic, vapid responses. Physically visiting a school provides a wealth of information -- how the campus looks, who the students are, how they interact with one another and ultimately what the intangible, but definite atmosphere, of that college is like -- which, in addition to potentially influencing students' decisions about whether or not to apply to a given school, gives them an authentic experience from which they can draw when writing those essays.

The caveat, though, is that the student has to do it right. It's all too easy to fall into a college visiting rut of visiting several colleges in a row and returning home with no clear memory of any of them. To counteract this possibility, students should look up each college's supplemental essay questions before visiting, and make the goal of their visit simply to answer those questions. This will focus their minds and attention during each tour and information session, ensuring that they get more out of the visit itself, and will allow them to essentially pre-write their supplemental essays in the process. And, what if a student finds himself at the end of a given visit without a clear reason in mind as to why he wants to attend that school? Well, that might be an indication that that college is not really the best fit for him.

The other college-visiting pitfall to avoid is the trap of only visiting one's very first-choice school or schools. College admission is difficult and arbitrary, which means that students are often forced to turn to their second choices. Without having visited those second-choice schools, though, they will find it challenging to write meaningful supplemental essays -- a problematic situation because college admissions officers, wary of accepting students who are unlikely to attend that particular college, scrutinize supplement essays for regular-decision applicants with great care in an attempt to weed out those who are not truly interested.

So, as high school juniors and their parents ponder whether to visit or not to visit, I strongly recommend the former. It's the only way for students to see whether they could imagine spending four years at a given college, and it allows them to set themselves apart from the pack by showing colleges how much they really do care.