Iolani High School in Honolulu, Hawaii, is 3,819 miles from Creighton University. But for Cody Ching and his parents, it was worth the trip.
The junior, who dreams of becoming a doctor, was checking out the campus on a private tour in August, comparing it to three other Midwest universities that piqued his interest.
Tour guide Noah Harrahill, a sophomore neuroscience and German major from St. Paul, Nebraska, talked up the physics, biology and chemistry classes and research opportunities. This impressed Cody.
“Research opportunities are available. That’s not everywhere,” Cody said. “It’s nice to know they are available as a freshman.”
Before the Internet, a campus tour was the main way to get a lot of information about a college or university. Today, every school has a website with a wealth of information, and some even have videos of their campus and activities.
So are visits even necessary anymore?
Yes, says Joan Jurek, director of college planning for EducationQuest. She compares a campus visit to kicking the tires at a car dealership.
“You're not going to buy a car without a test drive.”
There is a certain fit or comfort level the student must experience, she said. They need to ask themselves these questions as they tour a school: Can I picture myself in these classrooms? Can I study in this lab? Can I live in these residence halls?
A tour has an intrinsic value that a website doesn't. While on campus, a student can talk to a professor about an area of study and seek out students — in addition to their tour guide — to get varying personal perspectives on the school. They will check out the food in the cafeteria, the exercise facilities, the convenience of the nearby city and the size of the crowds walking across campus between classes. Will I be lost in a big university or feel limited in a small college?
The hourlong walk around Creighton’s campus gave Cody the impression that the atmosphere of the downtown school is like a close-knit family. There’s competition in academics, he said, but it’s not aggressive.
“I’m getting the feel for what I’m searching for in a college,” he said.
At the state’s largest university — the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — more than 20,000 people took tours last year. To accommodate such crowds, UNL offers half-day and full-day general tours that cover topics ranging from academics and financial aid to Greek life and a walk-through of Memorial Stadium. The cost is $10 per person and is not refundable.
But UNL also offer tours that cater to specific interests. There’s a day set aside for pre-health students, tours for Spanish-speaking families, and group tours for students from the same middle school, high school or activity. The school also hosts ethnic symposiums — Native American, Latino, Black, Asian — inviting prospective students with similar backgrounds to attend and learn about opportunities and resources on campus.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha also offers tailored tours. There are tours for students interested in specific colleges, a day set aside for college students looking to transfer schools, and even an “Express Transfer” visit during the lunch hour for students interested in transferring. UNO also provides an app that gives prospective students a free, self-guided digital tour of its campus.
Middle school students even get in on the tours, which Jurek sees as a good thing.
“The earlier we can get a student on campus, the more likely they are going to college,” she said.
The Ching family were using the summer between Cody’s sophomore and junior year to narrow down the colleges among his favorite four with tours of Creighton, Wheaton University in Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of St. Louis.
“We started early because we are fitting in all the schools during break,” said his mom, Susan. “It really makes a difference when you meet the people.”
Many students wait to take tours and make decisions about college during their senior year of high school. Jurek said that is too late. Because incoming freshmen begin applying for financial aid the fall of their senior year, they should already have an idea as to where they are going to college. Waiting to make that choice until the end of their senior year can cost them grants, loans and even scholarships. It's best to begin campus visits junior year.
“The more they do junior year, then they are ahead of the game senior year,” she said.
And that includes doing research on the colleges and universities they are interested in before the visit, Jurek said. Here’s where you comb through a school’s website.
Part of that research is determining, first and foremost, if the school offers an academic program in the area of the student’s interests, Jurek said. How will a student become a successful mechanic, engineer or accountant if the school doesn't offer strong programs in those areas?
Secondly, students and parents must find out if the school is affordable. Check out tuition and housing rates, then visit the financial aid office during the tour to discuss grants, loans and scholarships.
Jurek said there are pros and cons to taking individual tours versus group tours. A one-on-one experience will be more personal and can address all of a student's questions and requests. But a group tour with other prospective students and parents will generate questions that just one student alone might not have thought of. Bringing along parents or grandparents also will add different viewpoints.
Bottom line: Be prepared with questions and make appointments with financial aid, professors and counselors ahead of time.
“If they can go prepared with a list of questions,” she said, “if they can do a bit of homework ahead of time, that would be helpful.”