Written by: Leigh Perkins // Sep 10, 2019
Last updated: Sep 17, 2020
When you’re narrowing your college list, everyone will tell you that the best way to choose a school is to get to know it personally and that the best way to do that is by taking a campus tour. But how do you choose between a self-guided tour or an open house? What’s better, a virtual experience or a student-guided group tour? No style of college visit in person or online will be perfect for every student or every school, but our quick guide will help you decide what’s the best type of campus tour for you.
Consider the On-Campus Tour
You’re imagining yourself as a student there in real life, so why not visit the campus in person? Your schedule, budget, tolerance for crowds, interest in specialty programs, and campus must-see list will influence which on-campus tour will work in your favor.
The Student-Guided Tour Group
The traditional, official campus tour is a formal group tour with student-led guides who showcase points of interest on campus and answer your questions.
- Why you’ll like it: Official group tours are efficient, friendly, and packed with useful information delivered with a student’s perspective. You’ll see campus amenities, eat with students, and often meet with advisors from admissions or financial aid. This is your opportunity to take it all in and listen to the group’s Q&A, but don’t worry about memorizing the average SAT score or the retention rate. On the tour, just soak it in.
- Make sure you do this: Seize the chance to sit in on a class if offered, to see whether the classroom size and teaching style mesh with your expectations.
- Top tip: Arrange ahead of time to meet with a professor, student, coach, or staff member in the major, sport, art, or activity you’re excited to pursue in college. Personal connections can make all the difference when evaluating your favorite schools.
The Self-Guided Walking Tour
No frills, no crowds, no filter, a self-guided tour is the way to customize your visit, providing what could be a more honest appraisal of the students, professors, and facilities.
- Why you’ll like it: Following either a printed walking guide or a downloaded app, you can hit the highlights, learn some facts, and see what the school thinks is most important, but you can also skip around. Bonus: You do it all on your schedule, even weekends when the official tour is rarely available. The USF Tampa campus self-guided tour takes about two hours, but you can zip through it or slow your pace to enjoy a whole day on campus.
- Make sure you do this: Find the coffee shop closest to the center of campus. Sit. Watch. Listen. Can you see yourself enjoying the company of these students for four years?
- Top tip: Go unofficial. The official self-guided tour will lead you to the campus selling points (New dorms! Founder’s statue!), but your discovery tour should focus on student life. Check out the academic departments related to the major you’re interested in and the spots on campus where students hang out.
The Open House
Often your first foray onto a college campus, an open house is when a school throws open its doors to welcome hundreds of students and their families.
- Why you’ll like it: An open house is lively, fun, and flexible. You’ll learn about financial aid, campus safety, and residence halls, but mostly you’ll get a feel for the campus and have the freedom to wander through buildings, greenspaces, and eateries.
- Make sure you do this: Seek out students. Ask them about the things that truly matter to you, from sustainability to sororities to sleeping in on the weekend. They’ll be happy to chat about campus clubs, activities, and what it’s really like to be a student there.
- Top tip: This is the most crowded way to tour campus, so don’t expect a one-on-one meeting with admissions or financial aid, but do go off the beaten path to explore the campus art gallery or climbing wall. Finding hidden treasures can make you feel an instant connection to a campus community.
The Overnight Visit
Although not the most common way students get to know a campus, staying overnight (or for a whole weekend) in a residence hall is the most informative type of visit. Becoming part of the scene will make the college come alive for you in a way that a fly-by visit never could.
- Why you’ll like it: You’ll feel like a real student when you have a sleepover in a dorm, either with a friend or with a student chosen through the admissions office. Whether you’re there just to hang out with a buddy who is already enrolled or you’re doing the official overnighter, you’ll benefit from attending class, eating in the dining hall, sweating in the gym, taking in a concert, dropping by a party – the real student stuff.
- Make sure you do this: Urge your overnight roomie and friends to spill the beans on what bugs them about this campus – leaf blowers at 7:30 in the morning, too few spots in freshman classes, the winters? Harsh reality can help you see past your rose-colored glasses to make informed decisions about a college, or it can confirm for you that no leaf blower in the world could keep you from applying.
- Top tip: If you are a multicultural applicant, take full advantage of college fly-in and diversity programs. They’re often free or come at little cost to you.
Consider the Virtual Tour
If an in-person campus tour is impossible, it’s virtual reality to the rescue. A 360-degree virtual walking tour can immerse you in the dorms, classrooms, stadium, pool, and theater, all in the palm of your hand.
- Why you’ll like it: It’s a free, fun, fast way to weigh your options or preview a campus before you commit to an on-campus, real-life tour. Some schools go all in, with apps that require VR goggles, but most are a snap to click through on any device at any time. Virtual tours offer panoramic views of campus, but they also give a more intimate peek into the school’s vibe and culture. USF’s virtual tour of the three campuses invites you into academic buildings and recreation facilities along sunny palm-lined pathways – it’s Florida, after all!
- Make sure you do this: Watch supplemental videos and click through social media to get a fuller picture of each campus, not just how it looks at its shiny best for the VR tour.
- Top tip: If you’re an international student, the virtual tour might be your only tour until the first day of class, so watch it with an eye on the campus map. Comparing the two will give you a sense of where you are in VR and where you’ll be IRL.
Consider Alternative Experiences
If it’s not your style to take the traditional or virtual hike across campus, you might prefer a premium tour package (for a price) or the heady one-day event known as Instant Decision Day.
Paid College Campus Tour Package
You can pay a for-profit company to handle college tour travel arrangements including airfare, hotels, and meals. You’ll visit a range of public, private, urban, and rural schools in a geographic region over three to six days.
- Why you’ll like it: If your parents are unable or unwilling to hoof it across your long list of campuses but willing to pay a premium for you to do so with a professional travel guide, you’ll explore campuses with a busload of other college-bound students. Some school districts subsidize tours for students who would not otherwise be able to visit distant colleges.
- Make sure you do this: Research college travel outfits that offer specialty tours, such as historically black campuses or STEM tours.
- Top tip: College tour companies usually handle high school-sponsored groups of 20 to 30 students, but a few, including one that specializes in Florida colleges, are open to any interested student. Your expenses could range from a few hundred dollars to sky-high.
Instant Decision Day
If you want to tour your top-choice campus and find out on the spot whether you’re accepted, see if your target school offers Instant Decision Day. ID Day allows you to condense the entire admissions process and on-campus tour into a single daylong event, usually on a specific invitation-only date the summer before your senior year.
- Why you’ll like it: As long as you have your application package completed and submitted on time and you meet the school’s eligibility requirements, you could forgo that excruciating weekslong wait for an acceptance/rejection email and squeeze in a campus tour at the same time.
- Make sure you do this: Accept an invitation to ID Day only for a school you have toured already or can tour on ID Day itself, so you have a real feel for the campus and what it offers.
- Top tip: Be prepared to ask questions and answer a few, too. Some colleges consider the ID Day interview integral to their decision.
If you’re considering applying to USF, this is a good time to register online for our campus tour or check out our virtual tours. If you have questions about visiting our beautiful main campus in Tampa, our waterfront campus in St. Petersburg, or our campus in Sarasota-Manatee, contact us online or by phone at 813-974-3350.