With a little luck (and an effective vaccine), we will hopefully all be travelling again next summer. This article examines the value of campus tours when a student has the means and the time to undertake them. Planning ahead and doing one’s research is key to successful schools visits. Though it may seem almost cruel to write about a topic that requires air travel, the article below also provides insight into the different kinds of postsecondary institutions and what to look for in a university beyond its marketing material.

Why tour at all?

Seeing (or rather, feeling) is believing. It’s true; especially with regard to universities. Pick up practically any university prospectus (a fancy name for a sales brochure) and you will see what I mean. Invariably, they will picture fresh, clean young adults, of all ethnic backgrounds, posed in beatific delight as they cooperate with each other on (supposedly) matters of global importance. Students under a tree, laying on the grass, in golden sunshine is a popular theme. Any adult who has actually attended a university (especially mine) will scoff at this vision, because it’s, well, let’s charitably call it “marketing”. Keywords that any university will use with unreserved abandon are: dynamic, world-renowned, global, changing the world, community, inquiry, discovery, diverse, close knit, success driven ad nauseum …and they are not wrong for doing so, most of the universities in the developed world provide all of this, they really do. You see, the dirty little secret they may not want you to learn is that all universities are pretty much alike, especially at the undergraduate level. Certainly, they are more alike than they are different. They really are.

The real differentiators are almost impossible to articulate in a brochure or website because every single human being is different from every other one. The real connection with a university is often a subtle, personal and hard to define “click” that one gets when one walks onto campus – it can happen at more than one university too.

This is the main reason why a college tour is so advised (for our school population with the resources to do so) – that “click” can only be felt on campus, but when a student feels it then they have found a space where they can do their best work, which will set them up well for progression to that prestigious Grad School. Parents can also see when this happens with their child, especially if they have a strong bond. I have seen this many times as a former university admissions professional when touring families around my campus. It’s also painfully obvious when the parent has the “click” but the child does not.

So, a college tour can provide a useful, productive, positive and fun framework for a wider family holiday. Time with those you love, doing something new and developmental, with plenty of laughs and also a few “aha” moments along the way. What is not to like about that?

When to go?

Grade 10 (age 15) is really the earliest I’d recommend touring universities. Prior to that and there is little use as the child is not yet developed in terms of knowing themself and any positive impression will likely be lost by the time the child reaches the critical final two years of study, it’ll also result in Student Guides and Admissions Staff rolling their eyes at the parents dragging their possibly reluctant child around and wasting everyone’s time. Not only this, but as the universities themselves will tell you (gleefully in their marketing) they are dynamic environments; constantly developing their human and physical resources to meet the needs and challenges of a fast changing human landscape! Thus in four years time (if this is true) they could (should?) be very different places.

By Grade 10 things start to change: graduation is now in sight, university is becoming real, IB Higher and Standard Level choices are going to be made so this is the perfect time to remind the child why studying hard is key and why it is important to develop one’s own personality, to ask questions….to mature.

It also means that there is still time to visit other countries, if the first one does not inspire, to check out local options, to compare and also to give valuable time in the Grade 11 summer to work on the Extended Essay and not to spend all of that time trying to get an insight into which university type one likes. This is not a decision that should be too rushed.

Now, I am assuming that these trips will take place during a summer-break and certainly, that is the most common time of year to do so, but it need not be; most school holidays would work with the exception of Easter Break (as many universities actually close during such religious holidays). Universities, unlike high-schools are year-round institutions, though during summer vacations you’ll get an “empty” feel from teaching focused universities as the undergraduate body (typically the largest of the various student bodies) will be away having a (probably) well-deserved break.

Some universities will have designated “open days” that they’ll direct you to and these are good opportunities. Although during the open days you get a less-personal service, you will generally have greater access to academic staff, halls of residence and also other key services. Whichever you undertake you will still be able to experience the “click” or lack thereof.

What to consider?

When you do visit a university campus there are a number of things to consider, firstly make sure you register with the admissions office or reception and fill in any visitor form fully as these details go into their contact database and may be used when looking at future “demonstrated interest”. It does mean the invariable marketing deluge of email and text message, but these can be filtered out easily (ask your child how to do this!).

Secondly, see a range of university types. There is always a temptation to stick with brands we are familiar with and thus you’ll find that the big brand name universities have lots of people attending their tours and open days, and whilst feeling what a big brand uni is like is valuable it may not be the best use of your time and you’ll find that if you branch out to lesser-known universities you may get a warmer, more personal welcome and likely much more attention. Many of the answers to questions about admission and financial aid are the same at all universities and thus this more personalised access can be beneficial if you are considering a highly-selective and well-known university.

Every university will argue that it is unique, but this is only true in small ways. Here are the main university types we encourage students and parents to explore.

  • Big-Brand, Research-Intensive university. These are the ones that feature prominently in global rankings. Why? They produce research in vast amounts and are cited regularly and hence are household names. This might mean that teaching is a secondary activity, but not always so; there are many that also have excellent teaching, but not all.
  • Small Teaching-Focused university. This is thought of as the opposite of the above but this can be misleading. Small Teaching-Focused universities typically are also research active but in fewer areas. What this can mean is that they are a focus of global excellence in these niche areas. Typically, the teaching is more personalised at these schools and the undergraduate research opportunities are more accessible (there are fewer graduate students to take these positions).

In addition to the paradigm above they can be further categorized into urban, sub-urban and rural.

  • Urban. Incorporated into the landscape of a major city with excellent transport links and lots of entertainment and cultural opportunities (these may also be called distractions). Living costs tend to be higher (than the other options) but this can be offset by part-time work, where there are usually lots of opportunities (if your study visa permits part-time work).
  • Sub-urban. Still in sight of the main cities but quieter and typically more of a trek to find a distraction. Costs can be lower but so can the availability of part-time work.
  • Rural. You get to see stars at night. Typically a closer-knit community as you are often self-contained in a small community. Positives include fewer distractions and a stronger network but typically smaller populations. Negatives can be a lack of paid work opportunities and a bit of trek to find some entertainment (which even then may be limited) if needed.

Needless to say there are universities on every point of this scale so whatever a student might be looking for in terms of size, reputation, location, cost, diversity etc, is available if they look, but, and here is the value of the tour: the realities of what one thinks one wants and what one actually wants is often wanting. (Read that sentence again and you’ll get it). Reality, if you can obtain it, is a better gauge than marketing-led assumptions.

This search is really important in the narrative of the modern, connected, ultra-competitive world where Grad School is increasingly seen as a requirement. Grad Schools really are looking for students who do well at the institution in which they undertake their undergraduate studies. It is great if that university is doing really well but not nearly as important as you might think; admissions tutors at Grad Schools are interested in diversity and ability; they want the best graduates, from a range of universities, from around the world. Being an average graduate from a great university is not nearly as impressive as being a great graduate from an average university – most university graduates in the world studied at a local university, this is the reality of the world. Grad Schools consider you based on the context in which you find yourself.

Who to contact?

If you have decided, as a family, that a couple of weeks in a car together arguing over the merits of your individual champion university sound like fun (I am sure you all actually get along), then you need to plan it. Make sure you do fun social things as well; university after university will soon drain any enjoyment from the trip, but intersperse your trip with universities and have your child make the arrangements. This will give them ownership and also greatly impress the possible admissions tutor with whom you correspond. I recall emails from 15 year olds to my university making very clear, concise and considered requests to visit us and I would always go out of my way to make these happen, rather than an email from a mum or dad who was clearly leading this process (I really felt for these kids). Help the kids by all means – let them know your travel dates, how far you are willing to drive, the universities YOU want to see and also how to actually write a polite and formal request but let them do it.

This might help – a sample email request:

“Dear Dr XXXXX,

Thank you for taking the time to read my email, I know you must be very busy.

I am a Grade 10 student from the Canadian International School in Hong Kong and my parents have allowed me to spend some time this summer exploring a number of university possibilities. I have undertaken a little research on XXXXXXX University and with growing excitement I think I might have found a match. I am fortunate enough to have the time and resources to visit and would like to see if it would be possible for me to do so?

I only have a limited window as my parents are driving during their own short break so could I ask if it would be possible for me to visit your university on: DATE at around TIME to TIME? I’d love to see some of the campus, meet with a current student (if they would be willing) and also to speak to someone who might be able to answer my questions about international student admission. 

Thank you so much for your kind consideration, I hope to hear from you soon. 

My best wishes,


Advising that you are an international student can change the dynamic of the response as many universities do charge higher fees to such students but it also, less cynically, helps the university arrange for the right people to meet with you.

You’ll probably get a favourable response and then it is time for you to visit.

What questions to ask?

Until one has visited a number of universities it can be hard to know what to look out for and what to ask and so here are some suggestions:

Are there many other students from Hong Kong studying here? Where do they tend to focus?What is YOUR favorite thing about XXXXX university?How do you access professorial help if you need it? What are the steps a student would need to take?
Do employers visit the campus? How does that happen?
If I wanted to go on to a research degree, is there any help the university would offer?
If my parents were to visit whilst I was here, would there be accommodation they could hire?
I can’t drive in this country, how would I get out and about to see the sights?
Can you tell me about the academic advising? What help is there in selecting courses?
What is it like here on the weekends? Do lots of students head home?

On the tour look out for:

Smiling students – this is one thing the university can’t control on campus, but also understand that not everyone is happy all the time. Be open-minded. You may also hear students ‘bad-mouthing’ their university – often this is done as a joke but not always – never be afraid to follow up if you hear a negative comment.

Check out the gardens and green spaces – are they well kept? This can often give clues to the financial stability of the institution and the care they take with their campus environment.

Look for posters about guest speakers – what is available? Are they current or very out of date? Do they advertise events off-campus on other university sites?

Do students appear to be employed around the university? This would show how supportive of students the university is.

Think about how the weather may be impacting your impression – is it a rainy day and you still like it? That would be a very good sign. Don’t forget that weather will impact your impression – so factor that in.

See if you can spot any students sitting on the grass, under a tree in golden sunshine. Are they diverse? This is to validate or puncture the impression that almost every university will try to give in their marketing material. Remember that everything the university will put out will have been carefully put together to give a particular impression, your visit is a chance to look beyond the marketing.

Summing up

University tours can be excellent, but only when you are not simply confirming your own biases, so make sure you visit a genuine range of university types, not just the ones you have heard of. Try to avoid having secret favourites as you are looking for a return on investment so be critical in your approach. Remember that Grad Schools don’t really care where you do your undergraduate degree, but are much more interested in your graduation results and how you diversify the pool – class rank is a better indication of ability than the reputation of your university; for example the admitted class of 2020-21 at Harvard Law School JD class has representation from just 19.5% of the top 100 universities (QS Ranking) and 80.5% of the represented universities do not appear in the QS top 100 (though all are fine institutions).