We did college tours my son’s summer between 10th and 11th grade (east coast) and during Fall Break of his junior year (west coast). If your child hopes to attend a highly selective school, my advice is: this early approach is WELL WORTH IT.
In the case of my son, hearing all those sobering admission statistics straight from the horse’s mouth helped him buckle down, because he realized that being smart and having great SAT scores was not enough to get him into a place like MIT. In 9th and 10th grade he got a mix of A’s and B’s while he got straight A’s as a junior.
I’m sure he buckled down because the college tours helped him understand just how cutthroat the admissions process really is at top schools. Had we waited until the summer between 11th and 12th grade, well…too late. That would be an entire year’s worth of grades he could not go back and work harder for.
It also helps to figure out your schools of interest early, because some of the options have Early Admission, Early Action, or just plain early application deadlines. As it turns out, CairoSon will be able to get a large chunk of his college apps out of the way by mid-fall of his senior year because he knows he wants to apply to Cal-Tech and MIT (both of which have non-binding early action) and a couple of schools in the UC system. His high school limits everyone to 10 college applications, so in order to arrive at this strategy it was imperative to know which 10 schools he would ultimately choose.
Granted, he could have visited schools in the summer before his senior year and technically still figured out his choices fast enough to get applications done by October, but he wouldn’t have had as much time to think through his choices.
Plus, it really helped us make sense of all the stuff that CairoSon’s school’s counseling department started dumping on us in his Junior year. I might have been skeptical of a few things, or accepted others unquestioningly, but the fact that we already had independent experience of the early stages of the college application process really helped.
**TLDR version: **better to visit colleges early because it helps motivate you for your junior year, and gives you more time to strategize if you want to go early action/early decision when you start your senior year.