I was recently asked "Is a campus visit required for admission?", followed up by "is it going to be viewed negatively if I don't visit?" The official party line - most admissions committees will tell you that a campus visit is not going to be considered when making admission decisions. However, most MBA applications will ask you if you have talked to anyone from the program. Some program apps - such as Columbia - will get a bit more granular and only ask what current students have you spoken to?"
So what is the deal with school visits and do you have to do them?
Let's take a step back. The purpose of any school visit is to provide any applicant the opportunity for a one-stop shop. You show up and you get to speak with students, sit in on a class, say hi to the adcom, and demonstrate your interest - fully – in a day. It's rather convenient.
However, there are many different ways that you can demonstrate interest. When taken in totality, the sum of parts can equal (if not exceed) the whole.
Instead of visiting the school, take a shot at the following:
Determine if and when the school's admissions committee will hold an alternative event in your city, online or through another organization, such as an alumni club or conference. Let's say it's an alumni club event, do you have a way in? Know any alumni from the b-school? Try LinkedIn, it's good for things like this. Hell, if it is a conference and just buy a ticket and show up. The most important thing is if you do show up – that you engage alumni, and any representative of the school.
Determine when the QS World MBA Tour is coming to a city near you. They do a few circuits around the US every year, as well as international. Go to http://www.topmba.com/mba-events.
Locate the current students who are members of clubs and organizations that you be a part of (should you gain acceptance to the school). Look for club members that share similar experiences to your own background. Email 2 to 3 club members to establish a dialog. Talk to them on the phone if you can - or at least maintaining a dialog via email. Are any of them from your metro area or hometown? Will any of them be back in the town during the winter break? If so, ask if any one of them would like to have lunch or dinner or simply meet up.
Comb through your own contacts - who do you know that has gone to that MBA program? A friend? A friend of a friend? That one guy at work who you never talk to? Invite them to a lunch. Engage them. MBA students love talking about themselves ... Lol.
The first thing I would do after you read this post is to log onto to each school's application and create a dummy application. Review the application in its entirety and look to see how each b-school asks "how have you engaged the school." As you mentioned, CBS does ask you to list names of "current" students. They don't need you to list names of alums you spoke within, but remember - you most certainly can list the names of these alumni in an essay for example - just as long as it does not turn into a name dropping exercise.
The bottom line is that you most certainly can demonstrate your sincere interest in a school and without having to travel to that school. Not everyone has a flexible work schedule and not everyone has the money. There is no shame in that, but you may have to work a little harder to show a sincere interest. But through the process, you will know much, much more about that b-school than someone who just showed up for a one-day class visit. This will not only pay dividends in your essays, but also during the interview. This is because you will know so much more about that's cool, why it is right for you, and what you bring to the program.