All too often, prospective students and families invest time, money (and sometimes torturously long journeys) to make college visits, then leave having gained little more than knowledge of the campus map and the dining hall menu. Make the most of your campus visits and get the information you need to make informed decisions about whether or not a school is the right fit for you by planning ahead, taking advantage of campus tours, and then venturing off on your own.
* Arrange to visit schools when classes are in session. It's impossible to get an authentic sense of a school's cultural and atmosphere when the quad, hallways and dorms are empty. If this means skipping a few days of school yourself, so be it. Missing a couple of high school classes is a worthwhile trade-off for the ability to make a smart decision about choosing a college.
* When possible, try to visit during "normal" periods of the school year, when you are most likely to get a realistic picture of what day to day life is like on campus. The start of the year, Greek rush, big football games and the like are all an awesome part of campus life, but they're only exciting days and weeks that punctuate longer periods of study, study and more study. Don't visit at a time that will give you an idealized picture of campus life and possibly create unrealistic expectations about what college will be like.
* If you're from the West Coast and planning to head East of the Rockies, do yourself a favor: Check out the schools' virtual tours to get an idea of what campus looks like in the picturesque fall and spring, but visit during the winter so you really know what it's like to live in weather. Many California students have found that ski weeks in Tahoe aren't quite the same thing as long semesters in upstate New York.
* Schedule a campus tour. While you're on the tour, ask questions. Lots of them. Ask ahead of time if you will be able to tour dormitories, sports facilities, art studios or whatever matters to you. If not, ask how you can arrange to do so.
* Schedule a meeting with an admissions officer. These meetings are short, informal, and are a great way to both get your questions answered and get yourself on the radar of the admissions office.
* Arrange to sit in on a class in a subject of interest. It's a great way to get a glimpse of your future life as a college student. Though it's not always possible, you might also email a professor in advance of your visit to see if he or she would be willing to briefly sit down with you during office hours to discuss your major field of interest.
* Have a meal or two in the different dining options on campus. While you eat, pick up some of the campus publications and take a look at what's going on. If you've got time, find an event or two to check out that evening. See a film on campus, go to a sporting event, or attend a local performance.
* Talk to some people. Most students are more than happy to answer questions or tell you about their experiences at college. Unoccupied cashiers at campus stores, library clerks, and random loiterers at cafes and on stairwells can be excellent sources of inside information.
* If you have a special interest or need and want to get an idea of how that might be served on a particular campus, go hunting for information. For example, visit the student disability services center, find out where and how often different support groups meet, arrange to talk to dining hall administration about special dietary needs.
You're going to be living at college for at least four years. The quality of your education is paramount, but so is the quality of your life while you're there. Campus visits are an excellent way to find out if a school fits you not just academically, but personally.
Decide in advance what you want to know, then hit those campuses and find out all you can. As in all things related to college (and life), information is King.