By Kristina L. Dooley, M.A., <a href="http://www.estrelaconsulting.com/welcome.php" target="_blank">Estrela Consulting</a>Your child has been counting the days until their break from school and they’re ready for some relaxation before their junior or senior year. Before breaking out that ski gear and heading to Chile, remember that in just a few months your child will be knee-deep in brochures and emails from colleges trying their best to entice them into consider their golden thrones of higher learning. Though some families feel comfortable selecting a college sight-unseen, there are good reasons to be wary of this plan. Have you ever seen a university brochure with photos taken during a New England winter storm featuring homesick students wearing inappropriate attire eating cereal for dinner? Of course not. Will you see this scenario played out during your campus visits? Absolutely. “Though you may fall in love with a school from their website or publications, the campus visit is your opportunity to see if the school is a ‘fit’ for you and your needs,” says Renee Scheske, Associate Director for Admissions Operations at Penn State University. “An on-campus visit may surprise you and provide you with critical information you need to make your decision.” By this point in their schooling, your child may have developed a preliminary list of colleges with the assistance of their college counselor. Jim Abbuhl, Vice President for Admission and Financial Aid at Hiram College feels that pre-planning is one of the most important pieces of college visits. “Families need to discuss the visit prior to setting foot on any campus,” says Abbuhl. “Try to establish the needs of the student and family including things such as size, facilities, student diversity and campus location.” When scheduling visits remember that most schools will offer set group tour times that are generally coupled with an information session or an interview opportunity. This means you should plan to spend at least two to three hours per visit. Also, keep in mind that weekend visits are rarely offered during the U.S. summer months. “Don’t assume you can easily squeeze more than two college visits into a single day, even if the schools are in the same city or general area,” says Laurel Brooks, Associate Director of Admission at Vassar College. “You’ll want to allot extra time for traffic, parking delays, meals and bookstore visits.” Though many schools don’t require on-campus interviews, it’s best to take advantage of this opportunity while you are on those campuses which do. Remember: interviews are two-way. It makes sense that both you and your child have questions about what will surely be a huge investment on the part of your family. An easy rule of thumb when preparing questions for the information session or interview is to ask those things which can’t be found on the institution’s website. Your tour guide is also a valuable resource and will, most likely, have a different perspective than your admission counselor. “If you’re seriously pressed for time and have to choose between a tour and information session, take the tour,” says Brooks. “All of the information given in the admissions session can be found online or in brochures and you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to walk around and see the campus yourself.” Be sure to bring a camera with you during your visit. Visual triggers, as opposed to written notes about the number of volumes in the library, are much better for you when you return home and are trying to differentiate between schools. Take photos of unique items on campus, not just exteriors of buildings. Here’s a tip: photograph flyers on billboards around campus as a reminder of what social offerings are available at the school. “Students should ask if they can see themselves on a particular campus living and learning in the residence halls and in the classrooms,” says Staci Ambrose, Coordinator of International Admissions at Beloit College. “They should experience as much as possible during their visit by touring the campus, sitting in on a class and staying overnight with a student host if possible.” After your visit it’s important for students to follow up with a “thank you” to those individuals who assisted them during their time on campus including tour guides, admission counselors, and faculty members. In this age of technology it’s appropriate to do this via email or a social networking site. In fact, why not send a Tweet or post something on the school’s Facebook wall about your experience? This is helpful to other students who may be looking at the same school and a great way to maintain active communication channels with the university. It’s important to remember that the undergraduate college search process should ideally occur just once in your child’s life. Thoughtful planning and thorough campus visits will aid them in ultimately selecting the most appropriate school.