A pile of glossy college brochures has just arrived in your mailbox. As you flip through the pages, you soon discover something: Every college has the greenest trees and the bluest skies you've ever seen. Every college is filled with happy students and attentive professors. Every college looks like the most perfect place on earth.
It would be fun if you could spend a year just visiting every college that caught your eye. But since you can't put high school on hold for that long, try instead to shorten your list of potential colleges to about five to seven. Then, once you've narrowed your choices, it's time to plan your campus visits.
A brochure and "virtual" visit to the college's website will give you a good idea of what the place looks like. Your goal now is to get the most complete idea of what a campus is like: Is the campus quiet and peaceful, or jumping with activity? Are the students generally super outgoing, or pretty laid back?
Visiting colleges gives you the opportunity to talk to students and professors, to see a school's classrooms and activities up close, and to observe how everyone interacts.
If you're able to visit several of the schools you've selected as "finalists," that's great! Those visits can help you figure out which qualities of a school are most important to you. But if you don't have the time or money to visit all your picks, you'll need to think about your priorities again. On that short list of schools, are there two or three that really stand out as your top choices? Plan to visit those schools. Many students visit campuses that are within driving distance. But it's just as important to visit schools that are far away—especially those that are your first or second choice. You'll be spending the next four years at a college, so it's a good idea to check it out before you commit to it.
Before You Go
Before you set foot on a campus, even before you decide what day you'd like to visit, call the admissions office. Think of this first call as information gathering—you won't be scheduling your visit just yet.
Let an admissions counselor know you're planning to visit their campus in the near future. Be as specific with them as you can about what you want to observe. Don't worry if you don't have a "must see" list to give the admissions counselor: Colleges offer plenty of general information, access to classes and professors, and a tour of the campus for all visiting students. But if you have a possible major in mind, or even a couple subjects you're particularly interested in, ask for a schedule of classes in these areas. Let admissions know you'd like to speak with a professor in that subject area.
Also, let admissions know if you're interested in specific athletic programs or other non-academic activities (such as student government, the student newspaper or community service projects). You may be invited to sit in on a student government meeting or a basketball practice.
After you've told the counselor your interests, ask them to help you determine the best time to visit. The counselor will probably tell you to avoid the weeks close to the college's midterm and final examinations—there's little campus activity other than studying at these times. If you aren't told this, ask for their schedule of vacation breaks and exams (or at least their best estimate of weeks to avoid). You'll also want to avoid the summer months, when campuses are pretty much empty.
Most colleges also offer special visiting days for families, with planned workshops and activities for both you and your parents. These events provide a ton of information about the college, and you get to interact with other prospective students. However, if you plan to attend one of these special events, also try to find another time to visit the campus so you can observe without receiving "red carpet" treatment. You also want to know what a normal day is like for the average student.