College visits

College visits are probably the most fun part of the college application process. When it comes to researching potential schools, there’s no better substitute for figuring out if a campus will feel like home.

If possible, visit every college that you are strongly considering. No website, guidebook, or testimonial will give you a better feel for a school than you'll get by seeing it for yourself. Many students change their minds after a campus visit. This is obviously preferable to changing your mind after you enroll! Get the most out of your time on campus with our college visit checklist:

1. Mind the calendar.

Schedule your visit while school is in session. You won't get a realistic idea of student life in August (or if you attend during a special event like Spring Fling).

2. Meet the experts.

Talk to the current students—they may soon be your peers. If they have a problem or complaint, they will probably share it with you. If they love their school, they won't be shy about it either. Come prepared with some questions to ask—specific ones will get you more interesting (and helpful) answers.

3. Meet the other experts.

Stop by the admissions office and introduce yourself. Let them know what interests you about the school so they can direct you to the best place for further investigation. Collect contact information and send a brief, friendly e-mail thanking them for taking the time to talk to you.

If there is a sign–up sheet, add your name! Colleges do keep track of which applicants have demonstrated genuine interest in the school. A visit is a great way to demonstrate your interest.

Some schools will let you interview with an admissions rep during your campus visit. If this opportunity is available, don't pass it up.

4. Take the campus tour…

While it's the most obvious thing to do, the official campus tour is worth your while. (Find out if you need to register to get a spot.) It gives the school a chance to show off its best features, like the newly-built theater or their rooftop planetarium. While you're walking around, check out the flyers and bulletin boards and pick up a school newspaper to get a sense of what's going on.

5. …then venture out on your own.

The official tour will probably steer you clear of the school's less attractive features, like the shoddy dining hall or the tiny gymnasium. Take your own un-official tour by wandering around campus. If there are any facilities that are important to you, find them and have a look for yourself. Make sure your destinations include the library and the first-year dorms.

6. Be a student for a day (or night).

Some schools sponsor overnight programs in which you can stay with a current student. This is a great opportunity to get a deeper sense of campus life and interact with your potential future friends and roommates.

Even if you don't stay over, most schools will allow you to sit in on lectures. Browse the course catalogue before you arrive, or ask the admissions office what classes are in session that day.

7. Save the best for last.

You'll get better at visiting colleges with practice. As you compare schools, you pick up on the aspects you like and the aspects you're not so fond of. You also figure out the right questions to ask, as well as the best campus spots to gauge student life. For that reason, visit your favorite schools last, so you'll be in the best position to make comparisons to the others on your list.

8. Keep a record of every college visit.

If you visit many schools, your memories of them are bound to overlap. Use a note-taking or voice-recording app on your phone, or plain old notebook and pen, to keep track of the details you like and the stuff that you don't like. When more questions arise (as they most definitely will), you can fire off an email for an answer rather than visiting a second time.

9. Don't rush to judgment.

Try not to base your opinion of a school on bad weather or one boring class. There are bound to be sunny days and more interesting classes. Same goes for overnight visits—you might end up staying with a student who has very different interests than you do.

At the same time, trust your gut. Sometimes it's love at first sight. Other times, something feels wrong (even if you can't put your finger on it).

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