A visit to a college campus, though not essential, is one of the best ways to figure out if a college is the right fit for you. Visits can range from a one hour tour to a formal presentation to an overnight stay. Most visits include an information session and a tour. Ultimately a college visit is all about discovering your priorities in a university and figuring out if this is the place where you want to spend the next four years of your life. The college visit works best when it’s viewed as a tool to help you make that decision.

Make a plan. Like most aspects of the college process, you’ll get more out of the experience and feel calmer about the process if you plan ahead. There is a lot of information out there, and it can be tough to keep track of it. By taking good notes, making a timeline of when you can visit certain colleges, and staying on top of it all, you’ll be making the process much easier for yourself.

Research schools online. Before you make any travel plans, get on the internet and do some research. Have an idea of what you’re looking for. No one expects you to have a complete list, but take a look at different schools and figure out what you like and don’t like. Do you want to be in a big city or in a rural college down? There is a big difference between the two. If you know you want a school that’s bigger than 10,000 students, you can cross smaller schools off your list immediately. If you’re not sure what you want to study but think you’re interested in biochemistry, look for schools with a good biochemistry program and ignore the schools that don’t offer that program at all. Some students will already know what they want and that’s great. At this stage you are just researching potential colleges to visit, figuring out what your priorities are.

Visit local schools first. Try visiting a school nearby to get accustomed to the college tour process before trying to visit a campus on the other side of the country. This also helps you measure differences and make comparisons between colleges better. It’s likely you know students at a local campus, so contact friends that attend and make time for an impromptu campus visit to meet other students. You’ll save money and have a better idea of what schools you might want to travel to visit.

Arrange a visit ahead of time. Check colleges’ websites to see if you need to register beforehand. School vacation weeks especially are a busy time for high schoolers to visit colleges, so contact the college as soon as you know you’ll be visiting so that you can reserve your spot on a tour. Ask them about the different tours they offer and see if there are any opportunities to meet with a professor or eat in the dining hall.

Take great notes. Every college has a lot to offer, but after many tours it may all seem like a blur.  Taking notes and even taking pictures of the campus can help reinforce key differentiating points amongst the school tours that make a campus unique. Was College ABC the ones with the really nice dorms or was that College XYZ? Take note of anything that catches your eye, good or bad. This will help you keep track of your thoughts later on. If you write down similar things about each school, you can use these notes to compare them and help you make a decision.

Ask questions. Get in the habit of asking more questions, as it encourages greater engagement on campus tours. Make a list of standard questions you could ask on any tour, so that you can easily compare all the schools when it’s time to make a decision. This will be personal for every student, but after figuring out what’s most important, you can bring clarity to the college search process.

Visit while school is in session. If you can make it happen, visit the school while the students are there. It will give you a feel for what it would be like to attend. Visiting in the summer shows you what the buildings look like, but not the student body. Feel free to ask students what they like and dislike about the college; most will be happy to give you answers. If you have an idea of what you’d like to study, visit the building where major classes are held. It’s worth asking in advance if you can meet with a professor for a quick chat.

Go to an accepted students weekend. Most colleges host informational sessions on spring weekends for students who have been accepted to the school. This is a good time to get more in-depth info, whether you’ve been to the school before or not. By this point you should be narrowing down your list and getting a better idea of which school is going to be the right fit for you. Some students will already know where they want to attend and they’ll only to go one accepted students weekend, or they won’t attend at all. If there’s a school you’re uncertain about but remain interested in, this is a good time to revisit it to get some answers.

Break away from the tour. Guided tours are a great tool for seeing the campus and getting the most up to date information about the school. But by nature, they show the best possible parts of a school. After the tour, it can be nice to walk around independently and see areas of campus that weren’t shown on the tour. This could give you more information to make an informed decision.

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