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Making the Most of Your College Visit

A college visit can make or break your opinion of a school. I'll never forget my visit to the college that I had ranked #1 on my list of prospective schools: It poured (I had no umbrella), there were no available campus tours or transportation (besides my feet), and students had cleared out of campus for a long weekend. Needless to say, there was no one to talk to! I left the campus thinking I never wanted to return again--and I didn't. If I had been smarter about my college visit, I would have walked away much happier, better informed, and with a greater understanding of what exactly that school could offer me.

Planning your college visit: When to go and what to focus on

So what exactly should you do to make the most out of a college visit? First, consider when to visit. It may seem like a good idea to visit a college over a three-day weekend or a holiday, but if the campus is empty, it will be much harder to gather information. Sarah Hadburg, a junior at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who is a campus tour guide, recommends visiting on a weekday during the school year because "it's so important to see the campus atmosphere when school is in session." Even if you plan on visiting during the summer, a weekday can provide more context for you than a weekend as most schools offer summer sessions. And if you're visiting a lot of schools, be sure to focus only on one or two campuses a day, or you'll be too overloaded with details to remember specifics about each one.

The next step is to plan what to focus on when visiting campus. Nicole Foord Bulich, a high school English teacher in Del Ray Oaks, Calif., has her students start off by watching a virtual tour (available on most university websites) of the campus and generating questions about the school before the campus visit. Interested in majoring in journalism? Wondering how difficult the courses are? Ask!

"Our students always seem shocked to hear about the hits top students have taken in their GPAs, the pacing of college classes, and how much time is required to earn passing grades in college," she said. This is your one opportunity to gather information about a school from the source, so show up for your visit prepared.

Take advantage of that campus tour

Maybe you're like me, however, and have no idea where to go when visiting a campus or even whom to talk to. If so, scheduling an official campus tour is a perfect starting place. (Be sure to check times and availability before you go.) Asking the right questions of the student tour guides can tell you a lot about a school.

"One question that I don't get often enough from students is: 'What's a typical day like for you at UCLA?' " Hadburg said. "This question will help you recognize how different this particular college is from your high school and whether it fits in with your expectations. Plus if your tour guide can't come up with anything interesting ('um, I study…') then that's a red flag!"

Many students also don't realize that scheduling an official campus tour can actually affect your admission to a school.

"A lot of smaller, private schools actually keep track of the students that take a campus tour because they think it shows interest. So, if you're really serious about attending a school like that, it is very strongly recommended that you take a tour because it could potentially affect admissions," Hadburg said.

Last, but certainly not least, remember why you're visiting the school. This could be your new home, so make sure that you feel comfortable not only on the entire campus, but also in the surrounding areas.

"Grabbing lunch or dinner in these college towns is a good way to get a feel for what life looks like at the school," Bulich said. Do you see yourself as part of the school? Does visiting the campus make you want to be a student there? If so, then you're on the right track to picking the best school for you!