The most important tip of all is to do the campus visits in the first place. After all, there is only a limited amount of information that can be learned about a school from its Web site, view book, or mailed pamphlets. While holiday breaks and summer vacation are convenient, in order to get the best feel for a school, prospective students should try to visit colleges when students are on campus.
During campus tours, presentations and student panels, I found time after time that college students and admissions officers were barraged with questions whose answers can easily be found on the school's Web site. Information like statistics about a school's number of students or offered majors should be researched before visiting campus. Students should instead be asking questions about life on campus: what kinds of students attend the college; the prevalence of drugs and alcohol; what students do for fun; the school's political climate; the importance of athletics on campus, etc. - all questions that will help students better assess the college as an option for them, personally. Students should not be hesitant to ask their tour guide questions either - that is what they are there for. Ask about the campus facilities, the quality of food, how late places on campus are open, and if the campus has wireless Internet access. Sitting in the college's student center or campus coffee shop, and stopping to look at posted fliers, is certainly helpful to get an idea of the kinds of activities and functions going on around campus.
In addition to asking the right questions, students and parents should save extremely personal questions for after a formal presentation. I add this simply due to my pure annoyance at this practice. "If I'm a transfer student, and I have 40 credits..." Or, the infamous, "If my daughter has taken seven AP classes..." You begin to wonder if such questions have any purpose other than to allow parents to boast about their progeny's brilliant accomplishments.
During the process, students should think about what they want out of their college experience, before visiting. When listening to student or faculty presentations, students should try to discern whether the college is able to fulfill their own needs and goals, and whether it will nourish their personality and interests. Students should always carry a pad of paper with them to jot down noteworthy observations or questions that might arise. Also, something I am often guilty of, but which should certainly be avoided, is assessing the tour guide and not the college.
Students should always call ahead to see what kinds of opportunities will be available to them when they visit - is it possible to sit in on a class or stay overnight? Are there special visitation days for prospective students? Most colleges also require advance notice - sometimes two or three weeks in advance - for tours and information sessions, and especially for sitting in on a class.
I strongly suggest attending the information sessions offered before or after campus tours - I found these extremely helpful in clarifying what I had seen on the tour or preparing myself for what to look for. Additionally, visit the bookstore and the library, and try to see a dorm room - the smallest type if possible, in order to prepare yourself for the worst-case scenario (and hope for the best).
One of the most helpful aspects of the college visits for me is sitting in on a class. The two times I have done this, I have been able to really grasp the dynamic of the school's academic environment - the level of coursework, whether the learning atmosphere is competitive or laid-back, and a sense for the kinds of students and professors at the school. If you can't shadow a class, at least see a typical classroom. Many admissions officers also strongly advise prospective students to stay overnight with a current student, to better understand not just academics, but all aspects of the school atmosphere.
As secondary information, always leave extra travel time, wear comfortable clothing and shoes, and be prepared for unexpected changes in weather - I was forced to purchase an emergency umbrella when it started pouring at Northwestern.
On this last set of tours, my dad consistently reminded me (sometimes to my chagrin) to remember that there is no such thing as a perfect school. To the other extreme, students should not go on a tour with rose-colored glasses either. Though sometimes difficult, it is important to maintain a balanced outlook in assessing various schools. In the end, there is a place for everyone - probably three or four.
The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a senior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.