Question: Do I have to take the time and make the effort to visit all the colleges I'm thinking of applying to? Aren't their materials and recommendations of friends enough?
Answer: If you've ever bought a car, you know that the test drive is important. Four years of college cost considerably more than most cars. If you wouldn't but a car with driving it, why would you go to a college without visiting first?
You may have heard the saying, "Ain't nothin' like the real thing." That's why you have to visit the campuses where you're considering spending four years of your life.
You can read all the viewbooks and watch all the marketing videos produced by your candidates. Nothing, though, can match walking down a shady, tree-lined walkway on a fresh, sunny morning on a college campus that could become your temporary home.
You'll get a sense of the college's vibrancy, character, and facilities. If you can do so, by all means visit the campuses while the students are there. And, to put a further condition on your visit, try to visit in the Fall or late spring, when the full beauty of the campus is showing.
This means that if you're a junior, you could plan some visits in May and September. If you're a senior, the next several months are your chance. That's why it pays to develop your candidate list in the junior year. You have more flexibility in developing your visit options.
When you finally arrive on campus, take the standard tour as soon as possible. This will give you the highlights of the physical facility. Also attend any admissions department question and answer sessions to get answers from the source about your application. Then move to the next level of information: the student body.
Don't be afraid to ask students what they think of their school. I recommend four quick questions. How do like this place? What do like most about it? What don't you like? Any tips for an applicant? These questions can inspire longer discussions. You may even make a friend for the future, if you join their student body next year.
Your final step in the campus-visit process should be to discuss your impressions with your family and make some notes to which you can refer later. Remember, the more up-front research you do, the less likely it will be that you select the wrong college.
Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.