When it comes to researching potential schools, there is nothing better than the college visit.
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 showing up. Many students change their minds after a college visit. This is obviously preferable to changing it after you enroll!
Get the most out of your college visit with these tips:
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).
Talk to the current students – they may soon be your peers. If they have a problem or grievance, they will probably share it with you. If they love their school, they won't be shy about it either. Specific questions yield far more interesting (and helpful) answers.
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 email 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.
Although 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 its best face, like the spankin' new 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.
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 freshmen dormitories.
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.
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.
If you visit many schools, your memories of them are bound to overlap. 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.
Be careful not to rush to judgment if the weather's bad or the class you attended is boring. There are bound to be sunny days and more interesting classes.
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).