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Road trip! Tips for planning your campus visits, questions to ask

With the warming weather, soon you'll have no more pencils, no more books and no more teachers' dirty looks. When school is finally out for summer, you'll have plenty of time to tour colleges on that great American road trip--even if it's with your parents--and be able to make some decisions about where to send those pesky applications.

Not quite. Pull the car over.

School isn't just out for you; it's out for college students, too. That's the primary reason why Mary Melton, field enrollment advisor for Ottawa University, recommends that high school students tour college campuses during fall or spring semesters when the campus is in full swing and you can get a feel for the students. "As much as a prospective student can be around current students, they'll really get to feel if they fit there. That's the most important thing: if the student feels the 'fit factor.'"

Even though that road trip might be on hold, now is the perfect time to do your research, take some virtual tours, plan those college visits and stew over these tips for visiting campus.

Start your research and planning now

Melton recommends two rounds of tours, starting with a general, group tour of schools during your junior year and personalized, highly-targeted visits to the top three schools you've already applied to--and maybe been admitted to--during the spring of your senior year. If you'll be starting your senior year in fall and you haven't yet done those more generic group campus visits, you may have a window at the beginning of fall semester, depending on when your own classes start back up. The only way to know is to start your research and plan those visits.

While you're there: tips for visiting campus

  1. Do your research first and have it on-hand when you visit. Two rounds of visits to far-away schools may not be possible, but websites such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook can help prospective students figure out the "fit factor" before committing to a visit, explained Melton. You don't want to spend the time you have during a visit on campus asking questions that could have been easily answered from the school's website or that aren't school-specific. Besides, once you have done your research, you may have better questions for a school's students and faculty
  2. Bring your parents. Even though, in theory, the road trip might seem more fun without your parents, Melton feels it's important for your parents to know and understand the school you might be attending. She also says not to be embarrassed--the admissions office has seen every type of parent.
  3. Take notes and pictures. Don't try to commit the details to memory. Record your good and bad impressions, not just a chronology of events on the school tour, and occasionally jot down corresponding photo numbers in your notes.
  4. Eat in the cafeteria. You're not just scoping the food, though it's smart to want to avoid meal after meal of "safe" cold cereal if you can. Cafeterias are typically in the student unions or commons area, explains Melton, so it's the perfect place to assess the student body vibe away from the classroom.
  5. Start conversations with students. The student ambassador giving your tour has been vetted by admissions staff (and are usually paid) to promote the school. He or she isn't likely to give you gritty details you need to know. Find a student who isn't rushing to class and start a quick conversation. Melton recommends broad questions to start a conversation: Do you like going to school here? What dorm is the best? What activities on campus do you participate in outside of class?
  6. Skip a class visit if you don't have time. Attending a single class mid-semester that requires knowledge learned throughout the semester may not be helpful to you during a campus visit. The subject material may not interest you and the class size might be small enough that you can't comfortably hide.Though the college classroom is very different from the high school classroom, you can see that difference in a YouTube video.
  7. Interview a faculty member. Whether you've chosen a major or remained undecided, take the opportunity to speak with faculty and decide if a school and program is right for you. Think of yourself as a consumer, not as a student, says Melton. "As much as a student may feel like they are being evaluated by the professor, the student should have the upper hand and should be evaluating the professor and the program that professor is sharing with them."
  8. Tour the dorms, but don't base your school choice on an overnight stay. If you might live on campus, tour all the possible dormitories during your visit. There are some things--like funky smells--that YouTube videos just don't capture. Though staying the night is a good way to get excited about college and talk to students, the majority of nights you spend at any college campus have the potential to be exciting.
  9. Talk to the financial aid office. Though your Internet research churned up a price tag for a school, it's important that you chat with a school's financial aid officer about scholarships and other financial aid opportunities before eliminating any of your top three schools on cost alone.
  10. Look for evidence of a supportive academic environment. Any school's website is going to say it supports its students. While you're on campus, look for the evidence. Do students have access to professors? Did you see anything about career placement services or workshops on campus? What student programming and events are being promoted? Look at bulletin boards around campus, keep your eye out for hand bills and listen to the campus chatter,
  11. Mind your manners. Though Melton wouldn't bar a rude or abrasive student's admission to her school, she wouldn't actively pursue that student, either. Even if you've already been admitted to a program, keep in mind that the school is also evaluating you for that fit factor Keep it professional (at least until you're officially a student on campus).

What's the best way to make sure you get everything you need out of a campus visit? "It all goes back to scheduling a visit, as opposed to popping in on a school," explains Melton. "Schools really do want to put their best foot forward and make sure you get all of your questions answered while you're visiting them that day. They realize their only shot at getting you on campus, usually, so they'll usually try to wow a perspective student."

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