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Let the college tours begin!

Jenna Johnson

It's high school spring break season -- and if you are a junior (or an overachieving sophomore), chances are you will spend a chunk of your vacation wandering around college campuses with super-enthusiastic, backwards-walking student tour guides.

Are you one of these students? If so, my colleague Valerie Strauss is collecting college visit stories and would love to hear yours. Read all of the details on her blog, The Answer Sheet.

RichardFinalJacket.JPGMake sure to plan ahead before venturing out, so that you aren't overwhelmed, advises Richard Taylor, the president of WiseChoice, an online college search program.

"As a parent who recently went through this process, I know how stressful these visits can be for both the student and the parent," Taylor said. "But on the flip side, they can be fun and exciting, as well as offer a great learning experience and a time to bond."

To help you out, WiseChoice came up with some tips for a successful campus visit. Have some advice of your own? Jot it down in the comments section.

Don't let a lack of funds impede your search
For students who live far from schools they are interested in, but who may not have the money for personal visits, start by visiting colleges in your area that are similar to your schools of choice. For example, see first-hand how a large, public campus differs from a small private school.

Try to visit every school you're considering before applying
Too often students will choose a college based on word of mouth or one that looks great on paper. But once they arrive, they immediately know it's a mistake (or the right one!). There are many aspects of campus life that you can't understand until you actually set foot on campus - such as the surrounding areas, the energy of the students and the quality of the facilities. By visiting beforehand, you'll assure that you apply only to colleges where you'd actually want to spend four years.

If it's Tuesday, it must be Boston
Don't fall into the trap of cramming too many college visits into a short period; the results are a far less productive trip and frazzled nerves. In the long run, a few well-designed visits are much more productive and provide both students and parents with a better sense of the school.

Plan ahead: Don't just show up
Before you pack your suitcase, call the school to find out when information sessions and tours are being offered. Once you arrive for your visit, register at the admissions office and make a note of who you met. If you do decide to apply, your visit will demonstrate your interest in the school to the office of admissions.

See the campus when it's alive with activity - warts and all
To get a true feel for a campus, you should try to experience it on a typical day - when classes are in session and the campus is abuzz with activity. Try not to visit on a weekend or during the school's spring break, if possible.

Sit down and stay awhile
Most colleges offer student-led tours, but there is only so much you can learn in an hour. Leave yourself enough time to check out what's not included on the tour − eat in the dining hall, visit the bookstore, check out the freshman dorms and sit in on a class. Give yourself as much time as possible just to hang out, soak up the atmosphere and talk with current students, particularly freshmen. If your schedule allows, arrange an overnight stay in a dorm with the help of the admissions office.

Be proactive
Ask the student tour guide (and other students) why they chose the school, what they like best about it, and what they would change. No question is too mundane - ask about the weather, find out about all the dorms and buildings, not just the brand-new facilities showcased on the tour. Ask to see or hear about things that are important to you, be it the recreational facilities, football stadium, labs, library or support services.

Off-campus life
Since much of the college experience exists outside classroom walls, students should take note of the school's immediate neighborhood and of the available amenities in close proximity to the campus - affordable restaurants, museums, movie theaters, concert halls, and shopping areas.

Listen to your teachers -- Take copious notes!
Since you will be visiting several different colleges during your road trip, be sure to take detailed notes and take photos. Make sure to spend some time on individual college Web sites before your visits. They provide a wealth of information and may prompt questions you can ask during your visit.

Do your downtime homework
Since you'll be in a confined environment with your parent(s) for a period of time (and they with you), research great local restaurants and tourist attractions in the area before your departure.

About WiseChoice
Launched in October 2009, WiseChoice features expert advice, scholarship information, personalized financial aid scenarios, school statistics, academic outlook and reviews by more than 100,000 surveyed college students. By matching students with the "best-fit" college options across all facets, WiseChoice aims to help students have a successful college experience both in and out of the classroom.

WiseChoice also helps parents and students figure out how to pay for college, identify scholarships and financial aid, and develop a payment plan. WiseChoice can calculate the true overall cost of college before students even apply to schools.

Follow Campus Overload all day, every day at http://washingtonpost.com/campus-overload.

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By Jenna Johnson  |  March 22, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Admissions , College Tour 10  | Tags: admissions  
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