DickinsonsmallThe college of your dreams may offer a virtual tour of its campus, but that is not a good substitute for visiting the school, walking around the quads, and meeting students who can give you first-hand information about campus life.

Visiting a college campus will give you the best picture of what it would be like to attend that school. You’ll be able to ask students questions, sample the food at the dining hall, and hopefully see what a dorm room looks like.

Spring vacation is one of the best times to see the colleges that are at the top of your list. And if you’re interested in several schools in one region, you can cluster your visits together to save time and money.

As you start to visit colleges, you’ll begin to discover what you like and don’t like in a campus, and what to look for on your tours. College visits are a key part of the applications process, and the sooner you start, the more informed you’ll be.

Here are five tips to help you maximize your college visits:

1. Visit when school is in session. Seeing and interacting with students on campus will give you a sense of what the student population is like. That won’t happen if you visit a school in the middle of summer, when there are no students around. Also, before visiting a college on a major holiday such as Columbus Day, make sure that the students aren’t on vacation that day.

2. Take the campus tour and attend the information session. You’ll be able to see what the layout of the college is like by taking the campus tour. This will also give you the opportunity to ask the student tour guide questions about what it’s like to attend the school. Make sure to also attend information session and sign in, which will demonstrate your interest in the school to the admissions’ office.

3. Visit the library. If the campus tour skips the library, venture out on your own to find the library and step inside. The library is where you’ll do a lot of your studying, so you need to make sure it’s a place where you can get work done without too many distractions. You should also check out whether you can access computers in the library.

4. Try the food. Be sure to stop by a dining hall and sample the food. If you’re a vegetarian or gluten-free, find out if the dining hall serves food that meets your dietary requirements. You’ll should also take notice of how students interact with one another in the dining hall, whether they’re talking, glued to their phones, or watching TV.

5. Venture into the neighborhood. Imagine yourself as a student at the school who wants to take a break from campus and visit the surrounding neighborhood. Are there coffee shops or pizza parlors within walking distance? Can you buy groceries or relax in a book store within a block or two?

Remember that visiting colleges outside your hometown takes a considerable amount of planning. And at popular schools, it may be difficult to arrange a campus visit because available spots at admissions events are often filled up.

That’s why you should sign up for your visit on the college’s admissions website several weeks before your scheduled trip. If you’re visiting during a popular time, such as spring break, you may need to sign up sooner than that. And while you’re on campus, don’t forget to take notes of everything you see, so you can compare schools when you complete your college tours.

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