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How to get the most out of your college campus visit

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By Donna Krache

(CNN) — This spring, high school students and their parents will descend on college campuses, maps in hand, to see the sights and get a “feel” for the educational experience.

It’s exciting but overwhelming. What can you really know about a college after a walk through campus or an overnight stay?

CNN spoke with Peggy Hock, the director of college counseling at the Pinewood School in Los Altos Hills, California. Hock works with high school students and parents who are delving into the all-important college-decision process.

Hock says that she typically starts the college conversation with students by asking students to develop a vision for what they want in their college experience. She asks students to write down five things a college has to have to be a good place for them.

Then, she tells them to do some research into what colleges meet their criteria and plan to visit a short list of small and large schools that fit their vision. She recommends the College Board’s new “Big Future” site, especially for students who don’t have access to college counselors. The site’s “Find Colleges” section lets students indicate whether an aspect of the college is a “must have” or a “desirable” and matches those preferences to colleges that fit. Then, decide what colleges you’ll visit.

“It’s important to have some idea of why you are visiting that college,” Hock says.

If you have a counselor, she has something to say: Listen. She once had a student who narrowed down his college list to a few large universities in his home state of California. Based on what she knew about him, she suggested he check out another college – in Pennsylvania. He visited, and during a walk across campus, was stopped by a faculty member who asked whether he had any questions.

“These are my people!” the student told Hock. One year later, he’s a happy freshman at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.

Here are some tips from Hock for getting the most out of your college visit:

Plan accordingly

Work geographically, scheduling no more than two visits per day to different schools in the same area. Register for the campus tour in advance.

Take the official tour and attend the information session

Sure, you’ll get the canned speech, but you will also get some important facts about the college and its physical layout. And many times, some of your questions will be answered in these presentations.

Ask questions that can’t be answered by canned responses

You want to get as true a picture as possible of the academic and social culture of the place. Hock says that some of her students ask questions such as “How much do you study?” and “Have you ever gone to a professor for help?” A question such as “Do you find study groups helpful?” will give you some insight into whether a campus is competitive or cooperative. Ask your guide, “What did you do last weekend?” and “What surprised you most when you got here?” to get some authentic, first-person insights about living at and attending this university.

Pick up a copy of the campus paper

Hock says this is a great way to get a feel for the college community and to learn about the hot issues on campus.

Don’t base your impression of the campus on the guide, good or bad

Like everyone else, tour guides have bad days. “One tour guide does not define a college,” Hock says. She knows a student who went on a campus tour during the summer and was turned off because the guide gave the impression that it was a party school. The student returned for another visit when classes were in session, met some other students on campus and got an entirely different impression. The student is very happy at this university and glad she gave it a second chance.

Parents, show up and shut up

This one actually comes from some of Hock’s students. Yes, parents, you are paying for this, and probably making great sacrifices to do so. But if really you want to help your child become an adult, let him or her ask the questions. If you have pressing questions, e-mail them or ask the guide after the tour. There’s nothing worse than a parent at the front of the tour group, bombarding the guide with questions and monopolizing the talk.

Be observant and take notes

Look around and take it all in. Look at the postings and flyers in common areas. Write down those things that struck you about your visit, good or bad.

Compare your notes to your vision for your ideal college

What did the campus “feel” like? Hock says your intuitive feel for the campus is “highly credible” and should be a critical piece of information as you make your decision. Hock asks, “Did these feel like people you’d like to be friends with and live among for the next four years?”

Debrief

Talk about the experience and what you think of the college. Hock advises parents to let their student do the talking first, because some students are less likely to contradict their parents if they feel differently about a campus. Engage in a candid dialogue about the pros and cons of each place.

And one more thing: Hock reminds students that they shouldn’t skip a college visit. She even recommends an overnight stay on campus, even after you’re accepted. One of her students did just that after she learned she’d been accepted to her ideal college. An overnight stay made her realize that the party atmosphere and social life there made her uncomfortable, and she decided to attend another school.

Better learn now than suffer for four years or go through the process of applying again and transferring somewhere else.

“Attending a college you’ve never visited before is like a four-year-long blind date,” Hock says.

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