Do you prefer a big school or a small school? An urban or a more traditional campus? The process of planning a college visit to all the schools you are interested in can be overwhelming. These are some tips to use in your search and make the process smoother so that you can find your home away from home.

Deciding on the perfect college for you takes time and a lot of research. StudentUniverse and College Coach give you the tips for an efficient and successful process on selecting a school and going on the ultimate long distance college visit.

A former faculty member at my alma mater once advised that high school students should “never visit” colleges. You’re too prone to be swayed by the weather, or the quality of the food in the cafeteria, or whether you thought the tour guide was cute. The best college search, he argued, would be conducted from a seat in front of the computer with careful notetaking, dispassionately and in excruciating detail.

To me, that argument is as silly as an argument that you should decide who you’ll marry based solely on their online dating profile. Part of the goal in the college search is to find a connection with a place, and much of that connection can’t be boiled down to statistical measures or departmental offerings. It’s found in the minutiae of a visit, the feel of a campus’s gathering space, and the vibe exuded by students, faculty, and community members. The goal in visiting a college is to try to see yourself there, and a big part of seeing yourself somewhere is going there in the first place.

I always recommend early high school students start their college visits with the schools just down the block. Draw a circle with a two-hour radius around your house and visit every school in that space. Get a sense for what you think about big schools, small schools, and everything in between. Pay little attention to selectivity at this stage. Identify what you like and don’t like in general terms. Zero in on the aspects of college that you find most appealing and develop an abstract sense of what your ideal college experience might be. Once you hit your junior year, it’s time to look beyond your hometown to institutions all over the country. Armed with an idea of what you want out of college, you’ll be ready to formulate a systematic visit plan.

Pick Your Top Three

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What are the three schools you’d most like to visit? Get yourself a customized Google map or bring out the paper charts and spread them out on the dining room table. Are your top three schools close together or scattered across the country? Are they in big, urban areas where you can find many other colleges nearby, or they in much more rural settings with few neighboring institutions?

The goal here isn’t for you to visit each of your top three schools on a single trip, unless they’re all in the same part of the country. Instead, I would advise you to use one of your top three schools as an anchor to get the most out of a college visit. If you’re about equally interested in Grinnell (Grinnell, IA), Boston University (Boston, MA), and Rice (Houston, TX), you’d be best off scheduling your first major visit around BU. The city of Boston has 70 institutions of higher education and there are many more within driving distance in communities like Worcester and Amherst, Massachusetts. A trip to Beantown could expose a burgeoning engineer to Olin or WPI; it could introduce a young scholar to Northeastern or Boston College; it could give a taste of the liberal arts to a confident young woman at Wellesley, Smith, or Mount Holyoke Colleges.

For a student still in the exploratory stage, it’s best to get somewhere that you can see four to six schools on a single trip: Grinnell is so far off the beaten path that it’ll take a couple of days just to see that one campus; Houston has very few institutions that are peer institutions of Rice. This doesn’t mean that you prefer BU to Grinnell or Rice, only that it’s the best anchor for your first big college trip.

Establish Your Schedule

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Before you start to dig into schools in the area, figure out how many days you have to devote to visits. Can you commit to just one weekday? If so, maybe a visit to Grinnell, with the long trip out and back, is a great use of your time. If you can commit to two or three days of visits, you’re in a great position to see up to six schools—maybe even more if you include institutions that accept weekend visitors—and you’ll want to hit a denser area with a greater number of schools. Having a vague sense of the time you can commit (include travel days and account for time zones!) will allow you to fill in all the gaps with scheduled tours, information sessions, and other activities.

Start Booking

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Begin booking your trips by visiting the admissions websites for your target school and other schools in the area that seem appealing. Write down their basic visit schedules on a sheet of paper. Do they offer tours and information sessions? How many per day? Is there an option to visit a class? Are interviews available for juniors? For seniors? You want to get a rough outline of a school’s visit offerings before you start booking trips. It might be best to call the school of greatest interest and be sure you devote the most time to them. Make it your first school on a given day, as your outlook is always more positive with a fresh pair of eyes and rested set of legs. Don’t schedule anything too soon after the last event finishes, as you may want to use time to connect with students or have a meal in the dining hall. It can be tempting to pack your visits tightly, but be careful not to overdo it. If you have questions, ask! Tell the visit coordinator that you’re trying to make an afternoon tour at a nearby college and you want to know if you’ll have enough time. Schools know you’re shopping around, and there’s nothing taboo about asking for their experience and advice in sketching out your plans. I promise you won’t offend them.

StudentUniverse can help you get there with cheap domestic flights and help you stay there with hotel deals in the area, so you can get a better feel for where you could be living for four years.

Important Note: I wouldn’t recommend visiting more than two schools in a day, and I think visiting more than seven in four days is going to be similarly overwhelming. You want to get a distinct impression of each school, you want time to be able to reflect on the experience, and you want to keep yourself from being mentally and physically exhausted. It’s better to see two schools in crystal clear light than to get only half an impression of three. Don’t worry, there’s always time to come back if you need to.

Take. Notes.

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If you visit four schools in two days, I can guarantee you that your impression of the schools will blend together. By the time your plane lands back home, you’ll have a hard time remembering which school was the Golden Eagles and which one offers the mandatory cooperative program. And which one had that gorgeous fountain?!

Get yourself a notebook that you can take along on your visits and, when appropriate, jot down your impressions. I would recommend asking similar questions at every school you visit so that you’re able to compare apples to apples. Want to know about undergraduate research opportunities? Make sure you ask all of the schools, not just the ones that bring it up. Want to know about recent campus controversies or important issues on campus? Probe for the same information everywhere, not just at schools that seem more socially or politically engaged. If you’re interested in study abroad, ask more than, “do you have study abroad?” The answer everywhere is yes. Now go out and get more specifics: For how long? Where? Is it compatible with my major? What kind of financial support is available? Dig!

Reflect

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When you’ve got some quiet time after your college visit has ended, maybe back in your hotel room or on the flight back home, create an entirely new set of notes for yourself. Now that your trip has ended, what stood out to you about each school? What did you learn about yourself that surprised you? How would you characterize the vibe at each institution and to what degree was it consistent with what you were expecting based on your pre-visit research? Notes about how you feel about each institution can be just as important as notes about academic programs, financial aid policies, and admissions deadlines, and they’ll go a long way towards helping you write your “Why College X?” essays and even making your final decision. This process is ultimately about you, your preferences, and your connection to the schools you’ve chosen to send your applications. Make sure, at every stage, you’re checking back in with yourself to see how your sense of the right college fit—and your sense of yourself—is changing.

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    About Ian Fisher

    Ian Fisher is a member of the college admissions team at College Coach, providing personalized college admissions consulting. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian was an admissions officer at Reed College. You can learn more about Ian by visiting his bio.