For Juniors: How to Visit a College

Hey there Class of '15 - Gary the College Guy here to talk about college visits.
Many of you will make some college visits next month, and I want to give you some ideas and thoughts to incorporate in to your planning. For those of you who haven't decided to visit some schools - you should. Whether you go far (which isn't necessary, as there are literally hundreds of schools in New England which will welcome you for a visit) or stay close to home, it's a good idea to get yourself on to some real college campuses.
I think that what's important at this stage of the game is NOT to try and see all the schools you think you're most interested in applying to, but rather to visit a sampling of different types of campuses so you can check out first hand what this college thing is all about. Heck, most juniors I've spoken to don't have a clue about where they want to apply yet, and that's fine.
Some of you may be planning to visit campuses over the summer. Well, if you must go ahead and do that, but understand that summer isn't really the best time to visit schools, At that time of year you're seeing a ghost town - the physical plant only. Unless it's a major University with a full blown summer session, those kids you see walking around will likely be high school (and younger) dudes attending summer sports and academic programs. So this upcoming April break is really your prime time for your junior visits. 
So let's start with the basics. Why visit colleges?
Believe it or not, it's a valid question. While most will tell you that college visits are of extreme importance, I'm not one of them. The mood you're in, the weather, the personality of the tour guide and whether or not you'd rather be home doing Calculus will all impact what you think about any given school you traipse around over a two/three hour time span than will the actual characteristics of the school!
But you should visit, and here's why:
You need to familiarize yourself with what a college/university is all about. 
Simple as that.
See, if you need to buy shoes or a coat next week, you pretty much have the process down cause you've done it before.
Well you need to "buy" a college - actually if you take my advice you need to select six to eight of 'em by next November 1st - and you've got, um, 2,400 last time I checked, to choose from.
So naturally it's a good idea to get yourself on to some real college campuses, so all of this mumbo jumbo about choosing colleges to apply to will start making sense.
So again let me emphasize that your visits for now are both PRELIMINARY and EXPLORATORY, so keep it mellow and don't feel you have to see every school you're going to apply to. You don't.
With this in mind, try to experience a variety of campuses. Schedule a visit to a small and a large school; an urban and a rural school; a state University and a private College. When you've seen different types you'll be in a better position to make judgments about all schools from the propaganda you'll receive from them, as well as information from books and off the internet.
So here's how you do it:
First, carefully read on each college's admissions web page what they have to say about visiting. Some will have you register on line, some want you to call, and others are casual and say to just show up. They'll tell you the days and times that tours and information sessions are held - you want to do both.
Some schools will be holding spring "open house" days - special visit days when they offer workshops, tours, classroom visits, etc. etc. These are fine to do but realize that the college is going to be all gussied up for you. A visit on a 'normal' spring day will let you see the school in a more natural setting.
Second, request an interview from admissions if one is offered. 
Now I know what many of you are thinking here - but don't be uptight when you hear the word 'interview'. Any sit down you have this early in the process will just be an INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEW, a chance for you to ask questions and to get practice in an interview setting. 
In fact, only a handful of colleges (the super-selective ones) require EVALUATIVE interviews anymore. And those that do will schedule them next fall and winter when you're a senior, AFTER you've applied. 
Nevertheless, I think it's great practice to take some interviews now for the experience of learning how to feel comfortable answering and asking questions. Think of 'em as dry runs - and don't sweat 'em!
Third, try to schedule a meeting or two with key faculty members who represent your area(s) of interests. Coaches, professors, theater directors, music or art instructors. Sometimes admissions will be willing to set you up with these meetings - other times you have to call directly to the specific department and let them know you're coming and request an audience. Don't be bashful - this is the college visitor's equivalent of a car buyer 'looking under the hood' (or kicking the tires!). Get me?
Bring a number of activity resumes with you to hand out during these face to face meetings. (If you've not met with me and want to see an example of what I'm referring to, get in touch).
Fourth: some colleges will allow (encourage) you to sit in on a class during your visit. Others will arrange overnights in their dorms and let you shadow a student. You'll read all about this on their admissions web pages. If you have the time, do this. You'll get a better idea of the school the more up close and personal you can get to current students and faculty. 
Last and perhaps most important, leave time (an hour!) for doing something I call going "FREE FALL" after the tour and interview. 
This is a time to SPLIT UP - student from parent, and also student from friend if you're visiting with a buddy - and go wandering around campus with a backpack so you look like, dare I say it, a college student. See when you're touring with your parents you look (and think) like a high school student touring with his/her parent. When you ditch the 'rents and wander, you blend right in!
Make it a game as you imagine yourself a student at this school. If someone mistakes you for a native and asks you for directions you get a point; if they ask where the happening party is tonight - five points! (If someone asks you for a date you win!!!   :) 
Find a comfy place to get some face time and hang out. Plan to meet your people back at the car or the admissions office in an hour or so.
The idea here is to get yourself AWAY from the comfort and familiarity of parents and friends, and to actually put yourself in the head set of thinking "could I see myself here as a student?!" I often hear from students that going 'free fall' was the best part of their visit - sometimes very groovy things happen! So leave time for this!!
To summarize I think every visit should include at a MINIMUM the above three components - TOUR, INFORMATION SESSION, and FREE FALL.
Other things you can try to arrange beforehand include:
sitting in on a class or two;
spending an overnight in a dorm;
meeting a coach or theater or band director (as befits your interests);
meeting up with a student you know who goes to the school.
Students and parents can call admissions to request help in setting any and all of these things up. Remember: all schools are businesses, and their objective is to get you to apply and choose them. Thus the friendly folks in the admissions office are there to convince you why you should go there, so use them to help you create what I call a "substantive" visit!
I recommend visiting no more than two schools/day. Don’t try to cram in too many - you’ll feel rushed and you’ll forget stuff. Plan on taking a minimum of 2 - 3 hours per campus. Bring a digital camera with you and take some shots on each campus to help you remember which place had the new library, and which had the awesome climbing wall.  
After the tour and info session/interview, go have lunch or a snack in the main cafeteria. Hang around in a populated area during a class break so you can see some action. And don't forget to pick up an issue of the campus newspaper and read it - lot's of good non-propaganda material in there to feast upon (letters to the editor, op ed columns).
Finally, have mom or dad drive the car after you visit while you take ten minutes and write down your specific thoughts, impressions, likes, dislikes, questions, etc. etc. about your experience. Trust me you'll appreciate having done this. After you've visited three campuses you're going to get them all confused with one another, so these notes can help!!!!
As always, feel free to check with me before your visits if you want suggestions or ideas for schools to go see, or questions you can ask during interviews, or help setting up meetings with professors, coaches, other faculty. That's why I'm here!
Okay, gas up the tank, pick out some good CDs (I'm currently revisiting my Counting Crows CDs - good driving AND college music!) and don't wear the jeans with the grass stains on 'em!
Go have fun!
From Gary, the College Guy!
P.S. If you find this email useful I'd appreciate it if you would forward it to others who might benefit from them - or send me email addresses of classmates and cronies and I'll add them to my list. If you like what I have to say enough to want to know what people actually pay me for in my role as a college and career advisor, give me a holler and I'll tell all.
P.P.S. If you'd rather not get these occasional missives, kindly let me know...and you won't.
Gary L. Canter
College Placement Services
210 St. John Street
Portland, Maine 04102
(207) 772-9711
College Placement Services provides high school students and their families assistance with all aspects of the college search, selection, application and financial aid process.