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College Game Plan

Make the Most of Your College Campus Tours With These 10 Tips

Visiting colleges with your high school student can be an exciting first step into the next phase of their life — or it can be a logistical nightmare, full of wasted time and money. While the impulse might be to grab your kid, jump into the car and start touring schools, a bit of planning can go a long way toward making it a valuable trip.

Here are ten tips on how to get the most out of your college campus tours:

Check the admissions section of each college’s website first.

Every college is different, but many require or offer options that you will want to register for. Many colleges have sign-ups rather than drop-ins for tours and/or information sessions. Some colleges have separate tours for engineering schools or other specialty programs. If your student wants to meet with a professor, coach or admissions or financial aid officers, those arrangements need to be made in advance. If your student wants to have an overnight stay with a current student, sign up for this option early. At some of the most popular colleges tours book up and dates are quickly filled so check well in advance.

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Make your visit count.

Some colleges take note of students' visits, and others do not. When signing up for a tour, explore whether a college has the option for on-campus interviews for your teen (if she is ready) and if a student’s visit is recorded in any way that may impact an admissions decision.

Take notes — and photos.

If your teen is looking at a number of colleges, the visits will begin to blur. Colleges say many of the same things and by the time college lists need to be made, it can be easy to forget some impressions from the trip. Suggest that your student write a few notes and take a few photos, in his phone or in a notebook, about things that stood out in his mind on the visit. This will be useful later when selecting which colleges to apply to. Many colleges ask on their applications why a student wants to attend that particular university. Here is when those notes and impressions will be useful.

UCLA campus tour guide Samantha St. Germain leads prospective college-bound high school seniors on a campus tour in Los Angeles on Feb. 26, 2015. Damian Dovarganes / AP file

Look at a school's stats first.

Dr. Roger Martin, a retired college president, former Harvard dean and author of Off to College: A Guide for Parents suggests students take the time to look at some of the highly relevant statistics surrounding a college. He suggests that students take note of graduation rate, freshmen retention, post-graduate employment and whether professors (as opposed to adjuncts) are actually teaching most of the courses.

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Let your kid do some of this alone.

While it is great to share the college process with our teens, visiting campuses without us is an entirely different experience. Your high school student will see and experience different things on a campus without you. So if that means letting them visit or revisit a campus with a friend rather than their parent, or just separating for the official tour, let them explore on their own.

Get off the beaten track.

Dr. Martin suggests that if students really want to know a college, they stray from just going to the information session and taking the tour. He suggests they visit classes, eat in in the dining hall and check out extracurriculars or interest groups that they might want to affiliate with. If students have any special needs, like learning or physical disabilities, for example, he urges them to dig deeper and check out the additional resources a college provides. If these offices are too busy or understaffed to meet a student, that is an important piece of information.

Get a sense of the school, and gather more facts later.

College websites are replete with information about their institutions, so do not worry if your student does not get all of her factual questions answered during the campus visit. It is more important that she come away with a strong sense of the college ethos and the types of students it attracts. Later on, students can probe the college's common data set, admissions blog (if there is one), student newspaper and email questions to the admission office on any information they cannot find.

Talk after the tour.

After a college visit, let your student share his or her impressions. Each visit is a chance to change and refine your student’s plans for future campus visits, and ultimately their college list. If you have planned to visit many urban campuses and begin to hear that your student is more attracted to quieter settings, this is a chance for a mid-course correction and finding new colleges to explore.

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Don't fret about visiting every school.

It may not be financially or logistically possible to visit every school in which your teen is interested. With the amount of information available online, it is far from necessary that they see every campus before they put in an application. Triage your students and try to visit schools in which they have the most interest and where the colleges emphasize the importance of a visit in the application process. Guidance counselors are often aware of which colleges value campus visits the most.

Look into Instant Decision Days.

A number of schools have something called Instant Decision Days. While this option is not widely broadcast if your student checks the admissions section of the college website they can find out if this option is available. By arranging to visit on an ID Day a student can explore a college, have an interview and be admitted — all on the same day.

Lisa Heffernan is a cofounder of Grown and Flown, a site for parents of 15 to 25-year-olds.