When exploring colleges online and in guidebooks, it's hard to distinguish one from another. They all showcase beautiful, hand-picked images of their campuses. That's why college experts agree that to truly get a sense of what a prospective college is like, you should try to go on a campus visit if possible - at least for the schools that are near the top of your prospective list.

Keep these tips in mind to make the most of your campus tour time and to help you find the school that's right for you.

Don't rush

Although you could take a few college campus visits over one weekend, give each school ample time. Plan to spend a few hours on the campus tour, checking out the facilities, meeting with professors and students, and even having a meal in the cafeteria.

Be observant

See what kind of vibe you pick up. Do students look happy? Is the campus buzzing with activity? Are the buildings and grounds well maintained? Do faculty and staff seem approachable? Was there a visible presence of security measures?

Take notes

Because your college visits may be spread out, you might forget some of the details of each school by the time the application deadlines roll around. The best approach is to use the same format or rating system for each visit, that way you'll have an apples-to-apples comparison when your visits are complete. It could be as simple as keeping a list of likes and dislikes or as specific as rating different categories that are important to you (e.g., the size of the dorm rooms, the quality of the lab equipment, the study spaces).

Make your own viewbook

Take some photos and videos while you're making campus visits, that way you have a visual reminder of what you liked (or didn't) about a particular school to supplement your handwritten notes.

Ask smart questions

If you can look up the answer on the school website, it's probably not a good question. Instead, research the school beforehand so you can ask informed questions about things like internship programs and career resources, on-campus events, safety and security protocols (this one is for mom and dad), support services and more.

Make it a family affair

Since it's likely that mom and/or dad will be joining you on your college campus visits, have a discussion with them before you go about the attributes of your ideal college experience. That way, they can help you identify which schools seem to be the best matches. Parents can also help you get more out of campus visits by asking questions you might not have thought of.

Take a tour detour

You can start off with an official campus tour, but by all means, feel free to explore more. Ask to check out a class in session and a residence hall, for instance. Go exploring off campus in the nearby area to see what the surrounding town or city is like. It's also important to find out how students typically get around, what the public transportation system is like and what students do for fun.

Follow up

Ask about social media groups for prospective students during your campus visit. It's a great way to stay connected to other incoming freshmen, as well as a few upperclassmen who can answer any lingering questions you may have.

Plan a return

If you get close to college decision time and you're still torn between more than one school, you can request a second college campus visit to give you a more in-depth idea of what student life is really like. Some schools may even let you shadow a student for the day or spend a night in a dorm. Check in with your choice schools to see if they offer such immersive opportunities.

While it's not feasible to go on a college campus tour for every school on your list, if you can get to a couple that are within driving distance or at least your top two or three dream schools, it will help you narrow down your decision when the time comes.

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