It’s June, which means we’re coming up on peak college visit season. If you’re heading out to see colleges, here are some tips to get the most out of your visits. But first, some rules.

Rule #1 of college visits: If you’re a high school student checking out a college, sign up for an official visit. Not only will you learn more about the college, this also gets you into the college’s records as someone who’s interested. And even if they don’t spell it out as an admissions criterion, colleges care about demonstrated interest. The same goes if you’re checking schools out online: don’t just scroll through the site; instead, register for a virtual event, contact admissions with a question or just get on their email list.

Rule #2: It doesn’t matter which colleges you visit if you do your visits well. If you can’t travel to visit colleges, visit local colleges. Any college visit can help inform your selection process and give you better decision-making tools.

Rule #3: Remember why you’re visiting colleges in the first place: To find great fits– academic, social and financial– for your student. Finding the right fit can be the difference between graduating in four years and transferring and taking 5 or more years, or not graduating at all.

What’s a great fit? Review the Big Six elements of the college experience that drive success in life: they’re about relationships and experiences, not about locations or names. Ask yourself, “Is this an environment where I will engage with my peers, faculty and campus resources?” And ask the college how it promotes the types of engagement with the campus community and surroundings that drive lifelong success.

Now that we’ve established the ground rules, here are some suggestions.

First, your kids are never too young to do college tours. Taking young kids– say, elementary school or younger– to college events like football games or just walking around a beautiful campus are great ways to introduce the concept of college as something to look forward to. And middle schoolers or early high schoolers– those who haven’t yet formed strong opinions about specific colleges– will often find lenses through which to evaluate colleges more thoroughly, hopefully leading to better decision-making than just “my friends all want to go there” or “I want to be in a city.”

Visiting colleges your student is definitely not interested in can be helpful as well, because it’s an opportunity to think about what’s being offered, academically and socially, without trying to like it. My son realized, after visiting several smaller colleges with his soccer team, that he wanted to go to a big school with big sports events. My daughter fell in love with her school in part because each house (subgroups of students within a dorm) has a dedicated table in the dining hall, so there’s no drama around where and with whom you sit for lunch.

If you’re going to a specific area to look at a college, fill your schedule with multiple college visits, even if they’re not on your student’s list. Seeing a lot of options together tends to force things to stand out in order to be remembered. Not only that but my daughter’s favorite colleges, post-college tour, were ones that she didn’t want to go see when we were making plans. As in, you might have some insight into your kid that would be beneficial in their college search.

Colleges will highlight beautiful buildings and renowned faculty on campus tours. Here are some other things to ask about:

  • How do students make friends and find their people? Does the social live revolve around dorms, Greek life, off-campus activities, sports events, something else? What do students do for fun?
  • What role does the college see for social groups including fraternities and sororities? How do students find out about and join activities?
  • How easy or difficult is it to participate in whatever your student is into– intramural sports, theater, arts, service projects, faith-based communities? Does the college have opportunities for participation that meet your student where they are?
  • What opportunities does the college provide for interaction with faculty outside the classroom?
  • What percent of students work during the school year? Have paid internships or research projects during the summer? How do students find job or research opportunities?
  • What are the school’s policies around students having cars, living on- or off-campus, drug and alcohol use?
  • What support systems does the school have in place for students who are struggling, academically or otherwise?

When we did college tours, we asked two questions of every student tour guide:

  • Why did you choose this school?
  • What surprised you most after you got here?

The answers were really interesting. A pre-med student told us that other colleges treated science courses as weeders, but the college he chose talked about how they helped students succeed in difficult courses. A student attending a college with a lot of wealthy students was surprised at how often students ate out in restaurants, despite having meal plans in the dorms. One mentioned having a hard time playing intramural sports because he wasn’t in a fraternity.

You’ll find plenty of your own questions to ask, too!

And if you’d like a little help tracking schools, download my College Selection Worksheet.

Happy trails!