Year after year, the autumn season prompts the falling of leaves from trees, football season, and the start of the college admission process. As a part of this process, many student and their families (including myself) visit prospective colleges.
While informational tours offered by the admissions office can be helpful, they tend to get repetitive from college to college. These tours usually consist of a student volunteer walking backwards, showing a large group of prospective students and their parents around the college campus. Occasionally, they throw in random facts about the college and share some of their experiences there. Personally, I think knowing your way around campus tells you very little about the college and whether or not you like it or can see yourself there. Rather, I advise ditching the group tour and instead exploring the college on your own.
To start, go to the admissions office and ask for a map of the campus. Sometimes they have walking tour maps, which can be helpful too. The admissions office will also have informational materials about the college (i.e. average SAT/ACT scores and GPA of accepted class, list of majors, etc.) Be sure to pick up a copy of this info.
TIP: Whenever you're walking around the campus, make sure to closely observe your surroundings. Look at how happy the students look. People watch. Look out for posters or signs for events or clubs around the campus and see if they interest you.
Grab some of the student-published newspapers and magazines. These will give you a sense of what's going on in the college, and unlike booklets and pamphlets from the admissions office, their goals are not to lure you to the school.
Be sure to head down to a place with lots of students so you can "people watch," or observe the people around you. Try to imagine if you could "see yourself" at this college with these people. Some great examples of places to people watch are dining halls, the group study section of the library, or meeting places such as the student center.
TIP: Often if you ask in advance, they let prospective students dine for free in the dining halls. If this is not the case, you can eat in one of the "food court"-style restaurants which many college campuses have. Remember, however, the point of this step is not to actually eat, rather it is to observe the students around you. Since dining halls are always filled with students, they are the perfect place for this.
I've learned that the greatest way to get a student's perspective of the college is to talk to the students themselves! Talk to as many random students as possible. Don't be shy. This is a chance to ask ANY questions you have on your mind, such as how they like the college and how the dorms are. Ask a few different people the same questions and see how their answers vary. They have the inside scoop to all your questions. They will be more than willing to help you out -- many of them had the same concerns not too long ago. By talking to current students, you'll get a true sense of the college.
I highly recommend visiting your prospective colleges, as it will give you a better understanding of which college is right for you. By following my advice, you will be able to form a personal opinion of the colleges you visit.