THE BLOG
04/14/2014 10:36 am ET Updated Jun 14, 2014

Top 5 College Visit Mistakes

Every year students and their parents will log countless hours in planes, trains, and automobiles visiting colleges and universities. The goal: finalize a list of institutions to which the student will apply come senior year. The cost of these trips can be high in terms of both money and time, so before you head out on your own journey, try to avoid these common college visit mistakes.

1. Not planning ahead

As noted above, you'll invest a lot in these visits, so try not to do them too spontaneously. The last thing you want to do is arrive to find that the campus is closed down for the Memorial Day holiday or that it is parents' weekend and all the local hotel rooms are booked.

Start with the schools' websites to get the times of the information sessions and tours. At some schools these are available every day, and all you will need to do is show up. Others will offer fewer options that require advanced registration. Planning to visit on a Sunday? Most schools don't do official programming on these days but may provide directions for a walking tour that you can download and print prior to arrival or follow on a smart phone.

2. Not making the most of the time on campus

While it's good to attend the officially sanctioned campus tour and information session, a great visit will also include things like eating a meal in a dining hall, sitting in on a class, meeting with a professor or a coach, walking around campus on your own, picking up a student newspaper, looking at the bulletin boards around you, and even interviewing if that is an on-campus option.

You won't be able to do many of these if you don't schedule them in advance (see mistake number one!). That can make it harder to know if this school is really a good choice for you, but it also means that you are missing some opportunities to impact your application in a positive way. A focused student with some clear academic goals might impress the department director in a one-on-one meeting, while a vocal class participant could prompt a professor to email a note of support to an admissions colleague.

3. Only visiting reach schools

For some reason, it's easy for students (and parents) to fall in love with the schools that are most likely to deny them admission. They spend all of their time focused on these unlikely options, commonly called reaches or stretches, and then ignore the schools that will be more eager to offer them places in the class.

Some schools track something called "demonstrated interest," which essentially means that they are paying attention to whether or not YOU are paying attention to them. While there are a variety of ways to demonstrate your interest in a school -- including attending local information sessions, interviewing with an alum and signing up for the mailing list -- none is more potent than the campus visit. Many colleges look closely at data that shows them very clearly that students who visit are much more likely to accept an offer of admission. So whatever you do, don't only reserve your visits for reach schools.

4. Not taking notes

After a few visits it can become difficult to discern what you liked about one school or disliked about another. I am amazed by how few students actually take notes either during or just after their visits. Unsurprisingly, they are often unable to articulate just what appealed to them or turned them off about a particular college.

There is a simple solution to this: keep track! With tablets and cell phones, it is a relatively easy thing to take notes and photos as you go. Not only will these help jog the memory later on, but they can also serve as a good basis for researching the specifics of an institution in preparation for writing the "why this college" essays that some schools require.

5. Not visiting at all

Mistake number three already outlines one of the potential downsides of not visiting. Here's another: as with some romantic partners, the college that most captivates you isn't necessarily the one that looks best on paper. The danger in waiting to visit until after acceptances have come in is that you have only applied to schools that looked like good fits based on internet research, guidebook reading, and the opinions of friends and family. You probably wouldn't choose your next boyfriend or girlfriend this way, so why do this with your college? While it may not be possible to visit every school to which you will apply, it's a good idea to see at least a few that have made your short list.