05/09/2013 04:29 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2013

Visiting a College Campus in Summer (or Fall, or... )

Campus visits are a key part of college planning, even in the summer. Here's a quick review of the college visit ground rules, with a few special summer tweaks:

Call ahead Many colleges offer classes in the summer, so it's best to visit campus when those classes are in session to get a feel of what the college is really like -- just like fall and winter. Other colleges don't offer classes, but rent out their facilities for band camps and sports teams -- and it's best to avoid visits at those times. A quick call ahead to the admissions office will guide you to finding the right spot.

Take the campus tour The tour is important any time, but it's even more valuable in summer to let the colleges show you the places and programs they see as important, since some of these programs aren't in full operation in the summer. The campus tour gives you a sense of what the college values, and shows you things you might not think about seeing yourself; rely on their expertise.

Explore the campus on your own More than one student has wandered into the department of their intended major, only to find a professor more than happy to talk about classes, internships, and more. It's wise to call ahead to see if a department is taking appointments, but even if they aren't, go by and say hello; just be understanding if no one can talk with you. As you walk around campus, ask yourself, "Do I see myself being happy and challenged here?"

Ask about campus interviews Most campuses won't start interviewing until September, but some will schedule them for August. If you're on the campus, this is a perfect opportunity; if you're going in winter, ask about interviews, but don't expect one.

Bring your list of college questions At this point, there are four or five key qualities you're looking for in a college. Write those qualities or questions down, and make look for answers to your questions when you're touring this summer -- and if you don't see the answers, ask someone. Take this same list of questions to every campus visit.

Now that the ground rules are established, it's time to visit the big three questions of campus visits:

When's the best time to visit a college campus? The easy answer here is "whenever you can" -- it's better to visit sometime than never visit at all. Campuses are in full swing in October and February, so it's best to go then. On the other hand, if your family is vacationing this summer near a dream school, that's the best time to go, especially if the college is a long way from home, or senior year will just be crazy busy.

Open houses, or typical college day? Colleges put together special programs for visiting students where you'll have a better chance of talking with faculty, and be wowed with special events. On the other hand, visiting on an "average" Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday shows you what campus is really like on a day when academics are the main focus. Either one is good; I lean towards visiting on the typical day.

What about Admitted Students Day? This is a must. Even if you've seen the campus before, this is where you meet the students you may be spending the next four years with -- and that's what matters most. Once you're admitted, accept the invitation to come back to campus; if you can't afford to get there, call the college to see if they can help. It matters that much.