While making your college visits, hopefully during your junior year of high school, you should take advantage of the campus tour. The "official" tour is a fine way to get your bearings. The college's tour guides don't set out to purposefully deceive you, but they do tend to avoid unflattering topics and less attractive campus sites.
Not to imply that it's all smoke and mirrors, but a campus tour is a marketing tool for the school. The admissions office knows that showing you their good side is in their best interest. Every campus has its hot spots and its not-so-hot spots. You don't have to find them all during a campus visit, but you don't want to wait until you've signed on the dotted line to find out that there are aspects of campus life that just aren't palatable.
If things seem just a little too glossed over during the tour, use your powers of observation to dig out extra tidbits of information as you stroll around. You might have a guide who is willing to give you the full scoop during your college visit, but just in case, looking beyond the obvious may come in handy when it comes time to decide which school you most want to attend.
Use your campus visits to check the boards
Be sure you get a good look at the bulletin boards in the dorms and the student center. They are a treasure trove of information! Their frenzied chaos can clue you in on the types of personalities that roam about campus. Check out the posters, read the messages, and review the notices. They are all about student interests, campus activities, and community events. Do you enjoy poetry readings, or prefer to jam with your electric guitar? It's all there in black and white (and a few other colors as well). These are the subcultures, clubs, and activities that give life to the campus and won't be mentioned in the student catalog, so make sure to notice them during your campus visits.
Spend part of your campus visit in the student center
Most campus tours take pride in showing you their activity centers since they are often at the core of social and cultural events on campus. Some schools go all out to maintain student centers with bars, game rooms, study areas, workout facilities, restaurants, auditoriums, coffee houses, bike repair areas—even bowling alleys and gourmet ice cream shops! Look it all over carefully. If things look outdated or poorly maintained, what does that say about the school in general? If it seems like students are everywhere, laughing, eating, and having a good time, then that's probably a good sign that people want to hang out there. Since you'll probably be paying fees for this perk as part of your overall college costs, decide if you like what you see.
Use a college visit to get a feel for student style
Without being too obvious, of course, check out the students passing by. What are people wearing? What are they saying? If everyone looks and sounds like a well-dressed young Republican, ask yourself if you do, too. Your spiked Mohawk might seem out of place here...or perhaps your oxford and penny loafers are a perfect match. Most campuses will probably reflect some level of diversity, but some will be far more diverse than others. Use your college visits to get a handle on who's hanging out on each campus. Can you fit in or does the vibe make you feel like a fish out of water?
Whatever you do, don't just focus on your tour guide the entire time you're trekking around on your campus tour. The chances are that you'll enjoy the atmosphere that surrounds you when you tune your radar in to what's really going on. If you don't like what you see, maybe your list of prospective colleges should get shorter.