If time and distance allow, the process of visiting the colleges and universities you might want to attend after high school will involve multiple stops at several schools, with each visit starting off with a campus tour. Each round of college visits will help you narrow your search down until you have developed your personalized "short list" of schools that might be right for you.
When should you make your campus visits?
Plan your college visits so they happen as early and as often as possible. Talk with your parents about combining college visits with business trips, family gatherings, and vacations. See as many schools as possible early in your search. Even if a school does not appear on your list, but an opportunity for a college visit presents itself, spending time on its campus will give you valuable perspective for asking more-informed questions and making better decisions later in the process. Besides, the things you discover at a previously unknown college may impress you. More than a few students have chosen colleges that emerged from a random campus visit.
First, the "look/see visits" and campus tours
The look/see visit is your initial survey. Take a campus tour. Attend an information session. If the college is far from your home and an interview is offered, take it. You can learn a lot during the interview, and it might be difficult to get back to that school again. The purpose of this visit is to determine if you want to keep the college on your list. Visit as many colleges and take as many campus tours as possible. Resist the temptation to make emotional commitments right away. You may find yourself falling in love with a particular school, but there is much more to learn before you are ready to rule out other options. The best time to make these look/see campus visits is during your junior year or the summer prior to the start of your senior year.
Next, make the "investigative" college visits
When you have finished your look/see visits and narrowed down your list of prospective colleges to the really interesting schools, begin planning your second round of visits. The point of this set of college visits is to learn as much about the place as possible -- from the insider’s perspective. You want to achieve immersion, so make this round of campus visits when the schools are in session. Take another campus tour. Then become a student on that campus for 24 hours. Talk with students, meet with professors, and, if possible, stay overnight. Get inside the culture of the place -- especially those elements of campus life that are important to you (athletics, music, theater, volunteerism, etc.).
If the cost of attendance will be an issue, you and/or your parents should meet with a financial aid officer. During a college visit at this stage of your search, many financial aid officers will review costs with you and discuss sources and methods of payment.
Finally, the "time-to-buy" college visit
After visiting and investigating the schools on your list, it will be time to make some decisions and send out several applications. You will -- hopefully -- be accepted to several colleges, and it will be time to “buy.” If you stuck to the priorities you set as you looked for schools that were a "good fit," your buying decision may be relatively easy. Then again, you may have to rely on your gut feeling. Whether your "top choice" school accepted you or you are not quite sure yet, you may want to make a final campus visit or two. Attend programs for accepted students. Stay overnight -- again. Imagine yourself on the campus and in the classroom, the residence hall, and the dining hall. How does it all feel? In most cases, the decision will almost make itself.