The best way to really get the scoop on campus life while making your college visits is to talk to the students who live there.

Want to know a not-so-secret secret? The best way to really get the scoop on campus life while making your college visits is to talk to the students who live there. The guide leading your campus tour probably won’t be setting up focus groups to accomplish this, so after the tour, try making a little small talk. Perhaps someone's comment or question during the tour will provide a good topic to pursue. Or, since the campus tour has ended and your guide is no longer working from a script, you might get a chance to talk about some things other than what the Admissions Office thought was important to cover during campus visits. If you’re not the assertive type, this could be hard, but if you’ve got some extra time and a little chutzpah, you might be able to draw someone into a conversation.

Food should be an important part of any campus visit

If the majority of the food you are going to eat for the next four years is going to be served on campus, take time during each college visit to grab a bite to eat in one of the school’s dining halls. While you’re chewing away among the locals—though it is better if you do it after you swallow—initiate small talk with some of the people sitting near you. Let them know you’re touring the school and see if they’re willing to give you their perspective on things. Everyone’s opinion is different, so they may not provide a black and white answer to what classes are like, or whether the professors are really tough. What they probably will be able to tell you is what people do on Friday nights, how wild things get on the weekends, how much privacy you have in the dorms, the fastest way to get to your classes, and where you can grab the best burger in town—all things that are vital information for an incoming freshman.

Even if you strike out on the conversation front, you’ll at least be able to use this part of your campus visit to test the school's cuisine. There’s a lot you’ll be able to tell from that experience alone, such as how clean things are, how much food is available, how varied it is, and of course, whether or not it tastes good. You can determine if there are healthy things to choose from, or if the school offers food for those with alternative diets, such as vegetarians or vegans. Check to see if the hours are posted—many cafeterias close the serving areas but leave the dining rooms open all the time to serve double-duty as study areas.

While at a college, visit its hub

For good place to talk to the locals while you're on a campus, visit the Campus Center/Student Union/Commons. This is usually a hub of campus activity and a favorite hangout for students—after all, there is usually some form of food and drink available. Pick up a coffee and strike up a conversation. Or stand next to someone at one of the bulletin boards and ask them about one of the posters or announcements. You probably won't be interrupting any of the other person's really deep though processes, and the ensuing conversation could be very enlightening. If your chat gets off to a good start and you establish a good rapport, you may also be able to find a tactful way to ask about some tough topics, such as drug use on campus, partying, dating rituals, drinking, and anything else that may affect your life as a student.

Don't be afraid to tell the students you meet that you are making college visits and you really appreciate their input. They might be flattered that someone is interested in their opinion. Tell them you took the campus tour and are now looking for the view from the trenches. Remember—everyone was a newbie once. Most people you run into will probably be happy to share their experiences and opinions with you.