Note: The information below was written with 4-year schools in mind, as this is where campus visits are often most crucial (you will have to live there and spend twice as much time as 2-year students, after all). Click the following links for more information on what you need to know about the campuses at 2-year schools and vocational/trade schools.
Getting the Most Out of Your Visit(s)
Alright, so you've seen the websites and the brochures and all the smiling, happy pictures the college has put out there to convince you it's the best. You've read up on the facts about the college, the classes it offers, the special perks it brags about. (And if you haven't done this yet, consider doing a little more research.) Now you're ready to put everything to the harsh test of reality by going to visit in person.
The good news is, a great deal of the campus visit process is self-explanatory, so if you're feeling confident, feel free to ignore this whole section and proceed. However, if you're a prospective student who'd like a little more clarity on how to make a visit that's worth your time, read on to find out what to look for, what to be aware of, and how to arrange the most productive type of visit for your purposes.
(Or, for a more informal take, you can also just go check out a current college student's advice on "How to Be the Perfect Prospie".)
Step 1: Decide Which Colleges to Visit
If you've got an unwieldy list of colleges and you're not willing or able to visit all of them, you'll have to start by cutting it down to final candidates. As above, researching the schools can help you disqualify some based on non-negotiable factors (such as 'too big/small', 'not right for my field of study', etc). Just make sure you know which factors really are the non-negotiable ones; for example, it can be a good idea to cross off schools that are 'too expensive', but if you're a good candidate for an academic or athletic scholarship these might still be worth a look.
If you do not have the money or time to visit far-off schools, skip down to the section on "Talking to School Representatives and Students". In the meantime, just be very confident in knowing that if you can't go visit a school, you don't have to discount it from your list of candidates, as there are many other ways to get a good idea for what the school would be like and what it can offer.
Step 2: Find Out What Types of Visits Are Offered
Some schools offer only scheduled guided tours, while others offer everything from class sit-ins and private appointments to overnight dorm stays. Just about every college has a website with an 'Admissions' or 'Prospective Student' section, so look into these to see what sorts of visits are offered, or call the admissions office to ask for your options.
If a school offers multiple types of visits, base your choice on what you'd actually like to learn about the school. For example, if you're most interested in getting good classes, definitely try for a sit-in of a class you're interested in. If you're worried that you won't feel comfortable on campus, consider an overnight stay to try it out as a living space and get a better idea of what the students' personalities are like. If you just want an overview of what the campus is like in general, a large-group tour should cover the bases just fine.
Step 3: Arrange a Time to Visit
When you're ready to go ahead with your visit, set up a time. Often visits will be offered only at pre-arranged times determined by the school (often in the spring), but depending on your type of visit and the level of formality, you may be able to stop by at just about any time during the year. The nice part is that you don't really have to worry about when your visit is scheduled, as the whole idea is to get an everyday slice of life.
However, do make sure that your decisions are ultimately based more on what the faculty/students are like and what the school has to offer than, say, how pretty the campus is or isn't on the particular day you see it, or whether you liked the particular student you were assigned to shadow. If you find yourself particularly excited or disappointed by something during your visit, take a moment to think over whether it would be a 'normal' thing during your time there (and feel free to ask a student or representative if you don't know). The goal is to avoid hating or loving a school based on factors that won't really be factors by the time you attend.
Step 4: Prepare a 'Must-Ask, Must-See' List
The best thing you can do before your visit is be ready with a list of the things that are important to you in a school and that you'd like to see/ask about in person, along with a list of any things particular to that school that you want to look into more.
Let's say, for instance, that you're an athlete looking to go into the medical field after you get your degree. Your general list of 'things that are important to me' could include a college's lab access and science faculty, its athletic facilities, and the general comfort of the campus — in other words, stuff you would want to get familiar with at every school you visit.
Your list of particular things, on the other hand, would be based on research you've done about a specific school before visiting. This might include an amazing sports complex you saw in a promotional video, a special internship opportunity they offer to undergraduate medical students, or a widely-published faculty member who had 20 years of experience in his field before becoming a college professor. The point of coming up with this list is to find what special perks one school has that others don't, and then to find out whether those perks are actually as good in person as they sound on paper. The better you can research for the 'special perks' part of the list, the better your questions will be on the big day and the more information you'll be able to get out of your visit.
Step 5: Talking to School Representatives and Students
Hands-down the most important part of your visit: TALK TO PEOPLE. Talk to lots of people, and lots of different types of people. Talk to anyone you can come up with a genuine question for, or just chat with anyone who's a part of the school to get a better idea of the campus' personality.
If you are on a guided tour, you will be led around by a guide who may be a student or may be another representative of the school; regardless, their job is to put the best face on everything the school has to offer, so if you're interested in learning what parts of campus life students hate, you usually won't get it from your guide. However, other students at the school are usually more than willing to offer their frank opinions, so try to catch them at a free time and (respectfully) ask them what they think. Likewise, if you get a chance to talk to faculty in the field you're interested in, take it. Just keep in mind that, as above, the more you've learned about the school before visiting the better your questions will be, and professors especially appreciate thoughtful questions that show you've already bothered to look into their department a little.
If, however, there is just not much opportunity to talk to people (or if you're highly interested in the school but can't actually schedule a visit in person), talk to an admissions representative about setting up a phone call or skype conversation. Start with your 'must-ask' stuff, then use the person-to-person time to ask after anything else that may be confusing or unclear about the school or its admissions process. Not all schools will be as accommodating in this department as others (some will help you contact current students, some will get you very personable and honest representatives, and some will give you nothing but an answering machine), but most will be willing to work with you if you are sincerely interested in the school. In any case, it never hurts to make the effort.
Secret Step 6: Discretion
The final thing to keep in mind is that your opinion-gathering mission is only half of the visit; at the same time, the people you meet are also going to be forming opinions about you. There are very few good ways to become memorable on a campus visit, so don't be the student that gets remembered for being obnoxious to the tour guide, or for getting black-out drunk on an overnight stay. You'd be surprised what can come back to bite you during the admissions process, so best guest behavior is advised.