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How to Guarantee Your Teen Gets the Best College Tour

Checking out colleges in person is a pretty key part of the application process. Use these pro tips to get the most out of every campus visit.

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Record a memento

If a picture says 1,000 words, think of the volumes you'll get from a video. Molly Boegel, director of admissions programs and services at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, suggests taking a few minutes at the end of your campus visit to shoot a short video interview with your teen on your smartphone. "Ask them about their impression of the campus, of the people, of their sense for how this school might be a fit for them," Boegel says. "Recording impressions not only gives your student some good content to work with when writing college-specific essays, but also allows you to reflect back on their demeanor, their mood, and your impression of their level of comfort and general happiness while at that school."

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Connect with friends (or friends of friends) on campus

Better than any tour guide, these are the people who will be able to show you around campus in the most comprehensive way, says Lily Calcagnini, a writer with CollegeVine, whose services include one-on-one mentoring, college application guidance, college essay assistance, tutoring, and test prep. "Not only will they be able to point you towards lecture halls and the cafeteria, but also the less noteworthy buildings that would be a part of your daily routine were you to attend the school. Ask to see a dorm, the student gym, or the inside of a seminar room," she says. Eat at the dining hall if you can—some schools provide free meals to visiting students (just ask the admissions office). And consider spending an overnight in a dorm if possible, to get a glimpse of the social life. "It can be particularly important for getting a sense of the school's social scene and vibe outside of academics," Maschal says.

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Add sports to the equation

"If you're a sports player, meet with a coach," suggests Dr. Aviva Legatt, a college consultant with VivED Consulting LLC in Philadelphia and a faculty member at University of Pennsylvania in Organizational Dynamics. "For example, one of my students is a golfer, and he met with the Cornell golf coach, hoping to be a walk-on in the 2017-2018 academic year. Without that visit, my student would not have known that Cornell actually recruits only 50 percent of its golfers, while 50 percent are walk-ons. The coach spent one hour with him. While we don't know the final admissions results yet, this personal connection certainly helped my student make a strong impression, and possibly find a home in Cornell's golf program next year," she says.

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Visit during a typical day

Visit when classes are in session and students are on campus, suggests Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Cappex.com, a free website about college admissions and financial aid. "The main difference between colleges is not in the faculty or the facilities, but in the students," he says. "More of the learning occurs in informal settings working on problem sets and studying with your peers, not sitting in a classroom listening to lectures. You can get a better feel for the campus culture by hanging out with current students."

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Explore the town

College visits can be stressful, so try to make it fun, says Legatt. "Go up a day early if you can or stay a day later to see the surrounding area. Or at least find a cool restaurant or museum to visit while you're there," she advises. Take the time to explore what could be a "home away from home" for four years of your life.

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Check out the bulletin boards in the Student Center

It may seem out-of-date in today's social media world, but Calcagnini says this is a great way to get a sense of the pulse of the entire student body fairly quickly and without moving a muscle. "You can tell a lot about what the students care about by reading the bulletin boards. At most schools, students themselves put up posters for their organizations and events, and the turnover is pretty quick. While you're there, take note of anything going on during your stay, and plan to check it out if possible," she says. For example, seek out a student-run theater production, concert, art show, or sports game. "You'll get a feel for what opportunities await you," Calcagnini says. "Not to mention, you'll be able to tell instantly from the attendance whether the student body at a particular college cares about what you care about too."

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Check in with the Admissions Office

If you're serious enough about a college to visit it, make sure the admissions office knows you have been there. "This is important," says Chris Hooker-Haring, vice president of enrollment management at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. "Many colleges track student interest, and a campus visit to do first-hand exploration is a strong indicator of serious interest." Obviously if the Admissions Office doesn't know you've been there, you don't get that extra credit. So call or e-mail to schedule your visit through the Admissions Office, Hooker-Haring advises, and fill out the card or brief form they will ask you to complete when you arrive. "That will give them a record of you having been there," he says.

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