Who doesn’t love a college brochure? Happy students studying on the quad on a sunny spring day, majestic ivy-covered libraries, and photogenic professors offer the promise of four meaningful years in academia. But it’s important to get beyond the marketing hype. The best way to do this is to get out of town and see for yourself what colleges are really like. Take some time this summer to explore schools that have the potential to be the best fit for YOU. But before you hit the road, let’s tackle some of the questions we hear most  from our students:

Are college visits really important? Can’t I learn everything I need to know from the website?

College visits are an extremely valuable tool for any student trying to find their best-fit college. Visits can help answer questions brochures never could–there isn’t a brochure in the world that can tell you if you’ll feel at home when you set foot on a campus. Dr. Sybil Gohari, founder of Admissions Company, notes: “While it may be tempting, it’s important not to form any lasting opinions about a college until you’ve visited the campus. Glossy brochures and websites are designed to look attractive, but touring a campus will give you a wealth of information you can only learn from first-hand experience.”

In addition, college visits can provide you with some more practical information that will help you decide what type of school is right for you. Are you an urbanite who prefers warm weather?  Then before you fall in love with a rural, New England college, you need to 

butterfly who loves the hum of a busy campus? Check it out during the school year, when you can observe the full range of extracurriculars. out during the school year, when you can observe the full range of extracurriculars.

Can these visits impact my chances of admission?

It’s possible. Colleges may gauge an applicant’s seriousness by gathering as many data points as possible, some of them beyond the application itself. One such data point is whether you’ve visited the campus and demonstrated that you’ve done your homework and are interested in attending their institution. All else being equal, an applicant who visits a college and is pleasant and collegial during the visit has a slight advantage over one who never visits or provides the college with a negative experience during her or his visit.

When should I visit?

Ideally, you should plan to visit during the regular academic year when you can get a more thorough and detailed perspective on campus life. But realistically speaking, the summer is often families’ only chance to get away. So when you go on a summer campus visit, remember that you may not get the whole picture. Try to supplement the tour with more information, such as conversations with students or alumni, particularly those who also attended your high school.

To make sure you’re getting the most out of the precious summer days you’ll spend on college visits, try not to pack too many colleges into a single road trip. Gohari offers the following rule of thumb: “If you’re only applying to five or fewer colleges, you may bundle all visits in one trip during the same week. If you’re applying to 10 or more schools – which is increasingly the trend – then our advice is to divide these into three to four trips. While this advice may seem counterintuitive, expensive and time-consuming, there is significant basis for it in truth. If you spend a week traveling and visiting seven schools, then by the fifth school, you’re likely to be physically and emotionally drained and lack the objectivity to have a worthwhile experience.” Think of it this way: if you’re tired, or distracted and worried about being late to your next tour, you’re robbing yourself of the opportunity to really get to know the school you’re currently visiting, which is the whole purpose in the first place.

Should I schedule a tour or explore the campus at my own pace?

Do both! Guided tours will provide you with a polished and selective view, highlighting the major points of interest on campus and answering some of the more frequently asked questions. This is your opportunity to check that box telling the college you’re interested in attending. Unguided tours are important because they can help you develop your own, unbiased perspective of the college. Remember that guided tours are usually given by students who love their school and want you to love it too. But you want to feel at ease and welcome, which is something you can only get a feel for while exploring the campus for yourself. On your own time, you may also be able to visit the athletic fields or science lab that really interests you, provided the building is open and accessible to the public.

What kinds of information should I be looking for while I’m on a tour?

A campus visit is most likely the one and only opportunity you will have to observe the physical, academic and social environment of a college and to determine if it’s a good fit for you. Use the opportunities during guided tours to ask questions in person. Quite often, the answer a tour guide will provide may be more relevant to you than the generic answer you’ll find on a website. Also pay attention to what others ask on the tour, because someone might ask a question you hadn’t even thought about.

Remember that a campus tour is similar to a college interview. Your words and actions count, so hold yourself to a high standard.

Are there any particular questions you recommend I ask while on a tour?

Gohari outlines Admissions Company’s three basic rules for questions on tours:

“First, don’t ask questions if the answer is on the website. You need to read the site before visiting. Second, don’t ask negative questions about a college’s reputation. You’ll never get an answer that is unbiased, and you will only stand out in a negative way. Finally, don’t engage in a debate if you don’t like the answer you hear. A campus tour is not a debate forum. Your tour guide is most likely a student who’s just doing her or his job.”