1. Start early: Simply put, the earlier you figure out what your goals are, the more time you have to work towards achieving them. While you don’t need to be wearing your favorite school’s onesie in the crib, it is not a bad idea — either early on in your high school career or even before you begin your freshman year — to lay out goals and devise a plan to put yourself in the best position to succeed. Moreover, visiting your dream school earlier on can give you motivation, as well as a better idea of what you need to do to make that dream a reality.
2. Sprinkle in visits: Taking a road trip and visiting a number of colleges in quick succession can be very helpful when comparing schools, but throwing in a visit when on vacation or visiting a relative out of town is efficient and can open your eyes to a school you might have otherwise overlooked.
3. Do your homework: Campus tours give you a great overview of a school, but the more you know going in, the better the questions you can ask directed at programs that would affect or interest you.
4. Explore Departments: If there’s a program or department that is of special interest to you, see if you can meet with a professor or sit in on a class. Not only will you get the best-possible understanding of the program, it shows the school a specific interest in that university and what it has to offer.
5. Stay over: Some schools offer programs where prospective students can stay on campus for a night and shadow a current student, or you might just happen to know someone who already goes to a school. Regardless, if you have the chance to see what an average day on campus is like; it can help you get a feel for whether that school might be a good fit for you.
6. Explore the area around campus: You won’t just be on campus for four years; you’ll also be in whatever town/city/countryside your school is in for four years. You want to be comfortable where you go to school, and you can’t feel comfortable if you don’t feel safe in your surroundings. Do some research about crime in the area around campus to make sure that you will feel safe and secure during your time there.
7. Talk to students: Your tour guide is a great resource, but you have to remember that they are: (1) a cherry-picked representation of students who love the school, and (2) on the school’s payroll. Sometimes asking a student on the sidewalk for directions, followed by one or two quick questions, can help you get a better feel for John and Jane Doe’s experience at a school.
8. Eat in the dining hall: Not only will you make sure you can stomach the food at school, the conversations you overhear in the dining hall might be the most realistic picture you can get of life on campus. Many schools allow people to buy individual meals in the dining hall, or you can ask someone in the admissions office.
9. Understand the Real Estate: Seemingly every school brags about its "excellent" student:faculty ratio, but not all of these are created equal (some schools count teaching assistants and even writing tutors as faculty). If that ratio is going to be an important factor in your decision, take the time when you are on campus to look into classrooms. If a school boasts a high ratio of faculty to students but every classroom is large enough to fit 100 students, then something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
10. Follow up: Talk to someone on campus? Write a thank-you note. Attend a meeting about a college? Write a thank-you note. Not only are thank-you notes the courteous response when someone helps you, they demonstrate interest in a college in a way that will stick out positively in the minds of admissions officers.
Photo: University of Chicago, "Harper Library," courtesy Rick Seidel, February 20, 2012, FlickrCC