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The college visit road trip—it’s a daunting task. Many families choose to opt out of it, and for good reason—college is already quite the expense, and a trip to visit campuses, even if it’s just a few local ones in your home state, can add up to a significant cost.

If you do decide to go on one of these trips, however, you’ve probably made a good investment. The fact that college itself is so expensive is one of the best reasons to be as sure as you can about your choice, and a trip to a few of your top choices can help.

Nonetheless, it can be an ordeal, and you’re going to want to make it as easy on yourself as possible.

How fleshed out should your college list be before you head off?

Planning your college visits can be something of a Catch-22. You want to know which schools are right for you, so you visit them. But you can’t possibly visit every college or university out there, so before you go, you have to have at least some idea of which schools you want to apply to.

Then there’s the risk of being disillusioned by every single choice. Well, that might be a bit melodramatic. But if you do all the work of narrowing down your college list and then go on half a dozen tours only to find out that none of the places you visited really struck your fancy, it can kind of seem like a waste of time. So should you go in blind? Or should you have your decisions almost made and simply look to the college visit to confirm it?

Neither of these extremes has to be the answer. You’ll learn valuable information, even if it’s disheartening at first, no matter which colleges you visit. Still, it’s smart to try and make the most of the time, money, and energy you spend.

There should be a healthy balance of uncertainty and stability in your college list before you embark. What that means is that you should have it narrowed down to an ideal number of schools—a number contingent on your own capacity and flexibility for making the trip—and include in that list at least one school that fits each, or most of, the following categories – the traditional reach-target-safety classification as well as “uncertain” schools.

How do you decide which schools to visit?

You’re probably familiar with the  reach-target-safety classification when it comes to creating your college list. Safety schools are those at which your profile is significantly stronger than that of the average admitted student, so you’re very likely to get in; target schools are those at which your profile is consistent with that of the average admit, so you have a strong chance of getting in, though it’s not guaranteed; reach schools are those at which your profile is less strong than that of the average admit, so you have only a small chance of getting in (extremely competitive universities, like those in the Ivy League, should be considered a reach by every student, no matter how qualified they may be).

Depending on your preference, you might not think it necessary to visit your safety schools. Or you might want to visit just to make sure you could really settle for something less than what you’d hoped for. It’s a good idea to visit target schools, because you want to familiarize yourself and make sure that you’ve set realistic expectations, both of your performance relative to the caliber of the school and of your degree of satisfaction with the choice.

You might also want to opt out of visiting most or all of your reach schools, because if they aren’t realistic, it might not make sense to spend time visiting them. This is especially true if they hold an “if I get in, there’s no way I’d go anywhere else” place in your heart. A college visit isn’t likely to change that opinion.

But it all depends on your personality. There was one school that I was obsessed with for the longest time, only to fall completely out of love with it the second I stepped onto its campus. I chose to visit it (a reach school for me) because I wanted to make sure I hadn’t idealized it too much. If you know you have a tendency toward idealizing, or toward being fickle, you might want to actually visit your reach school in order to touch back in with reality.

You should try to visit schools you aren’t sure about. There are two main types of schools I would recommend visiting that fall into this category: first, visit a school that’s right on the line between reach and target, because a visit may help you resolve your uncertainty, and second, a school you know very little about but still have an interest in, whether because of prestige, location, cost, or any number of reasons.A college visit is a time to learn, not just to watch a tour guide point at buildings. Don’t assume that every school could be a dark horse, but choose one or two that you feel you need more knowledge of that still meet your baseline standards.

Having this knowledge of a previously unknown school will expand your ways of thinking about college and grant you a little more flexibility in the decision-making process. Don’t go in rigid, but don’t go in blind. Go in confidently and with room to breathe.

What are you hoping to gain at each visit?

The answer to this question will be different for each school. If you don’t know very much about the institution, you’ll probably be looking for numbers and general information, like the average class size, the student to faculty ratio, and fun trivia like notable graduates and campus traditions.

If you’re more familiar with the school, and especially if it’s a school you have your heart set on, beware of confirmation bias. Don’t simply look for information to feed the perception you already have. Seek out contradicting or supplementary information that can give you a fuller view of what the school has to offer you. You’ll have to spend four years there, after all.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions regarding your personal interests. If the tour guide or another representative opens up the floor for questions (or even if they haven’t and the time seems appropriate), fire away.

Come prepared with the information you don’t have. This sounds contradictory, but before each visit do take the time to figure out what information is important to you. There are no stupid questions. If you want to know how long the classes typically are, ask. If you want to know what orientation week is like, you guessed it, ask. You traveled all the way to their campus for the sole purpose of getting information. They know that, and it’s their job to provide it. And as a prospective student, you’ll want to show them that you have a vested interest in what a collegiate career there would realistically look like.

Making the most of your trip

Obviously you want to get the most bang for your buck, especially because travel isn’t cheap. For my college road trip, we stayed at my aunt’s house on the way out and on the way back, so we only had to stay in a hotel for two out of the four nights of the journey.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a free bed on your route, try to plan it so that you can visit colleges in the same vicinity within a relatively close time period. For example, I visited the Hillsdale College, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University on the same day, stopped at Oberlin the next day, and made it to Cornell on the following.

You definitely don’t have to visit three schools in a day (in fact, it was almost impossible), but if you try to group the schools together, it can help not only with time and cost, but also with keeping the information together in your head.

Another thing you should be sure to do is carry a notebook, or at least take notes on your phone. It might sound like I’m trying to make you into the teacher’s pet before you’re even admitted, but I promise you, college visits can be so overwhelming that you’ll want a way to calmly look back at all the information once it’s all over and it comes time to make your decision.

The most important thing is, of course, to have a positive and open attitude. You are investing in learning about your potential future. Take it seriously, take it happily, and take it earnestly. Ask for help and information whenever possible. Make use of the internet, acquaintances, and even strangers. Make connections and even memories. And above all, have a good playlist if it’s going to be a long drive.

Sarah Chandler

Sarah Chandler is a junior at Cornell University studying Performing and Media Arts and Psychology.As much as she loves writing for CollegeVine, she'd rather be astral projecting or watching The Office. She has too much fun writing bios like these for her own good.