It's that time of year again, when thousands of parents pack their high-schoolers onto a plane or into the SUV and set off on trips across the nation to a half-dozen colleges or more, hoping to find that one special school that's the right fit. These visits are often the deciding factor for many juniors figuring out where to apply and for seniors picking where to enroll. And colleges know this. The admissions tours they offer are nothing more than a sales pitch — their last chance to nab you with a dazzling display of their offerings. But if you want a less choreographed, more authentic college road trip, here are my tips:
Quality, not quantity. I've known a lot of kids who have gone on epic college road trips, visiting two or three schools a day with Mom or Dad and spending thousands of dollars in the process. Trust me, you don't need to do that. If you're just starting your college search, the first thing you need to do is decide what type of school you're most interested in. If you are in a region with universities and colleges nearby, do a couple of day trips close to home before driving hundreds of miles or buying plane tickets. Lots of schools also offer virtual tours on their websites that can give you a feel for the place without your having to set foot on campus. If you're a little picky about where you visit, you can spend more time at the schools that truly interest you.
Plan ahead. You need to devote an hour or two to planning your visits. Waiting until the last minute might mean not getting an appointment at the admissions center. Plus, college-town hotels book up quickly — especially during graduation and before major games.
Research, research, research. Check out Twitter accounts and hashtags related to the university, its leaders or its student clubs for a less filtered look at what's happening on campus. Make student newspaper websites and student-run blogs part of your regular reading, so you can learn about issues that the official tours don't mention. And tap your social network for recommendations when setting your itinerary. Before I visit a campus, I always ask my Facebook friends and Twitter followers for suggestions, which is how I discovered the massive ice cream cones at Penn State's Berkey Creamery, the theatrical "Hahvahd Tour" at Harvard University and the Cheese Shop deli near the College of William & Mary.
Do it on a student budget. Pretend that you're already in college as you make travel plans (take the bus, not the train), search for cheap lunch spots (burrito cart trumps room service) and entertain yourself (pick the free lacrosse game, not the outlet malls). College towns are flush with free or nearly free events, including lectures, concerts, plays, gallery shows, movies, cultural festivals and sporting events. Check out the university website or student newspaper for ideas.
Ditch your parents. At least for a little bit. They won't be moving to college with you, so it's best to start operating independently now. They can use the time to explore on their own or bond with younger siblings they've dragged along.
Stay somewhere cool. If you know a current student, ask if you can crash in his or her dorm room, Greek house or off-campus apartment for the night. Nothing gives you a better feel for a campus than actually living there for a day or two. If that's not possible (and obviously parents can't make such arrangements), find a hotel, motel or bed-and-breakfast within walking distance of campus. Some universities even operate their own lodging, which is usually decorated in school colors and staffed by students.
Work out on-site. My favorite way to see a campus — and get a feel for how safe it is — is to go for an early-morning or late-evening jog through the grounds. Take a look at a campus map and pick a route that takes you through the most scenic spots, or drop in on an informal student running group. Another option is to buy a day pass to the rec center so you can swim, attend a yoga class taught by a student or even go rock climbing.
Avoid trouble. Don't go to parties. Don't drink if you're younger than 21. Don't do anything illegal. An easy way to blow your chance at getting into your dream school is to have your name show up on the police blotter.