Do you have to visit a college before you apply?
It's always better if you arrange a college tour and spend quality time at schools before finalizing your list, but financially it's not always possible.
There are things you can do, however, to help you assess whether a college would be a great match while at the same time letting a school know that you are interested.
[See which schools U.S. News visited on its College Road Trips.]
If a college visit isn't practical, here are 9 things you can do now:
1. Get on a college's mailing list. You can sign up by visiting a college's Web site. It's going to take less than a minute. Just as important, read the materials that you get in the mail.
2. Check out a school's financial aid page. Many colleges will discuss their financial aid policies on their admission pages. Some colleges will post sample financial aid packages that students of various incomes received. Schools will also often include a description of their available merit scholarships somewhere on their admission Web sites.
[Read 5 big financial aid lies.]
3. Check college blogs. It's not unusual to find colleges that feature student bloggers on their Web sites. You can learn a lot by checking out what these students are writing about their schools and their lives on campus.
The most helpful blogs will be the candid ones though there will naturally be some self-censorship on student blogs. My daughter Caitlin, for instance, resisted posting on her blog for Juniata College what she really thinks about the school's football team.
4. Spend time on a college's academic Web pages. Interested in biology? Check out the Web pages of the biology department or any other major that you're interested in at a college. Every academic major at a school should have its own Web home. The site should include the academic credentials of all the faculty and the descriptions of courses.
Ideally, the Web home should also tell you whether a department offers opportunities for undergraduate research, senior capstone projects and where students are getting jobs. On some physics department Web pages, for instance, I've seen names of recent graduates and where they are attending grad school or their employers. When visiting an academic Web site, try to get a sense of whether this is a dynamic department that is focused on helping undergraduates.
5. Meet with college reps locally. Just because a school is 2,000 miles away doesn't mean that you can't have a face-to-face chat with an admission rep. Many schools have representatives who live in different geographic areas. As you are developing your college list, check to see if reps for those schools will be in your area. Often these reps will attend college fairs, visit individual high schools, and conduct admission interviews at hotels or other venues.
6. Watch videos. Many schools now post video tours of their campus. You can get a feel for the look of a college or university just by turning on your computer.
7. Talk with current students and recent alumni. Even if you can't visit a school, you should still talk to current students. Contact any school that you are interested in and ask for the names of students or alumni who would be willing to talk about their school.
8. Check out a school on Facebook. A growing number of colleges now have a Facebook presence. You can find out a lot on a school's Facebook page. From my experience, however, students usually don't visit a school's Facebook page until they have already been accepted to the institution.
9. Read the campus newspaper. If you want to know the dirt on a school, spend time reading a university's newspaper. You can often find student newspapers online.