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 Web sites and student-run blogs part of your regular reading, so you can learn about issues that the official tours don’t mention (e.g., budget cuts, athletic department scandals or hazing investigations). 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. You’re not getting the authentic college experience if you dine at the best restaurants in town, shop at overpriced boutiques and book direct flights. That’s not how most college students live. So 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 Web site 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 whom 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. Check out the Inn at Virginia Tech, the Boar’s Headresort or the Cavalier Inn at the University of Virginia, or the Mason Inn at George Mason University.
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.
Bag the souvenir T-shirt.
Believe me, college-branded T-shirts and sweatshirts are to high-school fashion what bar mitzvah T-shirts and sweatshirts were to middle-school fashion. Sure, everyone’s collecting and wearing them right now, but as soon as you graduate to the next level, your tastes will probably change. So rather than sink your money into a temporary wardrobe, minimize the campus bookstore shopping and opt to mark your trip in a more creative way.
Here’s an idea: Take a photo on each campus you visit — maybe posing with the school mascot or in front of a university sign or on the steps of the academic department where you want to study — and compile them into a Facebook photo album named “College Road Trip 2012.”
Tips for campus visits to some D.C. region colleges
Johnson covers higher education for The Washington Post’s Local staff. Visit her blog Campus Overload and follow her Twitter and Facebook.