By Donna Krache, CNN
(CNN) – This spring, high school students and their parents will descend on college campuses, maps in hand, to see the sights and get a “feel” for the educational experience.
It’s exciting but overwhelming. What can you really know about a college after a walk through campus or an overnight stay?
CNN spoke with Peggy Hock, the director of college counseling at the Pinewood School in Los Altos Hills, California. Hock works with high school students and parents who are delving into the all-important college-decision process.
Hock says that she typically starts the college conversation with students by asking students to develop a vision for what they want in their college experience. She asks students to write down five things a college has to have to be a good place for them.
Then, she tells them to do some research into what colleges meet their criteria and plan to visit a short list of small and large schools that fit their vision. She recommends the College Board’s new “Big Future” site, especially for students who don’t have access to college counselors. The site’s “Find Colleges” section lets students indicate whether an aspect of the college is a “must have” or a “desirable” and matches those preferences to colleges that fit. Then, decide what colleges you’ll visit.
“It’s important to have some idea of why you are visiting that college,” Hock says.
If you have a counselor, she has something to say: Listen. She once had a student who narrowed down his college list to a few large universities in his home state of California. Based on what she knew about him, she suggested he check out another college - in Pennsylvania. He visited, and during a walk across campus, was stopped by a faculty member who asked whether he had any questions.
“These are my people!” the student told Hock. One year later, he’s a happy freshman at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.
Here are some tips from Hock for getting the most out of your college visit:
Work geographically, scheduling no more than two visits per day to different schools in the same area. Register for the campus tour in advance.
Take the official tour and attend the information session
Sure, you’ll get the canned speech, but you will also get some important facts about the college and its physical layout. And many times, some of your questions will be answered in these presentations.
Ask questions that can’t be answered by canned responses
You want to get as true a picture as possible of the academic and social culture of the place. Hock says that some of her students ask questions such as “How much do you study?” and “Have you ever gone to a professor for help?” A question such as “Do you find study groups helpful?” will give you some insight into whether a campus is competitive or cooperative. Ask your guide, “What did you do last weekend?” and “What surprised you most when you got here?” to get some authentic, first-person insights about living at and attending this university.