ENTHUSIASTIC students — some of them volunteers, some paid — lead the campus tours. We had a lot of sophomore guides, who were all personable and adept at walking backward while reciting library hours, pointing at dormitories and waving to their friends. Be kind and warn your guide if he or she is about to collide with a tree.
Lehigh University President Greg Farrington went through the college admissions process with his son, and he's seen thousands of prospective students troop across Lehigh from the vantage of the president's house, a Gothic Revival mansion in the middle of the mountainside campus in Bethlehem, Pa.
"Wear comfortable shoes, and let your kids ask the questions," he says.
Some tour guides are more eloquent than others. The Yale guide was especially articulate, informative and amusing. The Brown duo kept up a cheerful patter of corny tour-guide jokes. The Wesleyan guide was less polished.
Try to corner your guide for a little one-on-one. Most will cheerfully provide a card or e-mail address so you can contact him or her later.
Campus tours provide great opportunities for people-watching. Because prospective students tend to cover the same schools in a given geographic area, you may recognize families from earlier tours at other campuses.
I got a kick out of observing the strong resemblance between parents and children: the miniature brunet mom and her 4-foot-10, dark-haired daughter; the tall, skinny dad in aviator shades and his lanky son in matching sunglasses; the perfectly coiffed woman in cashmere and her preppy son sporting a blue blazer.
Students bring life to a campus. If you visit a school when classes are not in session, you can't get a good feel for the place. The lovely green lawns and stately stone buildings at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., were deserted during spring break. My friend, Peggy, a persuasive attorney, charmed a janitor into unlocking a door and letting the girls peek into an administration building, but the place was lifeless.
Eat in the cafeteria and talk to students at the tables. Visit the student center. Read fliers on lampposts and hand-painted sheet banners suspended from windowsills. Try to see a dorm room. If you have the time, sit in on a class.
Lesson learned: Visit when school is in session.
YOU usually don't have to make reservations for a campus tour or info session. Check the school's website for schedules. Colleges generally offer hourlong tours and info sessions one after the other, mornings and afternoons, in the fall and spring. Plan enough time to check in beforehand at the admissions office so the school knows of your interest. This can weigh in an applicant's favor, many experts say.
In the same way that a sleepless night on a sagging mattress can taint your perception of a school, so can an admissions representative who is less than magnetic.
The girls didn't like the info session at Brown, where a university official lectured to nearly 200 of us sitting on hard wooden pews in a chapel. It was difficult for our daughters to divorce their reactions to this presentation from their assessments of the school.
On the flip side, they loved the personal approach of the Wesleyan seniors, who asked visiting students their names, hometowns and areas of interest at an informal session in a comfortable lounge.
Two types of people take notes during campus visits: freelance journalists on assignment and kids on a packaged tour.
Yes, you can pay other responsible adults to escort your teen on a weeklong tour of schools in whatever section of the country you choose. Your teen will make new friends and log a lot of hours on a bus.
Find escorted tours on the Web or ask other parents, college counselors and travel agents. Some private high schools offer their own trips.