There are so many ways to research colleges and universities these days, but experts say that there isn’t much that can replace attending a college campus in person. College visits allow students and their parents to get a “feel” for a campus — something that a website or view book might not always be able to fully capture.

Of course, you’ll likely only get to explore your prospective colleges for a few hours, so you want to be sure that you make the most of it. After all, you could potentially spend the next four years of your life there. Here are some strategies for making your college visit successful.

Budget for your trip

Costs can add up quickly when you’re visiting multiple campuses. Create a budget for the trips you’d like to take. Consider travel costs hotel and transportation as well as incidentals, like food at the student union or tickets to campus events. You might want to factor in some “fun” money too, in case you fall in love with the campus and want to buy some swag at the bookstore.

Go off the tour path

If you’re visiting during a designated open house weekend or are part of a group tour, stick around afterward to look around some more. Your guide might only focus on the newly renovated residence hall, while older ones might look a bit different. The same goes with classrooms and labs. Chances are they won’t all be state-of-the-art, so do some snooping. Taking the time to explore will help ensure that there are no surprises or disappointments later on.

Try to tour when classes are in session

To truly get a sense of the campus “vibe,” you’ll need to see students in action. Touring on weekends or during spring break or summer will give you only a glimpse of what life on campus is really like.

Look closely at your surroundings

Do students and staff look happy? Is the campus clean and safe? Do you get the sense that there is a vibrant campus life? Is it easy to get around? Create a checklist of campus features in advance so you can keep a tally of which campuses have the amenities that are important to you.

Do some investigation with your senses

Pick up the student newspaper to see what topics are of interest to current students. Pay attention to groups of students hanging around campus. Do they seem friendly and approachable? Take a whiff as you walk through the cafeteria. Are there healthy, appetizing choices?

Prepare questions in advance

Don’t just inquire about things that are easily found on the website. Ask the tour guide about their experiences for an insider’s take on the school. Some other good questions to consider:

  • What types of internships do students in your intended major get?
  • What do students do for fun on weekends?
  • What support services are available on campus if I’m having trouble in a class? Have a roommate issue? What if I’m not feeling well? Etc.
  • How’s the Wi-Fi?
  • What measures does the school take to ensure that students stay safe and secure?

Take pictures and jot down notes

Documenting your visit is important, especially if you plan to tour several campuses. After a while, they will blur together. Write down what you loved most, as well any concerns that you had. Take pictures to help you visualize your favorite and least favorite parts of campus once you return home. These photos may even help jog your memory when you’re completing your application or writing your admissions essay.

Check out the surrounding area

You should also spend time in the local community beyond the school gates, so you can see what the shopping, dining, recreation, and nightlife options are. This is especially key if you’ll be far from your hometown and don’t know the area. Are there amenities within walking or riding distance? If not, are there public transit options since you may not have a car at school?

Consider a second visit

Schedule a second visit to schools that accept you if you’re still undecided. Taking another look will refresh your memory and help you with your final decision.

As you plan your college visits, remember to think beyond the sales pitch that the school is offering. Really pay attention to how you feel while you’re there, and ask yourself it’s a place where you can envision spending your college years.