Timing is key when planning your college visits. Of course you'll want to start looking at colleges sometime before you begin the application process, but how soon? Applications for most schools are due about a year before you would begin classes; you'll want to start visiting schools well before the application deadline, so that you're prepared to decide where to apply. For most high school students, this means starting to look at colleges during your junior year of high school, or even as early as the end of your sophomore year. During your senior year, you'll be knee-deep in the application process, so it's best to plan your visits before then. If you're going to do early decision (applying early and committing to a school), you'll need to begin even sooner.
Another part of timing is knowing when the best times to visit the campus are. If the point of a college visit is seeing if you'd like to go to school there, then you'll want to go when classes are in full swing to get the complete experience. It's important to pick a time when students are on campus, so go during the week when classes are in session. Of course, stopping by during a holiday break isn't a good idea either, because not many students will be on campus.
Other times to avoid include the first day of a new semester (when most classes will just be starting up), the last few days before a holiday break (when classes will likely be slowing down) and during finals (when students will be taking tests instead of attending regular classes). Also, don't go during the midst of a major sporting event, unless you want to encounter crowds, competition for parking and lodging, and the mass chaos that school pride can bring on game days.
The best times to visit are all about the middles -- the middle of the week, the middle of the semester, the middle of the day -- because it's during these times that you'll get a true sense of how the school functions on a day-to-day basis.
Now that you know when to visit, step two is scheduling your trip. What, did you expect you could just show up and walk around? Think again. In the next section, we'll discuss why organizing your time on campus helps you to head off problems, and how to schedule college visits.