Summer is a perfect time for rising seniors to visit some colleges. You won't be alone – hosting summer visitors has been the norm at most U.S. colleges and universities for the past 20 years. The number of visitors will usually correlate with the size of the campus – the larger the school, the larger the information sessions and tour groups.

Most colleges will have a "visit us" feature on their website (usually in the Admissions section). If you have to reserve a place on a tour, you can do so online or by calling the Admissions office. If you show up without a reservation, will they let you visit? Of course! The whole point of the college visit – from their perspective -- is to inspire students to become applicants. You are a prospective customer so they will be happy to see you.

And from your perspective, the point of the visit is for you to visualize yourself on this campus. Do you think you'd enjoy being here for four years? Does it seem like a friendly, hospitable place?

A few do's and don't about visiting:

Don't try to see more than two colleges each day. If you try to see more, they will just blur in your memory. Better to see four schools in depth than simply skim over eight.

Do wear comfortable shoes.

Do bring a camera to help you remember significant things you see.

Don't just walk around on your own: go on the official tour and make sure to sign in or register so the school will have a record of your visit!

Sometimes the "information session" will take place before the tour, sometimes afterwards. This is the time for you (both parents and students) to ask questions about things like academic programs, weekend activities and dorm facilities.

Do ask about campus safety. Students don't like to ask this question during college visits or at information sessions – but parents often do. Nothing is more important to parents than the safety of our children. But it is a significant issue. Unfortunately, campus incidents in recent years, which have ranged from dorm fires to harassment and assault, mean that you need to know about the environment of the place where you might choose to live for four years. Colleges are obliged by law to reveal statistics about incidents on campus, and they will do their best to reassure you about the relative safety of their school.

Don't ask about what GPA or test scores are needed for admission. Admissions people will never allow themselves to be pinned down with an exact number; instead, discuss this with your college counselor.

After the official tour, go on your own, unofficial tour! Explore the campus in more depth, have a meal in the dining hall (assuming it is open), and talk to random students you meet to get their opinions about the school (make sure they are regular students, not there just for the summer).

More tips about what to look for:

  • Check out the college neighborhood. What is across the street from the main entrance? How close are shopping, the post office, a pharmacy, a movie theater, and coffee places?
  • Where do you go to get a bus or train home?
  • Is the campus clean and well-maintained? Is it free from graffiti?
  • Park yourself in a campus area that has a lot of foot traffic (e.g. in front of the library or dining hall). Do people seem happy? Do students seem pleased to see each other? Are faculty members interacting with students?
  • Is there construction going on? Building is usually a sign of a school's sound financial health. And summer is the best time for the renovation of existing buildings and the sprucing-up of landscaping. Don't be put off if you observe these busy activities.

Above all, assess your feelings after you leave a campus. If you enjoyed the visit, and were made to feel welcome, give it a star and when school resumes in September, talk to your college counselor about the realities of applying.

(A version of this post first appeared in this column in 2012)