Experts recommend doing as much comparison shopping as you can.

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Educational tour company EF Explore America takes high school students down the I-5 corridor through Seattle, Portland and Eugene as part of its five-day Pacific Northwest College Tour. Along the route, stops at colleges both large and small, public and private: Seattle University, the University of Washington, University of Puget Sound and Evergreen State College; Portland’s Lewis & Clark College, University of Portland, Reed College and Willamette University; and then down to Oregon State University and University of Oregon.

Sound exhausting? You can always visit campuses on your own, either formally or informally. Either way, experts recommend doing as much comparison shopping as you can.

“It’s never too early to set foot on a college campus,” says Emily Gallagher, the founder of Edge Academics & Athletics in Lake Forest Park. Yes, even freshmen and sophomores can hit the college circuit.

In contrast to the often restrictive, institutional setting of most high schools, campuses are often beautiful, inspirational places, Gallagher points out. When high schoolers see what they’re working toward, they’ll often realize “my freshman year matters,” Gallagher says.

Here is some advice for those who’d like to take a look before they leap.

Official campus tours

“We encourage students to sign up for an extended visit to experience what it is like to be a Redhawk for a day,” says Andrea Frangi, senior associate admissions director at Seattle University and president of Pacific Northwest Association of College Admission Counseling. “This can include a tour, class visit and even a meeting with a professor or advisor.”
In March, Seattle University’s Spring Preview Days host current high school sophomores and juniors, while prospective juniors, seniors and transfer students attend Fall Preview Days.

At the University of Washington, visiting students can select from a long list of classes to sit in on, from “Exploring the Moon” to “The Medieval World.”

Put community colleges on the itinerary, too. Seattle Central College offers drop-in, 50-minute tours and group tours for six or more people — along with an online virtual tour. Its formal information sessions cover the admissions process, financial aid, tuition, student activities and the various programs, degrees and certifications offered there.

Some trips come with surprising benefits: Seattle Pacific University offers a visit scholarship if a student visits through the admission office, totaling $500 for in-state students and $1,000 for out-of-state students.

Along with in-person and virtual tours, Central Washington University offers a self-guided tour brochure with more than 40 stops, including the campus rope course, stadium, student center and its academic departments.

The itinerary

Visiting a diverse selection of campuses is important, Gallagher says, both public and private. Even if students think they’re set on a public university, they may find a small private college surprisingly appealing — or discover opportunities such as “amazing first-generation student scholarships.”

Check out at least three very different schools, Gallagher suggests: a large state research institution, a college on an urban or suburban campus, and a smaller school in a small town. Whitman is a lot like the East Coast experience, she says: “A quintessential small-town that’s very cute, with its own campus.”

But feel free to visit as many as budget and schedule allots, she says. Attend with a friend or family member, or recruit others to attend a group session.

Touring smarter

Some things you can research in pajamas at home, such as population or admission requirements. But when on campus, “connect with the tour guides about their experiences, hear their stories, and concentrate on determining if you could feel at home, challenged to grow and comfortable,” Frangi says.

Suggestions from Gallagher include asking:

• If you had to make the decision to attend again, would you?
• If I had to choose between a competing school and your school, why should I attend here?
• What kind of help do you get while at school, as far as professional guidance?

If you are leaning toward a major, don’t be shy about requesting to sit in on specific classes or meet with a professor or the admissions department of that particular major.

“I wish that I got more questions about what the atmosphere on campus is like,” says UW senior Reem Sabha, 21, an economics major and official UW tour guide. “Is it competitive? Is it relaxed? Is it busy or quiet? What’s the learning environment like? I think this is one of the most crucial things to nail down about a university you are thinking about attending.

“I also wish that more of the students would ask questions during tours. It’s mostly the parents asking the questions — and they ask good ones — but I think that the students should also take more of an initiative to learn about each school they tour,” Sabha says. “After all, they’re the ones who will be spending the next four years there.”

If you are leaning toward a major, don’t be shy about requesting to sit in on specific classes or meet with a professor or the admissions department of that particular major.

Visiting a college can also help dispel assumptions. For example, Seattle University is sometimes thought of as a commuter school, Frangi notes, because it historically was. Now, more than 90 percent of first- and second-year students live at SU, with an “active and engaged campus community,” she says. That strong campus community is apparent with an in-person visit.

Overnight stays

Sleeping over at a college is a shrewd use of time, according to Gallagher, offering a chance to ask additional questions and get a good sense of the campus and its climate and culture.

At Evergreen State University (and most other schools), during formal overnight visits, high school students meet up with a current Evergreen student ambassador. “The ambassador helps the student get checked in to their own dorm room for the evening and then spends the next few hours with the prospective student showing them what life is like living on campus,” says Sara Fiksdal, Evergreen admissions counselor.

“They will have dinner in The Greenery, our campus dining hall, and then go to any campus events that may be happening that evening such as athletic events, comedy shows or movie nights,” she adds. “Often, students will explore our woods or head down to our beach or organic farm.”

Even if not staying over, to better understand the potential school, stick around after any basic tour. Sabha suggests eating on campus, checking out the libraries and looking at the off-campus areas near the college.

And after all the work of walking around campuses, overnight stays and classroom visits, the easy part is over. Now, you’ll just have to make a decision.