What to do • Call ahead: Tours usually are available year-round and don't always need reservations, but it's best to call ahead, especially if you seek interviews. Try to arrange an...

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A limited budget may make it difficult to visit schools. But experts say taking a campus tour may save you money in the long run.

As Doug Scrima, director of admissions at The Evergreen State College, puts it, especially in the case of going to a school outside the state, “I can’t say enough how much they should visit, because if they go and don’t like it, then it is going to be a far more expensive investment.

   Visiting colleges on the cheap

Ways to cut costs include:

• Narrow choices and visit only the top one or two on your list

• If your family is taking a vacation, include colleges among destinations

• Visit in-state schools with friends also considering them, splitting gas and hotel bills

If you can’t visit

While there’s no substitute for visiting, virtual tours may be of some use.

• Check the college’s Web site or www.campustours.com; a school may be able to send you a DVD or video as well.

• Better yet, check out some of the independently made, inexpensive videos that show the colleges, warts and all. One source: www.collegiatechoice.com

“It’s a lot like buying a car — you have to test-drive it.”

Here are experts’ suggestions on how to make the most out of your campus tours:

What to do

• Call ahead: Tours usually are available year-round and don’t always need reservations, but it’s best to call ahead, especially if you seek interviews. Try to arrange an overnight stay in a dorm, and sit in on a class or two.

• When to come: October is ideal; classes are in full swing and college students most likely are not yet worried about exams, so they have more time to talk with prospective students. Avoid mid- to late August, when admissions officers are busy with freshman orientations.

• Seek out students: Ask what they like most and least about the school, what they’d change, what campus is like on weekends, which professors are best. Good spots to chat: the student center, dining halls, athletic fields, dormitory lobbies.

• Seek out staff: In addition to talking to people in the admissions department about campus life, try to speak with a department head or faculty member if you have a particular interest in a subject, or with a particular coach if you are interested in that sport.

• Check bulletin boards. “If the bulletin boards are empty, that’s an indication that things are dead [on campus],” says Michael McKeon, Seattle University’s dean of admissions. “[Postings] may give you a sense of the diversity of the institution, of the political opinions, of the different groups.”

Pick up a copy of the campus newspaper for much the same reason.

• Hang out: Eat in the cafeteria, buy a cup of coffee on campus — and see how students interact. Watch how students use the library.

Visit the financial-aid office: Parents may wish to do this while students are on tours or at interviews.

• Get off campus: After all, you’re not going to spend all your time on campus.

• Send a thank-you note to all you met: It’s courteous and will leave a good impression.

What to ask

Aside from asking the most common questions — class size, whether classes are mostly taught by professors or teaching assistants, and the most popular majors — students might ask tour guides, admissions officers and others about:

• The interaction between students and faculty, and opportunities for remedial help, such as study sessions;

• Retention rate. Do students not return because they’re bored or because they can’t keep up with their schoolwork?

• Dorm life. Are there party dorms, international dorms, quiet dorms? Do many students live off campus? If so, why?

• Do students work primarily for grades? What are their attitudes toward learning?

• What are college’s shortcomings? What do students complain about most?

• What’s the biggest issue in local campus politics?

Sources: University Preparatory Academy; wiredscholar.com; Washington State University; Bishop Blanchet High School; University of Washington, The Evergreen State College; Seattle University