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If you — or your college-bound student — are contemplating post-secondary studies in the U.S., there's no better way to narrow down your list of schools than by visiting the prospective campuses in person. This calls for a U.S. college road trip!

There are nearly 4,000 schools offering undergraduate degree programs in the U.S. From sprawling universities to small liberal arts colleges, Division I sports schools and research-focused institutes, there’s a lot to choose from if you’re thinking of heading south of the border for a college degree.

Given the time, money and effort involved in applying to U.S. colleges, it’s worth narrowing your list to just your top picks (plus a few back-ups). And while your preliminary research is important, the best way to get to know a school is by visiting the campus. This way, you can see, feel and experience what life may be like at each school.

Here are five tips to make the most of your U.S. college road trip.

1. Group colleges geographically

While you may be looking at colleges from coast to coast, when creating your list of schools, sort them by area so you can determine which ones you can visit within one road trip (whether that’s three days, a week or longer). Keep in mind, you may not want to cram in 15 colleges within a 1-week trip — seeing too many within a short time may lead to campus fatigue and not give you an opportunity to fully appreciate your surroundings. Try to find a pace somewhere between efficient and leisurely to strike the perfect balance.

2. Book a campus tour

There’s nothing wrong with showing up at a college and doing a self-guided stroll through campus grounds, but an official tour can offer a great behind-the-scenes look at what life is really like as a student. Student guides are typically a wealth of information about classes, residences, dining halls and the social scene on campus and can answer the specific questions you have about the college. It’s a smart idea to book your tour at a time when school is in session, so you get a good feel for the day-to-day vibe of the campus and the students who go there.

Many schools also have open-house weekends, which may offer extra opportunities to explore the campus beyond a 90-minute tour. Taking a look at college websites well in advance of your intended road trip(s) can help you plan your route and your timetable.

3. Take advantage of extra opportunities

Many U.S. colleges offer additional experiences for prospective students, so it’s worth doing some research to see what’s available. There may be an opportunity to attend a class, meet with a professor or admissions officer, eat in a dining hall or even spend a night in a dorm. The more you can do to immerse yourself in student life in advance, the better prepared you will be to make your top choices.

4. Make time for exploring

There is more to college than the campus itself. The community that surrounds the college you attend will be your home for the next several years, and you want to make sure it’s a good fit for your tastes and lifestyle. Some colleges located in urban centres may have more cultural offerings. Schools in small towns or rural areas may have outdoorsy adventures best suited to a student seeking an active life. Making time to check out the neighbourhoods, restaurants, shops and other amenities will help you get familiar with the greater community.

5. Document your visits

If you’re booking many college visits within a tight timeframe, it’s possible that all the clock towers will start to blend together. It’s a good idea to take notes of each campus you visit, including unique details of each school that will help you remember both the facts and your initial impressions. Taking photos of your visits will also help you sort your list when you get home.

Whether you’re taking one U.S. college road trip or several throughout the months (or years) ahead of your post-secondary adventure, having a plan that allows you to not only see the campuses but also experience life as a student can help you fine-tune a manageable list of schools you’re keen to apply to.

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