A visit to campus is the key step in figuring out which colleges fit each student. But what if the only time you can visit is summer, when students have taken off and most campuses are virtual ghost towns?

All is not lost. John Boshoven, a counselor at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., says teens and parents need to see five things on a college visit: students, faculty, admissions representatives, the campus itself and the surrounding town. Even in the summer, four of those things will be there.

Here’s how to ensure a successful trip:

Where to Go

Students should visit each college they are likely to apply to, says Boshoven, who belongs to the board of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Families usually tour several colleges in the same region during one trip.

He doesn’t recommend a specific number of visits. “The number really depends on how much time you have and how much money you want to spend,” Boshoven says.

Contact Admissions

It’s OK for you to reserve a hotel or contact an admissions secretary to sign up for a tour, but college consultant Kiersten Murphy says students should take the lead. “They need to show that they want this and they’re willing to do this, and they’re not just going to let Mom and Dad do everything for them,” she says.

She advises seeking help from the counselor who will process your student’s application – information available on many college websites. This shows your child’s interest in a school, which bolsters the case for an acceptance letter. She can e-mail or call the counselor, whichever is more comfortable.

The admissions office can warn about days prospective students should avoid campus. Murphy generally suggests saying away during the last weeks of August because almost everyone on campus will be preoccupied with the start of the next school year.

What to Do

Visits during the summer should be approached like any other, Boshoven says. That means making an appointment for a formal tour and speaking with all the right people. One advantage in the summer is that admissions representatives and tour guides may have more time for your family.

Beyond the tour, Murphy suggests exploring the campus on your own, eating lunch in a campus eatery and checking out the neighborhood around the college. “Observe the area surrounding the campus,” she says. “Is it too urban, too rural? Is it just right?”

Who to See

The counseling association lists several people your teen should speak to during a visit. Most are on campus during the summer, although they might be around less. The admissions office can connect you with them.

Here is Boshoven’s list of who to talk to and what to ask:

  • Admissions representative: Pose questions about applications, whether double or triple majors are possible or how students drop or add classes at the school. Your teen should bring a copy of his transcript and prepare to discuss his career goals and interest in the college.
  • Professor in your child’s intended major: Ask about research opportunities and internships for undergraduates, plus chances to explore specific areas of interest. Check out the department’s facilities and chat with faculty about their research.
  • Career center representative: Inquire about where students end up after they graduate, how many students are accepted into specific graduate programs and how graduates can use the school’s alumni network.
  • Coaches or leaders of groups your teen hopes to join: Find out what officials need to determine your teen’s eligibility. A football or tennis coach might need a game tape and a band director may request an audition tape. Sit in on a practice or explore the facilities.
  • Students: Your teen should ask students why they picked their college, what they love and hate about the school, and what they do on the weekends.

Finding Students

Talking with students is a big part of picking a school. Boshoven warns it’s hard to get a cross-section come summer, since students on campus then are probably working on projects or taking summer classes.

Murphy suggests reaching out individually to college students you see, like your tour guide, and asking your admissions counselor if a student in your child’s major is available. “If you do see some students, you can be bold and say, ‘Can I take you out to lunch or grab coffee?’ ” she says.

You might also find students staffing desks at the library or the student union. “Those students are probably bored, and they might be willing to talk to you,” Murphy says.

Go Back

Perhaps a summer campus visit will knock a college off the list. But if your student likes the college or remains undecided about it, another visit is in order come fall. Teens need a sense of how they will fit in with other students.

A summer visit can be a huge help toward making a decision, but students shouldn’t rely on them completely. “It is the starting place,” Murphy says. “It shouldn’t be the end.”