Now that college students have returned from their beach breaks and campuses are back in full swing, it's time for families with high school students to break out the atlas for the annual ritual of spring break campus visits.

Campus visits can be expensive and time-consuming, so it is very important to make sure that each campus is critically evaluated before plans are made. The students I work with complete a "Fit Sheet" that requires them to do research. It examines what they like about the college and what they don't like and the last question is: "Is this college worthy of a campus visit?" Too many families just assume they'll visit the "usual suspects" and don't do any advance planning. When this happens, many find themselves disappointed with the results and then have little or no time to visit the colleges they should have seen in the first place.

What should you do before hitting the road?

*Know what you're looking for: Before heading out it makes sense for your high school student to be able to articulate the kind of college environment they believe will suit them best. They really need to know who they are so they have a better sense of what type of college represents a good fit for them.

College Board ( has the "College Matchmaker" feature that includes a database of 3,913 colleges; so every time a student responds to a question it narrows the field of appropriate colleges. In the end, it spits out a list of colleges to be considered. Be careful how you respond to some of the questions because responding "I want on-campus housing for all four years" will filter out probably 90 percent of possible colleges. My suggestion is to select "No Preference" unless what's being asked is very important to you.

Another assessment tool is the "Sizing Yourself Up" survey in the Fiske Guide to Colleges. It's a "college personality quiz" that focuses on size, location, academics and extracurricular activities. There's even a two-page analysis that guides you to types of colleges that fit your profile.

*Research colleges using online resources: There are some amazing websites with virtual tours, student videos and student reviews. Here are two of the best:

* -- Current students and recent alumni respond to the following questions: "What is the stereotype of students at your school? Is this stereotype accurate? What is your overall opinion of this school? Describe the students at your school. What are the most popular student activities/groups? Describe how your school looks to someone who's never seen it." Students who spend some time on this site, and read a variety of reviews, will walk away with insights into the colleges they are researching. Responses to the stereotypes question are invariably negative, but the reviews provide a good balance to the glossy college brochures.

* -- Great virtual tours of college campuses including interviews with students, administration, faculty, etc.

Many families complain that the college search process is overwhelming because there are too many resources available. Start with these two sites, or find ones you like better, and streamline your effort.


Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit