By Jeff Greer

There's more to visiting a college than a campus tour. Meeting with an admissions counselor, attending information sessions, and following an upbeat tour guide around campus are all important aspects of your college trips. But there's an equally critical element for prospective students and parents: testing out the school on your own. Here are five ways to get more familiar with a prospective school:

1. Go to a dining hall or student union.

You can't exactly go sit in a dorm hallway, so the next best common place where students relax and hang out is the cafeteria or student center, where you can see what college kids are like in their natural habitat.

"Go to lunch in a cafeteria right at noon -- that's prime time," says Edward Walker, founder and consultant of Independent Consultants in Education (I.C.E.), a Boston-based consulting firm that helps underserved populations pursue educational opportunities. "That's one of the best places where you can get a genuine feel of a school's atmosphere."

2. Check out the local media.

There's probably at least one student publication -- a newspaper or a creative magazine or two -- in addition to a local newspaper. Get a copy of each one. Look for the events that the student newspaper is covering, and check out the opinion pages for the hot-button issues on campus.

"You can find out what sort of questions the community is asking," says Christine Pluta, the director of college counseling at Lycée Français de New York, a French-language school in Manhattan. "Colleges do an exceptional job of making everything look clean with neat edges. It's really hard to peek under it and see what's going on."

And there's an untapped resource in that local newspaper: the police blotter. Campus safety is a big issue when students consider schools, and the blotter and local sections can give you an inside look at crime on or near campus.

3. Sit in on a class or meet a professor.

A lot of high schoolers aren't sure what they want to study yet when they are visiting colleges, but familiarizing yourself with the academic atmosphere is key. Many schools will arrange ways to sit in on a class, but that usually means you'll be sent to a standout professor, experts say. Instead, come up with a few academic areas that you think you'd like to study and reach out to those departments.

"It can be really intimidating for a prospective student to sit in on a college class," says Lindsey Duerr, senior assistant director of admissions at the College of Wooster in Ohio. In the summer, professors will be "focusing on their research and doing things that they love, so they'll usually be happy to dish about their work and open up about the school."

4. Talk to students.

This is the most important thing, experts say. Chat with anyone walking around campus. Don't let mom and dad do it for you. In fact, Wheaton College (Mass.) Associate Director of Admissions Amy Cembor says to split up from your parents when you are walking around campus.

"Your parents can go off and talk to people, too, and then you can compare notes," says Cembor, the president-elect of the New England Association for College Admission Counseling. "Talk to multiple groups of students so you get a well-rounded picture."

5. Tour the community.

Whether the school is in the rolling countryside or in a city center, check out the off-campus area nearest the college. If there's time, tour some of the museums or other points of interest, and eat at a local restaurant.

"When you're in college, there are a lot of times when you'll be stressed out and overloaded with homework, clubs, organizations, and all that," says Randy Mills, associate director of college counseling at Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth, Texas. "You have to be able to escape. Exploring the community is so important."

And, Mills is quick to add, make sure the prospective student is doing the planning, from contacting admissions offices and professors to figuring out what they want to do around town while they are there.

"Your parents aren't going through this process, you are," Mills says."You need to make sure that you will be happy there."

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5 Ways to Get a Feel for a College on Your Own