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Overwhelmed by the daunting task of finding the perfect college? A little homework will save your sanity.

KELSY TRUMBLE, an 18-year-old from Centreville, Virginia, will be the first in her family to attend college, so choosing a school was monumental for both her and her parents. “The whole process can be so daunting if you haven’t gone through it,” says her mother, Lex Trumble. Lex thought the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, would be the perfect school for Kelsy. But it wasn’t until Kelsy stepped foot on the campus that she agreed with her mom. “It’s like I fit in as soon as I got there,” Kelsy says. “It was just so perfect. Everything clicked.” She was admitted last December and plans to start there this fall. “She’s been 10 feet off the ground ever since,” says Lex.

This fall, a whole new class of high school seniors will embark on a journey filled with angst, excitement, and anticipation: trying to find a college that is not only a perfect fit but is likely to admit them as well. As they plow through college guides and surf the Internet to check out one website after another, there’s a central element that goes a long way toward helping a student discover which school is their best destination, and it’s called the college visit. “No student should enroll in a school that they have not visited,” says Lisa Sohmer, a member of the board of directors for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). “The way to touch it and feel it is not from a brochure,” adds John Boshoven, a counselor for continuing education at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and author of the book College Admissions: From Chaos to Control. A college visit can cue students in on everything from classes to the campus buildings to the surrounding town to the type of food served in the cafeteria.

College visits carry their own stresses, though, and can be overwhelming experiences for those who are embarking on them for the first time. Here’s how to make the most of your visits: