In my last column, I suggested that high school students applying to colleges can greatly benefit from visiting the schools they are thinking of attending. Though Web sites and college guides offer a wealth of information and should definitely be the first place students and parents investigate, nothing can compare with stepping foot on the campuses themselves: meeting the people, walking the halls, attending classes, getting the feel of the place.

Though some of the topics I discuss in this article might appear trivial, don't be fooled. Sometimes the smallest things can make the biggest difference. When it comes to the important decision of where to attend college, students need to weigh the pros and cons of each college carefully, paying close attention to all the details.

Food

Over the course of four years at college, students will eat approximately 2,940 meals away from home. So it seems wise to sample the food. When you visit, some schools will offer you free lunch passes, others will offer a free pass to the student but not to the parent, and some won't offer any passes at all. However, they nearly always will let you buy a meal ticket. Whether meals are free or $12, students should make an effort to eat at each school. Almost all colleges now hire catering companies to handle their meals, and these companies listen to the students' feedback, so college food is better than ever—though there are exceptions.

Most schools offer a vast array of menu choices, including fresh-baked cookies, fair-trade coffee, sushi, and vegetarian fare, as well as gluten-free, low-fat, diabetic, and organic options—not to mention foods from almost every country, and, of course, daily pizza! The majority of schools use a buffet-style system, offering an "eat whatever you want, however much you want" atmosphere, and most students enjoy this relaxed environment and the many choices available. Different meal plans (12 meals/wk and 16 meals/wk are most common) are complemented by "flex-dollars" that can be spent at the school's café, coffee shop, and market.

However, some schools are following a new trend: a declining balance system. Prices are put on each individual food item, and students' meal cards function as cash, with the total meal cost deducted from the card at each meal. Critics feel this "restaurant" format, which by nature draws attention to the high sticker price of most food items offered, may cause some students to skimp on their eating, or, in their concern over finances, to skip meals in an unhealthy manner. However, colleges are hoping for a better result: reports say this arrangement usually discourages mindless eating and needless waste. Declining balance systems do require somewhat careful choices and a modicum of restraint on the part of students, but to aid the students' money management efforts, the colleges often post charts that show the target amount that should be left on the card at any given point in the year.

The dining experience at colleges can vary widely. Some schools have only one crowded cafeteria to serve the entire student body, while others have themed dining areas in each dorm. Likewise, some dining halls offer meals at very limited times, while others are open for snacks and study 24 hours a day. Some will be conveniently located, while others will involve a strenuous uphill hike from classes every day.

Most schools, of course, fall somewhere in the middle of all these extremes, but on our own college tours, we have experienced dining in each of the above situations, and we are glad we did. Eating is a big part of life and can directly affect a student's health and spirits, so don't neglect to research (and hopefully taste) what colleges offer in the way of dining quality and convenience.

Dorms

Dormitory living is quite different from what most young people are used to in the way of home life, and colleges now offer several types of living situations. It is critical that students and parents fully understand and are comfortable with the dorm settings of the schools where students are applying.