Many schools can meet your needs academically. I believe the greater challenge is in finding a school where you also feel comfortable. Once you have selected a handful (I would suggest three to five), it is critical to visit the campus. Every college in the country seems to have a viewbook with beautiful pictures of trees, buildings and smiling faces. Be assured that schools similar on paper may be very different when you spend time on campus.
Be honest with yourself - are you really going to attend "The College for "Intellectual Giants" 1,000 miles away without ever visiting? If you are unable, or unwilling, to visit a campus, that school should be immediately removed from your list. Why even consider a school that you will not have the time, energy, and/or money to visit? This would be like buying a house without ever seeing it!
I would suggest campus visits during your junior year, completing them early in the fall of your senior year. During your visit you should keep in mind the following objectives.
Visit At The Appropriate Time
Be sure to visit while school is in session. If you visit during a break or summer, you will not get a clear picture of what the college or university is really like. You also may miss out on many of the opportunities listed below.
Whether or not the school requires an interview, you should always set up a meeting with an admissions representative. This is an excellent opportunity to confirm that the school has the important characteristics you have outlined. If the admissions representative does his/her job effectively, you should leave the meeting with a clear picture of the school's strengths, weaknesses, goals and expectations.
Financial Aid Interview
Specifically request a financial aid appointment when you set up your visit. Some colleges or universities may have their admissions representatives handle this type of initial meeting. However, if possible, try to get at least a short meeting with a financial aid representative. You will be able to address specific questions about scholarships and financial aid forms at this time.
Ask in advance to attend a class in your major. Although classes vary, this will at least give you a sample of the class atmosphere. Keep in mind if the class is a general education requirement or a lower level course, chances are it will be larger than a 300 or 400 level class which is more focused for students within that major. If you're uncertain about your major, attend one of the general education requirement classes.
Schedule an appointment with a professor in your area of interest. This is where you can get more specific questions answered about your major including course requirements, placement rates, internships, co-ops, etc. Ask the questions that are most important to you.
View the academic buildings, dining hall(s), residence halls, library, athletic facilities, bookstore, administrative offices, student union and any other part of campus that is of interest. At smaller schools you will probably be able to see about every building on campus during your tour. Larger schools may have separate tours for different areas. This is a great opportunity for you to hear from a student and get some "inside" information. Get student opinions regarding professors, classes, social activities, residence halls, etc. Be sure to ask what they like least about the school as well.
Eat In The Dining Hall
Have at least one meal in the dining hall. This will give you an idea of the quality of food. While I would never recommend choosing one school over another just because of food, it is one more factor you may wish to consider.
I believe that an overnight stay can be extremely helpful. This will give you a more informal look at the college atmosphere. You will probably be staying with a student. This will provide an opportunity to ask questions in a less structured setting. You may be surprised how much a night on campus can sway your opinion - negatively or positively.
Open-House Versus Individual Visit
Both structured programs and individual visits have their advantages, and both are worth doing if time permits. Visiting a campus twice may be more feasible if you have narrowed down your options to just two or three schools. The advantage of an open house is that the school will have a schedule already established. The open house will probably be more "polished" and you may feel more comfortable with other prospective students present. The disadvantage of the open house format is that it is less focused on your specific concerns and interests. If your only visit to campus is for an open house, be sure that the appointments with admissions, financial aid, and faculty are still covered. If not, try to schedule time for these appointments before or after the open house, or plan a second visit to the campus if you're serious about the school.
As much as possible, follow the same process with each school you visit. Don't stay overnight at one school and not the other, or attend class at one and only speak with a professor at another. Having similar visits at each school provides a fair comparison.