Campus visits are an important component to making your graduate school program decisions. Just when you decide to visit is up to you, but the most crucial point of visitations is to get your own perspective on what you can expect from certain graduate schools. You can visit graduate schools: before applying, after applying, or before enrollment. It's never too early, and it's never too late.
Appointments: Before hopping in the car or on a plane, it is important that you pick up the telephone and call the graduate advisor or faculty recruiter to set up an appointment. Specify that while you are there you would like to talk to at least one faculty member in the department to which you are applying. Your visit will be much more productive if you have an appointment. You will get to talk to the faculty, and they will not be frustrated by someone unexpectedly showing up on their doorstep and wanting time and attention.
Reimbursement: You might also ask if they will reimburse you for travel expenses. This is a typical request, but responses will vary; some schools will decline to give you anything, others may offer you a place to stay, or some may pay for everything if they have the money and feel you are an excellent candidate.
Investigate: Prowl around the surroundings. Walk around the school campus. Check out the facilities (laboratories, library, etc.) Walk through the town, city, or local community. Buy a newspaper and check the rental and real estate listings. Try to get a sense of the cost of living and what there is to do in the area. Take any free piece of information that isn't nailed down. Overall try to get a sense of the place and decide if you would like to spend the time there that it will take to earn your degree.
Typically the two primary goals in visiting before applying are to gather extra information about the school and the area and to make a good impression on faculty and advisors. Your agenda for this visit is to talk to just about everyone who is willing to talk to you.
Faculty: Your first priority should be to talk to whichever faculty members are available. This will provide you with an opportunity to interact with them and see if they are accessible. It is helpful if you have prepared questions in advance. When preparing, try to find questions to acquire information that is not already provided in the materials you have; this shows serious thought and your genuine interest in the program. Visiting with professors allows you to impress the faculty with your enthusiasm and dedication to your studies. Be prepared to discuss your research interests, your past experience, your future plans, etc. You have a chance to set yourself apart in the eyes of the people you meet and possibly gain support when your application is being reviewed. Take advantage of it!
Graduate advisor: This person should have a wealth of information of the sort that you as a prospective graduate student would want. One of the things you want to make sure to discuss are your chances for financial aid. Often you will get a better sense of this from talking to the graduate advisor than you would from the program's written materials. (Which only makes sense as the books are written for a general audience, and the graduate advisor will be speaking with you as an individual.)
Students: Wander the building. Explore the labs. Search the library. Talk! Seriously, it is important to get as much information as possible, and talking to other graduate students may give you a more candid picture of the school than you would gain by talking only to faculty. Ask students about the professors: are they accessible? Are they easy to work with? Do certain professors with a reputation of making life difficult for their graduate students? Ask about the school: How long does it take to finish the program? Ask about the area, ask about the cost of living, etc. Students will probably be more than willing to talk, but you must be careful to weigh all the opinions you receive and try to get multiple opinions on any given professor or topic.
Visiting after you have submitted an application but before you have received a decision is similar to visiting before applying. Your purposes are often similar, but it could be a wasted trip if your application is rejected or if you are awarded little or no financial aid. However, it may still help you to make a decision about which school to attend when the responses start arriving. If you have the resources and time, it may be a nice way to maintain the momentum of your decision making process as you wait for your applications to be processed.
Typically, the reason that you would need to visit a school after being accepted would be if you cannot decide whether to take the offer or not. If you are having trouble deciding, visiting can sometimes help you reach a decision. Visiting after you have been accepted is generally a different experience than you would have had visiting earlier in the process. Why? Because at this point, the school/department has decided that it wants you. The faculty there will probably treat you a little differently as a potential, and desired, student than they would a future applicant.
Faculty: At this point in the process, you should know which faculty you might hope to work with if you decide to go to that school. Call ahead and ask the graduate advisor to set up appointments to speak with these people. See if they are accessible and willing to talk to students. Ask questions to help you differentiate the academics at each school you are considering.
Graduate advisor: Try talking to the graduate advisor to get a sense of where past graduates are now and what they are doing. This is not always easy to do since graduates are not known for keeping their former schools closely informed of their progress. Also, if the record is less than stellar, the graduate advisor will probably try to downplay or avoid discussing it in great detail.
Students: Talking to students can once again be valuable. If you walk into department offices, frequently there will be students there for one reason or another. You can introduce yourself as someone that may be studying there and ask all the types of questions that you would have asked earlier. However, at this point your perspective and questions will probably be much more focused on information that will help you to decide between one school and another.
Have fun with your visits no matter when you go and don't forget to set up appointments and be prepared!