It was a college road trip on steroids: when I was a high school junior, my parents and I visited 12 college campuses in less than two weeks. The three of us were in a car together for hours at a time driving up and down the East Coast, spreadsheets and check lists in hand, tempers slightly less in hand, Time reports.

But that trip wasn’t just a symbolic ritual. Which applications I filled out the following fall were largely determined by what I saw during those two weeks.

Choosing a college might seem like the most calculated, data-driven decision you make,...

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