For families preparing to send a child to college, tours and meetings with counselors and professors would be common spring activities. But the coronavirus pandemic has prompted most colleges and universities to close their campuses and move classes and exams online.
"Visiting a college before enrolling is often an essential part of the decision process, which is why college visits spike in April," says Lindsey Conger, college counselor and tutor at Moon Prep, a college admissions consulting firm. But she says that with campuses shuttered, in-person college visits are off the table for at least a few months.
In lieu of in-person tours, colleges have turned to technology to connect with prospective students. Students can tour school grounds using prerecorded videos or slideshows, and some schools even provide VR experiences to get a feel of what a campus is normally like. Just like an in-person tour, virtual ones may also include meetings with professors, admissions officers, and financial aid advisors.
"We usually only recommend that students visit no more than two college campuses in any one day in-person, if they are physically going," says Kat Cohen, founder and CEO of IvyWise, an educational consulting company. "But, if they're doing it from their living room, they can visit many college campuses in one day."
But a student shouldn't rely solely on virtual tours from the college, says Conger. "Many independent companies also produce virtual tours, and can give you get a better picture of the campus," she says. For example, sites like Campus Tours offers video tours, interactive campus maps, and mobile walking tours of more than 1,700 colleges and universities. You Visit provides 360-degree virtual tours of colleges worldwide.
"Each tour will have a different viewpoint and might help you make your choice," Conger says.
Here's how to make the most of virtual tours and video chats to help you decide on a college:
When you're choosing a college, you want to make sure you're picking one that can set you up for academic success. That means setting up phone calls and video chats with academic counselors about your degree program options: "The questions you ask the counselor can help determine how helpful the university will be," Conger says.
"Ask about major choices. Is it easy to change your major if you decide it isn't right for you? What type of student tends to succeed at this school?" Conger says. "Ask to be put in contact with the professors and department chairs related to classes in your field of study."
Speaking with professors can also help give you a better understanding "of the teaching style of the instructors," says Conger. "You might question them on advice on how to succeed in their classroom, expectations for students, how available they are outside of the classroom, and the flexibility you'll have in shaping your major."
In addition to connecting with counselors directly, Cohen recommends resources like CollegeWeek Live. The site hosts live chats with professors and admissions officers where students can ask questions the specific courses the university offers.
If you plan to live away from home and stay in a dorm on campus, housing and residence life should be a focal point of any virtual college tour.
"Students should view the dorms and note if the bathrooms are private or shared," Conger says. "Investigate if only first-year students are required to live on campus. See if single or triple dorms are typical and if there are resident counselors or assistants and how active they are."
Dining facilities are another essential aspect of on campus life. Make sure to note their locations, and check to see if your dietary restrictions (if any) can be accommodated.
"When virtual touring the dining facilities," Conger says, "see how many there are, how accessible they are to different dorms, and the hours of operation."
On a virtual tour, you might have a hard time getting a feel for a school's culture and social life. But connecting with an alumnus or current student who can draw on their personal experience about a school's atmosphere and daily life can give you a sense of what it's really like to attend.
Take advantage of the option to set up an alumnus or student interview, if one is offered, Conger says. "You'll be able to ask more specific questions about life on campus like the favorite hangout spots of students, what their everyday routine was, and any advice they have for freshmen."
As a prospective student, you should leave a college tour with an understanding of your options for financial aid. Ask the school's financial aid advisors about tuition and loan options, as well as what the college plans to do in the fall for students affected by the outbreak. For example, Springfield College, in Springfield, Massachusetts, started their COVID-19 Student Assistance Fund to help students overcome financial obstacles.
"You are seeing admissions offices having to re-work tuition and pricing to account for the lack of room & board costs, creating new scholarships, and build in costs for technology for teachers," says Erin Voisin, a certified financial planner and the director of financial planning at EP Wealth Advisors in Torrance, California.
Video by Stephen Parkhurst
Taking advantage of virtual tools can help you get all the right information to feel confident in your college choice, even without a spring visit before Decision Day.
"College is just four years of your life," Conger says. "But you'll want to make sure that you are choosing a college that can help set you up for success later down the road."
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