Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Deciding where to attend college is, in the best of times, an often tough process, but the difficulty level has been ratcheted up for many high school students who are trying to figure out the best path for them during the coronavirus pandemic.

Stuck at home, those who wanted to visit college campuses this spring to try to find the right “fit” can no longer do it — and it is not clear whether they will able to later this year, either.

This post offers advice to those students who have to approach the college admissions process in a way they hadn’t expected. It was written by Stacey Kostell, chief executive officer of the Coalition for College. The nonprofit coalition is a diverse group of public and private colleges and universities across the United States working to improve the college application and admissions process and promote access to higher education.

By Stacey Kostell

With many colleges announcing campus closures through the end of this academic year, high school students are coming to terms with the fact that their college decision process will be dramatically different this year. Finding a “right fit” college can be challenging under normal circumstances, but doing so without the ability to participate in campus tours or events like open houses for accepted students may feel overwhelming to students.

Colleges are planning for this reality now, and while much is still unknown about how the process will unfold and exactly what opportunities will emerge for students, there are things families can do now to remain informed and make the best decision under less-than-ideal circumstances. Below, admissions counselors from across the country share tips for how students can navigate the college decision process this spring.

Consider this an opportunity

While it’s easy to view campus closures as a barrier, accepting it as such is a mistake. “I’m confident that colleges across the country are going to try even harder to provide diverse and inclusive virtual programs to connect with admitted students,” says Jarrid Whitney, assistant vice president for student affairs at the California Institute of Technology.

Students should also be thinking about creative ways to get the information they need. Don’t be afraid to ask colleges to connect you with current students who can help answer questions and provide insight into the experiences and opportunities available at a particular institution. “Sometimes just asking to speak on the phone with a current student and/or professor can be a great resource for understanding if the college could be a potential fit,” says Whitney. You might even get more of the information that’s most important to you from a series of one-on-one conversations than from an open house.

Don’t be shy about asking for what you need

Most colleges and universities will rely even more heavily on sharing information virtually this spring. Rather than just being part of a larger effort to connect with students, technology may be the only way. But not all students have access to the technology that will be used. Whitney recommends “students be honest and direct if they don’t have the technology or connectivity to view the online options provided.” In many cases, colleges will be able to provide students with the same information in different formats so that all students have access to the same information, even if it is delivered in different ways. Don’t be shy about asking for alternatives to the electronic platforms provided.

Hone your research skills

Institutions that can’t host admitted students this spring have a lot of information to share with you, if you’re willing to take advantage of it. “Read — really read — the material your admissions offices are putting out,” says Elena Ragusa, director of strategic initiatives at Rutgers University. “It will include a lot of the content that you would receive at admitted student days and on a campus tour. Many of them will offer virtual tours too, giving you a glimpse into the physical campus.”

John Gaines, director of undergraduate admissions at Vanderbilt University, echoes this advice. “In this unprecedented time in U.S. higher education, it’s incumbent on admitted students and their families to dig deep, thinking carefully about the aspects of college/university that really matter to them individually, and then to rely on their research skills.”

And don’t depend solely on what the admissions office puts out. University websites are broad and deep. “Do some sleuthing to find offices like student affairs and career services, too; these are services you will likely take advantage of to round out your experience. Also, look for university-sanctioned, student-run accounts like student assemblies and programming boards. The student voice will give you a good idea of campus culture and student-body priorities,” Ragusa said.

Leverage social networks and personal connections

“Universities invest a lot of resources in their social media,” Ragusa said. And now they will likely be using them in new ways. Watch videos, check out photos, read and engage with posts and participate in live events sponsored by colleges.

On your own social media accounts, conduct a scan to see if you know anyone currently attending an institution you are considering and consider reaching out to them. If you don’t have a direct connection to someone, put out a general call, or ask a guidance counselor or trusted teacher for leads.

“With many universities extending spring breaks and moving coursework to be remote, recent graduates from your high schools may be back in town, and it could provide an opportunity to hear from them directly about their college experiences,” Ragusa said. “Remember that not everyone’s experience will be the same at any given institution, but coupled with other strategies, this could give you good insight.”

Institutions are ready and willing to step up in providing students what they need to make an informed college decision.

“Colleges and universities have invested a tremendous amount in the past five years in their online footprint. Go on a virtual tour or several. Email students. Join them for chats. Read about the research various faculty members do online,” says Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Yale University. “There is almost more you can learn online than you can learn on-campus these days.”