This trip was going to be more than just a vacation: In-person campus visits, dorm stays and classroom observations are the best way for high schoolers to wrap their heads around what life is like on a college campus. Our 11th grader was planning to use these experiences to decide which schools he’d start applying to come summer. And I was hoping our ninth grader’s glimpse of campus life would have been motivation to back up our insistence that he take his school work seriously.
We are not alone in our disappointment, and these canceled plans seem small compared to the losses and challenges others have suffered. Accepted students’ days are also being canceled or pushed back beyond commitment deadlines — which means admitted students, too, are having to make decisions about where they’ll spend the next four years potentially without ever setting foot on campus.
I recognize we are fortunate to be among the families who have the time and resources to plan such visits. As a college mentor and essay coach, I often work with students whose families can’t afford in-person tours. Instead, we use online resources and alumni networks to zero in on what each school has to offer and help determine which colleges might be a good fit.
In light of the closures, admissions offices are allowing interested juniors as well as admitted seniors a better window into life on campus. “One of the real positives that’s going to come out of this is the way schools are ramping up online engagement of students,” said Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech and co-author of “The Truth About College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.”
“More university staff and faculty are going to be more available to talk to students in very valuable ways,” Clark said. “I’m hoping that’s something people are really going to embrace and be willing to continue.”
These amplified off-campus alternatives seem to be getting richer by the day, taking a bit of the sting out of our canceled plans. If your family is in the same boat as mine, here are six ways your kid can get a feel for life on campus when visits aren’t possible:
1. Take a virtual tour — but don’t stop there. More than 600 schools offer virtual tours through YouVisit.com (most schools will also link these tours from their websites), which is a great way to get a baseline visual for campuses. But what goes on outside of campus impacts student life, too. To get a better sense of the big picture, college mentor Ami Foster, with whom I cofounded The Essay Coaches, advises students to use Google Maps to widen their geographical perspective. “Treat it like planning for a vacation,” she said. “What’s cool to do in the area? Is there a main street with plenty of restaurants and live music venues nearby? If the school is fairly isolated, are there parks and outdoor spaces nearby to take advantage of? Is there easy access to transportation?”
Many schools also offer virtual tours of housing options, allowing further insight into daily living on campus. University of Virginia associate dean of admission Jeannine Lalonde points out that the school’s housing department offers floor plans and virtual tours.
Students can also use schools they already know as proxy to grasp the layouts of the ones they can’t visit. If you understand the difference between Georgetown, a self-contained campus with green spaces adjacent to a big city, and George Washington University, an integrated urban campus, you have a frame of reference for the difference between Columbia and NYU — or University of Richmond and VCU. And while online tours showcase schools in beautiful weather, it’s worth it to check regional forecasts to get a sense of how many sunny days students can expect while they’re on campus.
2. Connect with a professor. Some schools where my son had been registered to visit haveinvited him to attend an online information session, which can be a good starting point. But Parke Muth, a college consultant and former associate dean of admission at U.Va., points out that speaking directly with a faculty member can be even more revealing. He counsels students to look beyond the admission offices and connect with professors who are teaching in the departments that interest them. Students can also contact admission offices and department heads and ask to attend a virtual class. “You might say: ‘I notice you’re doing research in X, Y and Z. I’ve been studying A, B and C, and I’m wondering if I’m admitted, would I have an opportunity to work on this with you?’ Show the professor who you are; if you get a good response, you may find you have a mentor. Or if they don’t answer your question, that tells you something about the school, too, about how accessible and responsive teachers are.”
3. Check the stats. Andrea Brenner, who designed the first-year experience program at American University, “AUx” and co-authored the book “How to College: What to Know Before You Go (and When You’re There)” knows the importance of understanding who your peers will be on campus and what matters to them. Absent the opportunity to peruse bulletin boards or observe students congregating in courtyards and coffee shops, Brenner suggests checking published numbers to gauge the types of kids who attend a school. “Do a deep dive into the population statistics. You might look into what percentage of students are on financial aid,” she said. “What percentage are international, or are first-generation college students? How do they identify by gender and religion? A closer look at the demographics that are available online can help you understand how students self-identify even without a campus visit.” Brenner also recommends checking out student-written publications available online. “When I was a sociology professor at AU, that’s one way I got a sense of what students cared about.”
4. Don’t be afraid to lurk on social media. While Clark is the director of undergraduate admission for Georgia Tech, he points out the value of looking beyond the intentionally crafted images admission offices project. “I would be digging deeper into the social media accounts that aren’t admission accounts,” Clark said, starting with the kinds of things you’ll be doing when you’re not in class. “If you’re into rugby, go find the club rugby Instagram or Twitter accounts at the four schools you’re interested in, the ones that aren’t talking to you on purpose and who don’t know you’re there. That’s real, true organic culture.” Many schools are hosting virtual gatherings, such as writer’s cafes and open mic nights; do some digging and ask to observe.
5. Now’s the time to network. Ask around — through your high school’s college counselor, your friends, your social media network — to see if you can find someone who’s connected to the colleges you’re interested in, then solicit their candid opinions. “Admission programs are orchestrated,” Muth said. “In some ways, I would put more faith in the students who aren’t being trained on how to answer all these questions when you come and visit. Ask them what don’t they like about the school; ask about things that interest you. Find out what options there are outside of class to continue your interests, then find out who’s in charge of that. Then look up those people and ask follow-up questions.”
6. Take advantage of enhanced online offerings. Schools are pivoting quickly to move information sessions and student interactions online. “We’re working hard to bring the University to our prospective and admitted students,” said Peter Hagan, director of admission for Syracuse. “We’re connecting daily with prospective and admitted students through virtual information sessions. Our students are hosting virtual Q&A panels. And our student ambassadors, the University 100, [filmed] a tour before leaving campus for spring break and posted it to their Instagram story.”
More resources may be available to students who take the initiative to ask. Many schools, including Davidson College and Vanderbilt University, are connecting high schoolers with current students for “virtual coffees” and email conversations. “We’re happy to organize one-on-one or group video chats with current students, faculty and staff,” said Chris Gruber, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Davidson. We will connect them with individual faculty members whose expertise aligns with the prospective student’s interest. And, of course, we will lean on the tried-and-true: talking to students and families directly over the phone.”
Adrienne Wichard-Edds is a writer and co-founder of www.theessaycoaches.com. Follow her on Twitter at @WichardEdds.