With college campuses shut down and admissions offices working remotely, prospective students may be unable to do in-person visits for the foreseeable future.
If you’re a high school junior or senior, that means missing out on trying dining hall food, spending a night in a dorm, and attending a class. But with a little bit of prep, you can do almost everything else virtually.
In fact, virtual visits actually have some advantages. For example, you can “visit” more schools than you might be able to in person; you’re not limited to certain days or hours set by an admissions office; and you may even get to see more of a campus than you would on an official in-person walking tour.
Here’s how to make the most of your virtual college visits.
Prepare as though you’ll be there in person
Just because you’re not physically present for a tour or info session doesn’t mean you don’t have to prepare. Research each school you’re interested in and write down questions ahead of time. Know what you want to get out of your virtual visit before it begin, and take careful notes of what you learn to help you separate one from the next.
“I think colleges are starting to blur together even more now with virtual visits because students lose out on the ‘feel’ of a campus or sense of place,” Jamie Pack, a college planning consultant at Advantage College Planning tells Lifehacker.
Check for virtual admissions events
Many college admissions offices have moved their information sessions for prospective students online. Pack says that schools are using Zoom so students can ask questions in real time. Virtual sessions may actually provide more opportunities for prospective students to connect with the school, she adds.
For example, it can feel less intimidating to type into the chat than it is to raise your hand during an in-person event, and you may be able to reach an admissions representative directly via email or Zoom after the fact if your questions aren’t answered.
Look on your school’s admissions website for live events, Q&A sessions, and Zoom appointments, and be sure to sign up or schedule in advance if necessary.
Explore several virtual tour platforms
There’s no shortage of video and photo content on social media covering campus tours and student life, but there are a few platforms dedicated to virtual college tours. Check out a few to get different perspectives on your prospective schools.
- YouVisit: YouVisit has interactive virtual tours for more than 600 U.S. colleges. You can walk through an official 360-degree campus tour narrated by a guide, view additional photos, videos, and panoramas of each stop, and track your location on Google Maps.
- CampusReel: CampusReel publishes short reviews and tours produced by students—from quick looks inside dining rooms and lecture halls to food reviews and social time. You do have to sign up (it’s free) to watch the full videos if you access them from the website or school profile page.
- CampusTours: CampusTours aggregates official virtual tours, videos, interactive campus maps, social media accounts, and school stats for colleges and universities in the U.S., UK, Canada, France, and China. Search by school name or state to narrow your list.
- YOUniversity: The YOUniversity interface isn’t quite as clean—and the videos aren’t as high-quality—as other sites listed here, but it does have an option to sort by (unscientific) rankings, from coolest dorms to safest campuses. Click the College Video Tours dropdown to narrow your search.
- YouTube: Obviously YouTube isn’t a dedicated tour site, but you’ll find plenty of content produced by both schools and students. Just search the school you’re interested in to view campus tours, day-in-the-life videos, and more.
Take notes for later
On an in-person tour, you’d have the chance to stop and ask questions—but a pre-recorded virtual tour may not offer the details you’re interested in. Pack recommends writing down questions to research later or to ask in a virtual information session.
Plus, virtual tours may not follow a logical walking route, especially for bigger campuses, so it’s helpful to have a campus map or Google Maps to follow along.
Narrow your focus
The sheer amount of information can be overwhelming, so don’t be afraid to focus on places, programs, or opportunities that really matter to you. Skip around in a virtual tour to see athletic facilities or chemistry labs or freshman dorms. Search for videos that cover dining options or Greek life or intramural teams. And proactively reach out to students, faculty, or admissions representatives with questions—if you’re interested in a specific sport, academic program, or club, a general info session is unlikely to cover those topics.
“It’s really important to find the content or the students that align with you and hear what they’re experiencing,” says Rob Carroll, cofounder of CampusReel. “It’s all about trying to tailor it as much as you can to exactly what you’re looking for and what your background is.”
Use social media
Pack recommends searching Instagram for official (college-led) and unofficial (student-led) accounts. You may find admissions-specific accounts as well as feeds for academic departments, student organizations, athletic teams, and more.
This gives you “a glimpse of what life is like at that university for a student and how active their interests are on campus,” she says.
Explore the surrounding area
An important part of a college visit is getting to know the surrounding city or town, and no virtual tour can replicate that experience. You can, however, hop on Google Maps. Zoom in to view restaurants, bars, and attractions around campus, switch to Street View for a virtual tour of neighborhoods around town, and plug in specific locations to find out how long it takes to walk or drive from place to place.