The pandemic has forced us all to change so much about our lives: from our daily routines, rituals, and activities, to our most beloved hobbies, adventures with friends, and holiday vacations. Whether you’ve been affected financially, socially, academically, or emotionally (and the list goes on…), as a high school senior in the middle of the college application process, the last thing you need is extra added stress about finding the right place to spend your next four years.
With everything about your future feeling so uncertain, here are some ways you can make absolutely SURE that you are getting the most out of any virtual campus visits you attend, and that you can see past all of the distractions and confusions that make differentiating colleges so hard. (This blog will talk specifically about what to look for in the Virtual Visit/Tour component of checking out colleges, but for more great tips on other ways to learn about potential university options, read Rachel’s blog from 9/23 titled “How to Experience a Campus During the Pandemic [Writing the “WHY X” Essay].
1. Informational Content: After all, this is the real reason you chose to go on a Virtual Campus tour of your university. Oftentimes, these sessions may include specific information about the admissions & application process for that university, but don’t forget to also pay attention to the actual academic options that the college offers. To start, try creating a list of questions before attending the online session. Here are some questions to get you started:
2. Student Presence/Energy: Most universities traditionally have student campus ambassadors that lead in-person tours, which gives amazing first-hand insight into what the student experience is like at that university. In Virtual Campus Tours, that shouldn’t be forgotten! Look for universities that have a virtual session specifically from the perspective of the student, and try to evaluate the kind of energy they put off. Do they seem passionate about their experiences, or are they simply reading off a list of details? Do they have personal stories/anecdotes they’re willing to talk about? If they are presenting with someone, what does that relationship/dynamic look like? Do they seem friendly and excited to be there? In general, it speaks highly of a university when they give the floor to students for a significant portion of time, because it tells you that they value the student experience, and they are proud to showcase students that have enjoyed their time there.
3. Inclusive Language: Something that I never truly realized until coming to college was the difference that it makes when presenters use inclusive and respectful language when talking about themselves or others in their community. This can present itself through defining personal pronouns and using gender neutral vocabulary, speaking highly of communities with which the presenter is not personally involved, or simply including a wide range of information applicable to many different identity groups (talking about activities/opportunities and communities that involved individuals that are different than the speaker - not just topics that pertain to their own life).
4. Talk the Talk? Walk the Walk: Something that can be challenging, yet really important to focus on is the difference between the presentation of statistics/facts just for notoriety, and the actual evidence of those stats in action. When it comes to numbers like diversity percentages, student involvement, and contributions to public service or real-world issues, are there tangible examples of this in the presentation you watch? Do the photos they use present a diverse student body? Are there examples of real impacts that their celebrated student involvement makes (i.e. if they say they are #2 in community service, do they talk about ways to get involved in community service? Are there stores of students that have done community service?)? Can you really SEE the impact that they're TALKING about?
5. Attend Multiple Sessions: If possible, try to attend multiple virtual sessions for the same university. This helps you get a well-rounded experience when it comes to researching the university, since you may get to see multiple different people present the same content. You can see whether or not the information feels personalized, and what kind of excitement different people have about their environment. This can also help you give a university a second chance if your first virtual session was less-than-impressive.
6. Interaction/Asking Questions: Another important aspect of the Virtual Campus Tour experience is the extent to which universities make it an interactive experience. Allowing visitors like yourself to ask questions and interact LIVE with those presenting shows that the university is genuinely interested in getting your concerns addressed and making sure you have all of the information you need. Check to see if there is a typed Q&A function, or if they leave time for a question session/breakout rooms at the end. If not, see if there is contact information that they provide at the end for you to get in contact with someone and have a personal conversation. Even if it doesn’t end up being a one-on-one discussion, having the chance to hear them respond to questions on the spot can help you figure out if the experience they offer is right for you.
7. Campus: This factor can sometimes be overlooked in the application process, but oftentimes students who have gone through college look back and say that one of their favorite things about their specific college was the physical campus that they spent all of their time on. Realistically, you will be spending the next 2, 3, 4, or 5 years on this campus, so it’s important to figure out whether it’s an environment that excites you. Think about your priorities when it comes to location/campus features, and see if the virtual session showcases those priorities:
8. Specialized Sessions: Looking for something in particular (other than the general campus tour that is provided to all visitors)? Check and see if your choice university offers different kinds of tours (specific to major, path of admission, parents/students, student groups, financial/citizenship status, panel vs. tour, etc.). That way, you can plan out your college search by attending multiple of these sessions to get more thorough information, or explore multiple departments/communities within the same college. This can help you get a more complete idea of what kinds of directions you could take your future upon being admitted to that particular school.
9. Write down/verbalize your thoughts immediately! Right after you attend an online session, take 5-10 minutes to “word vomit” and describe everything that stood out to you about that particular university. This could be in a list or prose format, but you can cover anything from small details and interesting programs to overall “vibe” and emotional connection. How did the representatives make you feel? What could you imagine yourself getting involved in when attending that university? What further questions do you have? Would you be happy there? After writing down your thoughts, you can also try to give this college an overall rating for a variety of factors, in an attempt to categorize your immediate feelings about the information you just digested. Then, you can let it sit, and revisit the university once you see other places, and gain more of a thorough perspective on what you are looking for. Also, it can help you remember your very specific thoughts about a university as you start to explore more and more, and all of the college facts start swimming around your head and become hard to place.
10. Is there a Recording? Check to see if there will be a recording of the session you attended available for later viewing. This can help you catch up on information you might have missed, or it can help you compare information with another university later on. In addition, this can be useful to share with your friends or family if you need a second opinion on the university.
When attending a Virtual Visit/Campus Tour, do everything you can to help yourself stay engaged, and remember the information you are presented with. It can be extra hard to do so, given the current virtual setting of most events and the likely added number of universities you’re touring, but taking these simple steps can help you get the most out of the experience. Then, you can start to narrow down your choices and make a well-informed decision when it comes time to do so.
Sarah is a Consultant on the Study Hall College Consulting Team. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley in the Class of 2020 where she majored in Architecture and minored in Spanish Language & Literature. For more college application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at shcollegeconsulting.com.