Where to start
Without the option to visit colleges in-person, virtual tours and online content can provide a bridge and help you gain a sense of a school from the comfort of your home. While a virtual visit may not be what you hoped for, adjusting your mindset and remaining open and curious can go a long way toward making the process fun and informative.
Even before Covid-19, many schools created virtual tours as a way to engage international and out-of-state students. School to school, the virtual offerings vary widely – some colleges have entire real-time tours posted on Youtube and 360-degree virtual tours, while others have short videos paired with image galleries and written content.
Because navigating university websites can be frustrating, we suggest that if you know what school you want to start with, skip straight to a quick “[College Name] Virtual Tour” Google search.
You can also browse colleges that offer tours on websites, such as YouVisit, CampusTours, and CampusReel. (On CampusReel, students upload videos, tours of dorms, and more to share, but students or parents must register to join.)
Prepare to be a little overwhelmed
Virtual tours offer a flood of information in the form of hundreds of videos, articles, images, and aerial shots of sunny campus quads. There is a lot of information spread across sprawling pages.
We recommend spacing out your virtual tours the same way you would in-person tours to give yourself time and space to judge each school on its own merits and to avoid missing out on key details because of fatigue.
One of the surprising benefits of the virtual tour? It’s okay to stop! Give a virtual tour an honest try – but one of the advantages of this type of engagement is that you don’t have to stick it out to the end if you can tell early on that the school is not a good fit for you.
Taking notes for research
Just like for a “real” tour, you should keep a notebook handy to jot down details that stick out to you or any resources that pique your interest.
Unlike a real tour, don’t forget you can hit the pause button, go back to hear a detail again, skip over general descriptions of majors or programs that don’t apply to you, and make browser bookmarks of anything that excites you.
Hopefully, you start every virtual tour with an open mind, but it’s still a good idea to start with a sense of what you hope to gain. Keep a running list of any specific degrees, programs, or opportunities mentioned by the tour guides that interest you so you can follow up with research.
It’s also a good idea to find out if the school you are touring will require you to write a Why College Essay should you decide to apply – if so, taking detailed notes now could help you write Why College Essays in the future.
Before the tour starts, create a list of headings in your notebook. The headings may include the names of majors you’re interested in exploring, a heading for campus life, another heading for school values, and a heading for special resources and opportunities.
Lastly, leave a big space under the heading of RESEARCH where you can note anything you want to find out more about later.
Questions to consider for further research:
- What special resources, like honors programs, are highlighted in the tour?
- What do they say about research and undergraduate involvement?
- Do they discuss internships or study abroad?
- What students have access to resources like makerspaces and special collections?
- What have alumni done with this major or degree program?
- What are the mentorship opportunities? What professors would you be excited to learn from and work with?
- How easy is it to study across disciplines?
- What career resources, student support services, and advising does the school offer?
Navigating buildings and tour stops
In the world of virtual tours, just as in real-world tours, “stops” at specific locations or buildings on campus are what provide the tour guide the opportunity to discuss majors, programs, and resources.
Some colleges are great about organizing tours by the majors and programs themselves, but for other schools, you have to look up what building houses your particular majors of interest, then navigate to that building/tour stop to hear about the majors and programs within it.
Again, enjoy the process of exploring and stay curious, but also feel free to skip any buildings/tour stops that have nothing to do with what draws you to that particular campus.
Pay attention to the details
Apart from the descriptions of parts of campus, what do you get to learn about your tour guides in the virtual tours?
Most schools will require guides to introduce themselves by sharing their names, where they are from, and their majors. Listen carefully: do any of the guides have surprising major combinations, like Chinese and art history, or math and sociology? Do the students mention they take part in any special degree or Honors programs within the college?
These details can offer clues about aspects of the school that the school wants to highlight, like how easy it is to pursue interdisciplinary study.
Listen for values
To learn more about a school’s values, listen to the aspects of the curriculum and campus that the videos and tour guides emphasize. Is there a lot of talk about working in teams or groups, a focus on a diverse student body, or an emphasis on career resources?
If a certain value is what draws you to a particular school, seek out specific examples of how the school engages with that value beyond its marketing materials. If service is important to you, for example, then do some research: how does the college actually demonstrate its commitment to service? Research the types of service opportunities offered and look to see whether the school integrates service initiatives into its academic offerings.
Go beyond the virtual tour
It is possible to have a more authentic virtual experience of a college culture beyond the typical YouVisit 360 degree tours (though these can be pretty cool if you use a virtual reality headset!).
Now, several universities like Boston College, Cornell, and University of California San Diego, are offering live, real-time campus tours you can register for.
Some colleges are finding creative ways to give you a glimpse of their campus. Villanova’s aerial campus tour or the current student blog posts under “Wish you were here” at William and Mary present an interesting new take on virtual tours.
If you want to hear from the current college students, try finding live virtual student panels in the Q & A style like Lousiana State University, Tulane, and Boston College offer.
You can even take advantage of a 24-hour live stream through a campus webcam like Arizona State University if you felt the urge to check-in on your dream college at any time of the day or night.
YouTube also offers a multitude of options – but be sure to take any unofficial content or student reviews on YouTube with an extra grain of salt. You can also check out the college’s Campus Events Calendar, its Admissions Blog, or explore the campus and surrounding area with Google Maps.
Finally, we recommend that after you view specific tours on university websites, you have a little fun watching informal tours on youtube like The Campus Crawl by Hafu (he has “Campus Crawls” for such schools at Stanford, University of Washington, NYU, UCLA, Berkeley, MIT and Harvard).
Connect with people when you can
Just because you can’t visit in person doesn’t mean there aren’t people at that school who would be willing to connect with you.
Don’t forget that in addition to live tours and webcams, some campuses are encouraging prospective students to attend virtual information sessions and events. Tulane offers both of these and the opportunity to set up a virtual interview with an admissions officer.
Some schools are offering online chats with admissions officers and virtual Zoom information sessions. Certain schools are even offering the opportunity to sit in on class lectures!
If you have a specific question about an academic course, consider emailing the professor who teaches it. Or, if you’re excited about a major or program, reach out to the department chair or advisor. Make sure to ask thoughtful questions – questions that can’t be answered with a simple Google search! – and allow extra time for a response during this still-hectic period of adjustment for everyone. If you don’t hear back after a week or so, you can send a polite follow-up note.
Reach out to your family and friends – could you get connected with any alumni who could provide valuable insights into the school? LinkedIn and alumni networks can also be useful tools for creating connections.
If you find an alum willing to chat, utilize him or her as a resource! Ask any questions you may have about how accessible their professors are, how they joined and engaged in the campus community, and whether they have school-specific tips or insights they wish they’d known while they were applying.
A final thought
This is your process, so focus on finding ways to engage that keep you interested. Consider looking up the work of professors and alumni. Search for lectures that are available online. Read the school’s Twitter feed. Schedule a Zoom meeting to do a virtual tour with your friends who are also excited about that school – and then compare and share notes!
Virtual tours offer a taste of what a college has to offer, but just like in-person tours, ultimately what you gain – the depth and range of insights you glean – is up to you.