You’re crazy busy. You barely keep up with work, laundry, grocery shopping and caring for the kids. Sound familiar?
You simply don’t have time to go on college visits with your high schooler, and (admit it!) you’re a teensy bit excited that college campus virtual tours exist because you don’t have to climb in the car, book a hotel room, board the dog (or your other kids). You don’t have to ask your boss for time off.
But are virtual college tours the right way to go? Virtual college campus tours allow you to view a campus online and offer ways to approach the college search process differently. When you live in an age where technology can help you and your child explore potential college campuses, should you do it?
The answer: Virtual school tours are worth it — when utilized correctly. Virtual tour college visits, also called virtual reality college campus tours or online college tours, can offer a first glimpse of campus. We’ll walk through what happens in a virtual campus tour, the role of college campus virtual tours, why you may want to consider one, limitations and more.
A virtual campus tour is a digital representation of a college or university campus that allows you to explore the institution from the comfort of your own home (in your fuzzy slippers).
This online experience allows you to view:
Other important aspects of campus life
Virtual campus tours might involve several types of immersive and interactive exploration, such as 360-degree views of campus. Some colleges use virtual reality (VR) technology to offer an immersive experience, so tours feel lifelike and three-dimensional. VR technology might be compatible with virtual reality headsets, which add high-resolution visuals with audio elements and guided narration. Clickable hotspots and live chat engage users, offering personalized exploration.
You may also hear narrated descriptions or read written narrations to provide context for the visit. For example, a student or an admission representative might narrate the virtual tour.
They might also include:
Interactive maps: Digital maps can help you navigate the virtual tour and locate campus buildings, landmarks and facilities. You can click on map markers to access additional information about each location.
Informational hotspots: Informational hotspots refer to interactive elements within the tour to access detailed information about specific areas, programs or services a college offers.
Embedded videos: Short videos showcase featured departments, classrooms, laboratories or extracurricular spaces to help bring life to the tour.
A virtual college tour may be part of a larger virtual campus tour, offering more options. For example, the full campus visit may offer informational videos through prerecorded or real-time virtual events, live webinars and Q&A sessions to allow your student to ask questions and other resources. This post focuses on virtual college tours as a smaller portion of campus visits. (Trust me, Harvard’s virtual tour will blow you away.)
The Role of Virtual Tours
Ideally, virtual tours serve a role as an information collector. However, virtual tours can contribute to informed decision-making because they offer context and color about a college. Virtual visits can help your student decide where to apply. If they don’t like the looks of the campus on the virtual tour, they may have an easy application decision.
Always keep the role of virtual tours in the forefront of your mind — it shouldn’t replace a physical campus tour unless you can’t get around it. The role of a virtual tour includes:
Visualization: Virtual tours offer a realistic visual representation of the environment, showcasing key features, facilities and surroundings.
Information dissemination: Virtual tours involve giving information: descriptions, facts and multimedia content.
Supplement physical visits: A virtual tour of colleges supplements traditional physical visits by providing a preview or follow-up experience to give you a peek into the window of the college or university.
Why Consider a Virtual College Tour?
You and your prospective student may want to consider virtual campus tours for various reasons:
Geographical constraints: If you cannot physically travel to a college campus due to geographical distance, financial constraints or other logistical reasons, a virtual campus tour offers a convenient and accessible alternative. (Double emphasis on convenience!)
Time and cost savings: Virtual tours eliminate the need for travel expenses, hotel costs and the time it takes to visit multiple colleges. If you live in New York and your child is considering a college in California, for example, or overseas, a virtual college tour might offer a great alternative to an in-person visit. Few things in life are free, but free virtual college tours save you money.
Tool for narrowing down decisions: Virtual tours can be revisited multiple times, allowing you to review and compare different aspects of various campuses. This is especially helpful when making decisions or narrowing down your choices.
Supplement research: A virtual tour can complement other research methods, including brochures, information sessions and online forums. It provides a visual and interactive element to enhance your child’s view of an institution and might go beyond what you see in a brochure or website.
Flexibility: You can access a tour at any time, day or night, at your own pace — it’s a great option if you have to leave for a soccer tournament, have a birthday party to go to or another important event.
Pre-visit exploration: A virtual campus tour can offer an initial step in exploring a college. Before committing to an in-person visit, it allows your child to familiarize themselves with the campus layout, facilities and overall atmosphere.
Access to more areas: Some virtual tours give access to areas that may be restricted during in-person visits. For example, your child may get to see laboratories, research facilities, or other spaces your family may not see on tour.
No rain or snow: College virtual tours are always sunny! You don’t have to worry about rain, snow or hail; better yet, you don’t have to drive in bad weather conditions.
Limitations of Virtual Campus Tours
As you likely know, you’ll encounter a few downsides of a virtual tour, and the most obvious is that you don’t have feet on campus to see everything with your own eyes. A few other potential drawbacks include the following:
Difficulties assessing campus culture: It’s difficult to assess the campus culture when you don’t “feel out” a campus yourself. Therefore, you won’t get a general sense of the values, traditions, behaviors and social norms that characterize the atmosphere and community life on a college or university campus.
Fewer people to talk to: Virtual tours don’t allow you to talk to people because it’s all online. Therefore, you can’t grill the tour guide, talk with an admission counselor, a financial aid professional, coaches or other individuals. Your questions might not get answered.
Only shows the “good” side: Virtual tours only show the best a campus offers. (Do you think they’ll show you a dungeon-like residence hall?) No way! Keep an open mind because they’ll only show you the pristine parts of campus.
Tough to get perspective: You can’t see the giant ceilings in the chapel or hear the echoey reverb in a huge lecture hall. You also won’t feel the chill in the air or the leaves crunch underfoot.
Won’t see many students: Most virtual tours exclude crowds of students. Virtual tours clear everyone out, so the tour guide is center stage. Students won’t hurry to class or sit in the lounge areas.
Ideally, a virtual tour will show a real tour guide giving an actual campus tour.
How to Do Virtual Tours Well
How do you do virtual tours besides clicking on the “take a virtual tour for students” on the admission webpage? That’s exactly what your student can do, and they can navigate different parts of the campus by clicking different areas.
Navigate through campus maps, view dorms, classrooms and facilities. Watch videos showcasing campus life and listen to student testimonials. Attend online information sessions and webinars — whatever piques your student’s interests.
Personalization and Customization in Virtual Tours
Did you know that colleges can work with you to customize and personalize virtual tours? You might have to go the extra step to ask for personalized tour guides and live interactions. College websites explain how you can take a virtual visit, but you might have to call and arrange other, more personalized engagements through Zoom, Google Meet or hop on the phone. Check out a list of other individuals you may want to consider meeting with.
Meet with Admission Counselors
For example, you may want to meet with an admission counselor on Zoom, who gives out trade secrets, the dirt — everything you want to know about a college.
Your virtual tour may not coincide with a counselor talk. You and your child may take the virtual tour on Monday, then talk with an admission counselor on Thursday. Scheduling it later gives you a chance to think of great questions you have after watching the tour.
You can find your child’s admission counselor online, under the admission tab on the college’s website.
Meet with Financial Aid Professionals
Consider scheduling a visit with a financial aid professional as well. Don’t let a generic video from a virtual visit be your only guide to financial aid from a particular school. You and your child deserve better than that!
If financial aid is part of a larger online visit, watch it. Then call the college or university to explore how the financial aid process works for your situation. You can get a lot accomplished during one financial aid phone call. You get to ask questions that pertain directly to your situation.
Talk with Current Students
As part of the virtual tour, many colleges include videos of students talking about themselves, their majors and extracurricular activities. Listen to these online videos. Then remember it’s all a marketing ploy.
I know that’s a cynical attitude, but remember that colleges usually pick their most accomplished, affable students to video. This isn’t always a great representation of the student body.
Do you know someone who already attends the college your child’s considering? Encourage your child to set up a coffee or Zoom meeting with the student. It’s the best way to get the most candid analysis — students will likely blurt out the pros and cons without prompting.
Remind your child that information from one person is just that — one person’s experience. If your child can talk to more than one person at the college, that’s great! The more feedback from a large number of students your high schooler can get, the better.
Just because one student’s having an awesome or crummy experience doesn’t mean it’s the same for everyone else.
Find Other Ways to Learn More
You want to get as snoopy as possible when you’re looking at colleges, so here are some other ways to do it.
Follow Colleges’ Social Channels
Follow schools your child’s interested in on Instagram, X and YouTube to get brief updates on activities on campus. Try to find social channels not connected to the admission or marketing offices!
Check out the College’s Online Events Calendar
Colleges often host various events, from musical artists and comedians to free movies and game nights. Seeing a calendar of events can give you a better understanding of the fun activities available to students.
Research the Surrounding Town
Have you ever heard of a phenomenon called the “campus bubble?” I referred to it sometimes when talking to students. It’s when students become insulated from the town and never leave campus because everything they need is there. The town kind of vanishes and the campus becomes their town.
Still, your child might have to venture to Target every once in a while. So, what’s the town or city like? Do some online research and learn about the benefits outside The Bubble.
Tips for Maximizing the Virtual College Tour Experience
Here’s how to make the most of virtual tours:
Interact with as many people as possible. From tour guides to students, there are opportunities for interaction beyond college tours videos. Some virtual tours may offer that, and again, you may have to set those up independent of college or university virtual tours on a website.
Give feedback. For virtual tours colleges want to be able to offer the most comprehensive experience possible. Consider giving feedback on how colleges can refine virtual tours based on your experience.
Balance virtual and in-person college exploration. Combine virtual college visits with traditional in-person visits. A hybrid approach can provide a comprehensive understanding of a college. Experiencing campus life virtually and physically can give you “Aha” moments once you get on campus.
Also consider combining virtual college tours with informational interviews, online forums and other research methods. While not a full substitute for physical visits, virtual tours can play a pivotal role in providing semi-authentic glimpses into campus life for prospective students.
Yes — kick your feet up, coffee cup in hand, messy bun proudly displayed while you take a campus tour. “Ooo” and “Ahh” over beautiful residence halls, cool science labs and more.
Just remember, nothing replaces a true college tour. If your child thinks he can choose a college based on virtual college tours, remind him that:
People make a great college experience, not beautiful buildings.
Campuses show all their best stuff in a video. The junior/senior apartments might be beautiful (they’ll show these on video) but the freshman residence hall could be a pit.
Talking to as many people as possible is important — get comfy with Zoom!
Don’t forget to visit in person for the full immersive experience.