You’re crazy-busy. You’re barely keeping up with your work and home load. Your brain fog bests you on your best day. You simply don’t have time to go on college visits and (admit it!) you’re a teensy bit excited that virtual tours are in.

You can wear your hideous dog-chewed slippers to the meeting and nobody cares about your messy bun piled on top of your head.

The benefits of doing an online tour: 

  1. You don’t have to climb into the car.
  2. No hotel rooms for you.
  3. You don’t have to board the dog or your other kids.
  4. Your partner doesn’t have to take off work (and you don’t have to ask your boss for time off — again).

But hold up. You don’t get off that easy. You don’t get to smack your laptop top down and yell, “Done! That’s college tour number 84 — in my puffy socks! Yahoooo!!!!!” 

Because I’m going to challenge you to go a few steps further — including putting on makeup for a Zoom meeting. 

Because you can’t — absolutely cannot! — manhandle a virtual tour to make it the same as an in-person experience.

Sure, you want to know how to schedule a college visit that checks all the boxes, but what else can you do on a virtual tour that mimics a college visit? Well, a personal college visit usually includes: 

  • Campus tour
  • Interview with an admission counselor
  • Conversation with a financial aid professional
  • Meeting with a coach (if applicable)
  • Chatting with a professor or a presentation on your major
  • Appointments with other individuals on campus

Ready to bend these activities toward a virtual visit? Put on your puffy slippers, put your laptop in front of your child — and let’s dive in.

Check out the College’s Website

Obvious, right? All colleges’ websites should maintain a complete policy update for how the college conducts visits. The college may: 

  • Do virtual-only visits
  • Allow on-campus visits
  • Permit on-campus visits with specific protocols in place (masks, hand sanitizer, etc.) 

Furthermore, the website explains how you can take a virtual visit. 

For example, see Bethel University’s website. It’s a slick design and lets you click on the videos — and it includes all the elements of what would happen during a regular campus visit. 

Take a Tour

Ideally, a virtual tour will show a real tour guide giving an actual tour of the campus. As you know, you’ll encounter a few downsides of a virtual tour:

  • You can’t grill the tour guide.
  • They show the very best a campus has to offer. (Do you think they’ll show you a dungeon-like residence hall?) Nope!
  • It’s 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 won’t feel the chill in the air or the leaves crunch underfoot.
  • Most virtual tours exclude throngs of students. Virtual tours clear all people out so the tour guide (and the tour guide alone!) is center stage. You won’t see many students scurry to class.
  • In short, nothing replaces an on-campus visit.

The cure to these problems is obviously to take an in-person campus tour to get a feel for the classrooms, dorms, dining halls and other hot spots on campus.

The next-best thing is to get on the phone with a student, and most admission offices can make that happen. Just ask — prepare a list of questions beforehand.  

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Contact Your Child’s Admission Counselor

Take the visit one step further. Don’t just listen to the admission counselor video spiel online. You want to get to know your child’s admission counselor — more specifically, you want your child to get to know his own admission counselor.


Your child’s admission counselor gives out trade secrets. The dirt. Everything you want to know about the college. 

Isn’t the admission counselor’s job to get you to attend an institution? 

Sure. But that doesn’t mean that if you ask really pointed questions that they won’t be honest with you. They should.

You won’t get insider tips from virtual college tours. That’s why it’s vital to pick up the phone or have a Zoom chat as part of your tour. 

It’s okay if your virtual tour doesn’t coincide with your counselor talk. You and your child may take the virtual tour on Monday, then talk with an admission counselor on Thursday. It gives you a chance to think of great questions you have after watching the tour. 

Talk with Financial Aid

This is another conversation you want to schedule. Your situation is unique. Don’t let a generic video from a “Hurray! Go Tigers!” virtual visit be your only guide to financial aid from a particular school.

You deserve better than that! 

Again, if financial aid is part of the online tour, watch it. Then call the college or university to explore how the financial aid process works for your particular situation. You can get a lot accomplished during one financial aid phone call. You get to ask questions that pertain directly to your situation, such as: 

  • I’m nearing retirement. What will my child’s financial aid award look like then?
  • We have $5,000 in an UTMA for our child. How will that affect his aid award?
  • Could you put together a financial aid early estimate for my child? We’d like to see in advance what the award letter will look like.
  • [Insert your questions here.]

Get on Zoom, on Google Hangouts, on the phone. Make sure your child listens in (no matter how bored he is). Do you know how many kids were on the verge of slumber when they listened to my financial aid spiel in the admission office? (I shoulda made it more interesting.)

Anyway, give yourself permission to poke a little more than most people will. Don’t settle for the online video!

Listen to Students Online

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 goes to the school 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. Listen for information like:

  • “Get a load of this. Our college did X, X and X right after COVID-19.” 
  • “Our cafeteria food is awesome. You’ll love Stromboli Day.”
  • “Here’s what I’d change about College X.”
  • “I love this about College X and that’s why you should go here.”

Remind your child that information from one person is just that — one person’s experience. If it’s possible for your child to 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.

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Listen to Coaches Online

Coaches might also put up videos online of the “Go Tigers!” variety. Again, make it a point to talk with coaches individually. Most likely, you and your student won’t have to worry too much because coaches will want to talk to you if they’re interested. 

Check out the coach section questions to ask on a college tour for a great list of questions. 

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 on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube to get brief updates on activities on campus. Try to find social channels not connected to the admission or marketing offices! 

Get a Subscription to…

The student newspaper! The student newspaper is full of delicious nuggets of truth because it’s written and published by students — and no topic (no matter how juicy) gets left behind. Get notifications when the newest events and issues happen and learn opinions written by your child’s potential peers. 

Online Maps Exist for a Reason

Do some colleges offer a cool aerial view of a campus? They sure do. Tap into the bird’s-eye view of college maps to get a sense of colleges’ layout. Try mapping the distance between common places, like the library and the dining hall. See whether your child can walk to restaurants, theaters and coffee shops close by. 

Check out the College’s Online Events Calendar

Colleges often host an array of 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 who lived in our town. It means 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 is the town. Does that make sense?

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.

Check Out Student Profiles

During the virtual visit, you’ll probably see student videos like Bethel’s. Poke around more, however. You might find more student testimonials on the website or through social media channels. Can your child relate to that student? Does he get excited by the student’s research project, internship or other opportunities? Does he want to have the same major?

Ask the admission office whether your child can talk to that exact student profiled.

You Can Still Do a Lot, but Remember…

Yes — kick your feet up, coffee cup in hand, messy bun proudly displayed while you take a campus tour. 

“Ooh” 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: 

  1. People make a great college experience, not beautiful buildings.
  2. 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. 
  3. It’s important to talk to as many people as possible — get comfy with Zoom!

And when (and if) you feel comfortable, go on an in-person visit. Please. I’ll even send you the mask and hand sanitizer myself.

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