Visiting Colleges in a Pandemic – Plan B

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Visiting colleges was always a big part of the college admissions process.  There is something about being on a campus and seeing students that really lets an applicant get a sense as to what the college experience at a particular campus might feel like.   Not only the college itself, but the community beyond the campus. 

Making an actual visit also gives you a little more control as to what you see.  Don’t visit a college in upstate New York in October and fall in love with the beautiful campus.  Visit in February to get a real taste of what you’re getting yourself into.  

All that being said, things have changed.  Most schools have stopped campus visits and in person interviews due to the pandemic.  Besides, visiting a campus now, hopefully, won’t give you a good picture of what life will be like in the fall.  

So…How can you find out about a college without actually stepping foot on campus?

Most colleges have added ‘Virtual Tours” to their web sites.  Rest assured they are beautifully done, and all the campuses look awesome.  The weather always looks nice and everybody is smiling.  That being said, they are a good way to poke around the campus.  You still don’t get a sense if it feels right.  I remember visiting Bowdoin with my daughter.  It’s a great school but on the way home I asked her why she didn’t look all that happy.  She finally said it was “too Maine for her.”  I had no idea what that meant, but she just didn’t like it, the why was not really important.  Sometimes you get a visceral reaction that can’t be explained.  Those feelings are hard to get on a virtual tour.  

So what do you do?  How do you get a feel for whether a school is a good fit for you or your kid during a pandemic?

We reached out to Alicia Linsey, Bedford Director of Counseling Pre-K-12,  Alicia also happens to be the New England representative for the NACAC College Fair committee.  The NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) has many resources for counselors both in school and private.  One of the most visible aspects of NACAC is their extensive offerings of college fairs throughout the year all over the country.  

Here’s what she has to say about getting a feel for colleges during the pandemic: 

The college you choose to attend will become your home for the next four years. So, how do you get to know a college’s vibe in the absence of a traditional college visit? In some ways it’s much the same, you’re just engaging remotely. Many colleges offer a host of virtual opportunities to gain greater insight into the unique experience of that university – you just have to ask. As a result of the pandemic, colleges have pivoted to provide robust formal programming for prospective students including student-led virtual tours, virtual “open house” programs and virtual student Q & A sessions. They are also hosting informal opportunities such as virtual coffees and video chats. Each college has a personality. Typically, there has been a strong emphasis on the “campus visit” to see if a school is a good match. I want to reassure students, you can learn a lot about the campus culture, virtually. Read their school newspaper online. “Grab” a copy of the alumni magazine. Begin following their social media accounts. Even if you are not able to physically get on a college campus there are many resources available to help you curate a list of colleges you can call home.

In Bedford each student has a counselor who works with the students to create their college list.  The college NACAC college fairs also have resources for students to help create a college list.   Alicia pointed out how  they are adapting and helping students develop their list.

In-person college fairs have College Advising Centers staffed with college counselors to help guide students through the fair, answer questions, and give them ideas of which schools to “visit” based on their parameters. Virtual NACAC fairs feature the “Counselor Chat” which is a new platform that essentially works like a virtual College Advising Center.  Attendees will login to the platform and be given a chat icon at the bottom of their screen. At any time, they can click on that icon and ask questions to help guide them through the fair.” 


Her advice on how to get the most out of these Virtual College Fairs:

Make a Game Plan

Virtual national college fairs typically host more than 400 colleges – preparing ahead is smart and ensures you spend your time wisely.  Think about what you are looking for in a college (location, size, college type/philosophy, academic culture, extracurricular opportunities) and focus on schools that match your criteria. Preview the attendee list and identify a target list of colleges you would like to “visit.”

Attend Information Sessions

Many college fairs offer information sessions whereby you can hear from a panel of admission representatives with a variety of experiences and viewpoints. You’ll learn general information about the college search, financial aid, scholarships, athletic recruitment, and other important topics. It’s a great opportunity to learn a lot in a short period of time.

Ask Questions 

Conversations with admission reps are your chance to learn more about a college, beyond what is included on the website, to see if a school is a good fit for you. They know the admissions process inside and out so take advantage of their knowledge. Also, take the initiative to ask how to connect with current students to learn more about their experience. 

Connect and Build Relationships

Admission reps are a wealth of information and your liaison, so to speak, with the colleges. Ask for the contact information for the New England or Bedford representative so you can follow-up with the admission rep who will likely be responsible for reviewing your application. Send them a note afterwards to introduce yourself with follow-up questions to continue the conversation.

Alicia’s point to Connect and Build Relationships is really important.  There is a term in the college admission world called “Demonstrated Interest.”  One factor on who a college admits has to do with how likely a college feels an applicant will choose to attend if accepted.  Being virtual it’s easy to be stealthy in researching colleges.  Resist the urge to be shy when you’re asked to register – do it.  Ask questions,  as Alicia says, reach out to admissions reps with questions, sign up for information sessions, etc.  There is some debate as to how much emphasis colleges put on “demonstrated interest” but there really is no downside.  Basically, if you’re interested in a college — let them know. Don’t be shy.  

What ‘Demonstrated Interest’ Means in College Admissions
US News & World Report – May 21, 2018

10 Ways Students Can Use Demonstrated Interest To Their Benefit
Forbes – Sep 17, 2019

Upcoming NACAC Fairs

STEM, March 7, 1pm – 5pm (ET)

PVA, March 16, 4:00 – 8:00 pm (ET)

March 21, 1pm -7pm  (ET)

Western US, April 10, 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm

Southeastern US, April 20, 3:00 pm – 7:00 pm

May 2, 1pm -7pm (ET)

Jen Rosier of PrepU has been advising students here in Bedford and beyond for over 25 years.  Here’s what she is telling people on how to get a sense of a school during this crazy year when traditional campus visits are not available.

Choosing a college is getting that much trickier no thanks to the pandemic and campus closings. But it also opens up the door for a student to see beyond aesthetics and gut instincts in choosing their top schools. I’m advising students to think of their college list building as a funneling process.  

    • First, you should use readily available search engines such as Bedford High’s SCOIR, Naviance, or College Board to get a broad idea of schools based on your grades, majors, location, and size. (Don’t worry if you don’t have scores yet). You can also attend virtual college fairs like the NACAC one!
    • To get a sense of the campus culture, vibe, and surrounding areas, read through the FISKE GUIDE, my favorite objective book offering reviews that go beyond the stats. Most of my students also love to check out student review sites such as Niche and Unigo. These resources are fun, but just remember sometimes you are only getting the opinions of a few students. 
    • Once you’ve found 10-20 schools that interest you, dig in and do your research: academic approach, student: teacher ratio, social life, location.
    • Have a realistic conversation with your family about college funding. Getting consensus about paying for college and how important scholarships will be for your family can help to shape your college list. Using reputable resources like the Net Price Calculator can help you determine potential costs.
    • Learn about how your target universities are handling the pandemic. Are schools completely closed? Hybrid? Online? How will these policies work for your family and your learning style?
    • Check on the financial health of your target schools. Many colleges and universities have taken a financial hit during the pandemic, especially small, private, less selective ones.  Here is a good starting resource:
    • If your schools are passing on all of the above, finally you should invest your time in attending virtual information sessions and/or virtual campus tours.  Just visit the admissions websites for each school to find these events.
    • For those schools that are local enough and that remain interesting to you, arrange a drive by tour.  Check each school’s admissions website for details on what is allowed. Even for those campuses that prohibit on campus visitors, you can learn a lot about whether a campus is “too Maine” by driving around the perimeter of the campus, checking out surrounding shops and restaurants, and gauging how you feel about the distance from home. 
    • Finally, give yourself a break and don’t worry about traditional timelines. Sure, so normally many juniors would be spending February vacation touring colleges. But these aren’t normal times. It’s okay if you need to put off visits until a time when your family feels comfortable with travel.

Here are some other tips for evaluating colleges from afar:

Look at Forums: Most colleges host forums for current and prospective students to discuss their respective colleges. If you can’t visit a school in person, take a look at  sites  like College Confidential  (they have forums for both students and parents) or Reddit College.  There you can connect with students who may have already visited the schools you’re interested in, or are currently attending those schools.  Also most college websites have student official  Vlogs and Blogs; there are also unofficial Vlogs and Blogs you can google.  Almost all colleges have their own YouTube Channel as well.   


Enjoy your February break!

Tara O'Loughlin (c) 2021 all rights reserved

The Blind Side

Next Up – Athletic Recruiting:   There has never been a parent who saw their kid score a goal or hit a homerun who hasn’t, however briefly, wondered if their kid may get a college scholarship and save them a ton of money.  




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