Visiting Virtually

Due to COVID-related public health concerns, college campus tours have gone virtual. But the reviews are mixed.


digital art by Julia Poppa

College admissions offices across the country are now offering students an online glimpse of campus life, complete with 360-degree pictures and other interactive features.

By Alyssa Bruce, North Allegheny Senior High School

Senior year, while famously marked by easy coursework and little responsibility, has one even more defining feature — college applications.

Perhaps the most important decision in the lives of high school seniors is which colleges to apply to, and from there, which to enroll in. Until this year, visiting the schools on a student’s list played a central role in their decision-making process. The recent virus outbreak, however, has brought such in-person visits to a halt. Now, many schools are turning to virtual tours as a replacement.

“All of the visits I had scheduled were canceled due to the virus,” said senior Julia Wonsettler. “I hadn’t planned on scheduling any earlier because spring was the best time for me to visit.”

Prior to the outbreak, prospective seniors across the country took full advantage of the opportunity to attend both self-guided and group tours of college campuses. Tour leaders provided worthwhile information about their specific school and led families through a run-down of the college experience. For the seniors who came before the Class of 2021, visiting colleges in-person brought many benefits, the most important of which was a feel for how life on campus would be.

Stefany Kaminsky, a 2020 NA alumna, benefited immensely from attending an in-person tour.

“An on-campus tour was the sole reason I chose my college,” she said. “Seeing the school in person really helped me to picture myself on the campus.”

Nevertheless, social distancing guidelines have caused many universities to cancel all in-person visits to campus. The early spring season, which was when lockdown began, is the time when most juniors begin to schedule college tours. For the Class of 2021, however, that option has remained off the table since March.

I have done virtual [college] tours, but I feel like I didn’t really gain any information that I didn’t already know.”

— Sandy Cho, senior

Karl Fuchs, a senior, was lucky enough to have taken one in-person college tour before the pandemic.

“I was near one of my potential college choices during my sister’s hockey tournament and was able to tour the college in person,” said Fuchs. “This happened right before lockdown, so I am very glad I was able to get at least one visit in.”

Many colleges now offer virtual visits, which consist of interactive images of areas on campus, along with informational text, and sometimes a virtual tour guide who discusses each specific area of campus life in detail. The more sophisticated virtual tours allow viewers to click on groups of pictures that display photos from different angles. Some even offer 360° photos, allowing students to view a room or building from all angles, as if they were there in person. But the majority of virtual college tours only offer still pictures, limiting access only to those areas that the colleges chose to include.

For Wonsettler, there is no choice but to participate in the online tours. 

“I think they are helpful to get a general idea of what the school has to offer,” she said.

However, Wonsettler also highlights the many disadvantages of the virtual experience. 

“One of the important parts of a college tour is getting a feel for the school, and virtual tours fail to do that,” she added. “Prospective students aren’t able to get a feel for the surrounding areas.”

Like Wonsettler, senior Sandy Cho has also noticed some faults among the positives.

“I have done virtual tours, but I feel like I didn’t really gain any information that I didn’t already know,” Cho said. “I understand that virtual tours are the only option, but I would definitely have benefited more from an in-person tour.”

Although many students look at the disadvantages of the situation, others feel it is the best option given the current situation.

“While nothing can compare to an in-person visit, I think these virtual alternatives are better than not visiting at all,” said NASH school counselor, Ms. Rosato.

This year, NASH is hosting virtual visits with admission counselors from schools nationwide, allowing students to live chat with experts who would otherwise remain inaccessible.

“NASH students will have the opportunity to connect online with the person reading their application, so they can ask any questions they may have,” added Rosato.

For the time being, virtual tours are the safest—and probably only—option for most college-bound seniors. As difficult as it has been to gain an understanding of a school from a distant laptop, it will likely prove easier than the unique couple of months ahead, as college application deadlines draw nearer.

This story was originally published on The Uproar on September 22, 2020.