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The Virtual College Search: A Parent’s Perspective


Written by College Coach Guest Authoron June 1st, 2021

Bright Horizons College Coach occasionally features blog posts written by guest authors. You’ll find more information about each guest author in the About the Author section on the blog post.

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by Julie Wolf, Guest Writer My oldest child graduated from high school in 2019. For her, the time from junior year to graduation was spent seeking out college fairs and admissions information sessions in our area. We toured and explored campuses when possible. Virtual tours were already a thing then. They just weren’t our thing—or the only thing. Fast-forward to 2020, and on to 2021, and the virtual tour (or virtual admissions session, or virtual college fair) is practically all we’ve got. My current high school junior has amassed Zoom invitations for myriad online admissions events. Colleges and universities have adapted their “customer service” to fit these physically distanced times, and the shows they once took on the road now come to our venue of choice: bedroom, dining room table, living room couch. Virtual Fairs and Info Sessions: Does One Size Fit All? This spring, the College Board ran four online regional college fairs under the BigFuture Days banner. “Big” wasn’t just advertising hype. Fairs were divided by region—Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, West + Southwest—with hundreds of schools present. Each school hosted a “booth,” and the College Board held information talks hourly: creating your college list, seeking out scholarships, navigating financial aid. Juggling the sessions and booths was no easier online than in person. Each booth featured a prepared video. Some were the slick marketing vehicles you see on college websites, while others were “day in the life” videos created by and geared toward students. Students were encouraged to post questions in the text chat following each video. Despite the disembodied reps’ best efforts, my junior found these chats unsatisfying. With dozens of students in attendance, the barrage of questions came too fast and furious for the reps to keep up. As in real life, for a more personal experience, you’ll want to go small. Or at least smallish. Even pre-pandemic, schools would host local information sessions as a package deal. Sometimes it’s obvious what links these schools—for instance, Northeast Public Universities at a Glance and the Northwest 5 Consortium. Sometimes, though, you’ve got to dig deeper to find out: 8 of the Best Colleges? It’s a consortium of eight small liberal arts schools with nothing in common geographically—they span the breadth of the country, from Connecticut to California—but with a shared academic philosophy. Talk about bang for your buck. The format of the 8 of the Best Colleges info session featured brief but traditional presentations by each college representative, followed by conversations held in breakout rooms. Students could enjoy personal interaction not only with the rep, but also with other prospective students. For a student uncomfortable asking questions, even a small “fair” like this one may be as overwhelming as a large one. It’s not at all anonymous. The admissions officers “go around the room,” asking students to introduce themselves. There’s a downside to the breakout rooms: You can only visit so many during one event to do the schools justice! Which is why every college hosts its own individual information sessions. These are both prerecorded and live, so if your student relishes personal contact and the ability to engage, they should confirm which one they’re signing up for. You can register for these university-specific info sessions on the schools’ admission websites. Campus Tours: Are We There Yet? In the absence of in-person tours, some campuses offer official driving tours, providing route maps upon online registration. I liken these to the curbside pickup options that retailers implemented during the pandemic. You can still experience campus life without ever actually leaving your car, just like you could still take advantage of sales without ever entering the store. Rules vary: Tours may be timed or open-ended. Although buildings remain largely off limits, some schools will let you make stops and explore; others require you to stay in your car, peering, safari-like, through your windshield, hoping to catch a glimpse of students in their natural habitat. A quick scan of my junior’s inbox shows that while some schools are beginning to offer in-person tours, most appear to be taking a conservative approach and are still touting virtual visits. As with all admissions activities—in-person, drive-through, virtual—it’s essential to register on the admissions homepage. Even if you’re sitting in your bedroom during your visit, you want the colleges to know you’re there. No Filter Since I use YouTube primarily to watch videos of corgis riding the subway in backpacks, I haven’t watched the legion of unofficial videos students post to showcase their schools. But those videos aren’t for parents anyway; they’re geared toward other students. The videos present a less polished view of a school than does an official university product, a peek into what college life is like once you’ve cleared the hurdles of getting in. Your Final Answer? The college search process remains unchanged in some ways. Whether in person or online, the huge, overwhelming college fair is still a huge, overwhelming college fair. Live virtual admissions information sessions may come closest to approximating the feel of an in-person event. When student representatives are included in the presentation, prospective students can get a sense of campus life and student types, providing them with some clear evidence to figure out if the school is a fit. My high school junior has yet to set foot on a campus or elbow his way through a packed college fair. Should colleges remain relatively closed to in-person visitors over the next months, there are plenty of tools literally at a student’s fingertips to allow them to make an informed decision when the time comes. About the Author: Julie Wolf, the sole proprietor of Qwerty Editorial, is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Framingham, Massachusetts, with her husband and their three children: a ninth-grader, a high school junior, and a sophomore in college. She can be reached through LinkedIn at College Application Prep 101


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