female student on video chat

by Steve Fernandez-Brennan, former admissions officer at Occidental College

When helping students prepare for college visits before COVID-19 I would encourage them to do their research, to know what they wanted to learn, to keep an open mind, and to have fun. Fourteen months into the pandemic, what would I say now? The exact same thing—with one addition: be polite!

When we travel somewhere—anywhere—we have time en route to consider where we’re going and what we’ll do when we get there. Whether it’s 15 minutes to school or a multi-hour trip across the country to visit a college campus, the time allows a shift in mindset. Every journey out of our doors takes some preparation, after all; at a minimum we get out of bed, brush our teeth, and decide what we’re going to wear no matter the destination. When touring colleges we did all of that and much more.

And then, starting last March, most of us didn’t. We had no travel time, no usual routine of (x) minutes to school or practice. We were home, and everything happened at home. We had class from home, and maybe even from bed; we had practices and recitals and everything else from home.

Which also meant no in-person campus visits. There had been some virtual campus tours before COVID, true, but it was rare to have information sessions online, and vanishingly rarer still to have academic department or athletic presentations available virtually. And suddenly, for most students this from-home was the only way to have a “college visit.”

And this is why I add the encouragement for etiquette.

When thinking about this topic I reached out to admission professionals to get their perspective. When I asked one official at a liberal arts college in the Midwest about virtual campus tours, before I could even get to etiquette recommendations, they interjected, “[The tour’s] not great, it’s not the same, and we all get that.” But they went on to say, “Students still need to take their interactions with us seriously because our staff takes it seriously. You don’t want to be remembered as ‘the rude kid.’” Their college offered admission information sessions, for which students register in advance, and the Q&A allowed students to type in their question or come off mute to ask them. Their suggestion? “Just like in person, don’t ask a question to ask a question. Show that you’ve done some research and you’re not going down a checklist like those annoying kids at college nights.”

One admission officer from a large public university echoed that: “The only interaction we have with some students is via the chat interface… you have to register for our info sessions, so asking questions that you could have just Googled wastes everyone’s times.”

An admission representative from a university in Chicago added, “We know you might be on your mom’s or brother’s account or laptop,” when on a one-on-one or small group video chat, “but if you can edit the name so it’s really you instead of a phone number, that’s great.” They also suggested, “We can tell if you’re on your phone. Just like if you were in the room in front of us, put it away. Actually, pretend you’re just in the room in front of us. How would you act? Do that!”

When I asked about communication after an information session or online open house none of the four admission officers I spoke with expected any. Would they welcome it? The answer is the standard one for admission: “it depends…” One said that it would be another email they’d have to read so, unless there was a question they could help with, they’d prefer not hearing from students who attended their information session; others said that they very rarely received them but appreciated them when they did. It won’t hurt a student to send a note, and if a school tracks demonstrated interest it can be a good way to engage with the admission office.

Virtual engagement with campuses is here to stay. Even as more and more colleges and universities offer in-person opportunities, it’s still a good idea to remember that, however you visit: prepare, know what you want to learn, keep an open mind—and be polite!

College Application Prep 101

Written by Steve Fernandez-Brennan
Steve Fernandez-Brennan is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Prior to joining College Coach, Steve was an admissions officer at Occidental College, Marquette University, Loyola University Chicago, and Regis University (CO). Visit our website to learn more about Steve Fernandez-Brennan.