COVID College Search: Tours, Student Panels, and Fairs In Your PJs

covid college search

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, rising high school seniors would likely be spending some time during the summer and fall visiting prospective colleges, attending college fairs, or meeting with college recruiters who visit their high schools. But what about now? As you might expect, researching college options for the Class of 2021 just got very interesting! Let’s take a look at what some of these formerly typical activities might look like this year. It’s the COVID college search year!

First, the College Visit

There will be a fairly high degree of variation in what you should expect with the college visit. Because your list is likely to include colleges in various states, those colleges are likely operating within very different parameters. In some states it’s sounding like it will be close to business-as-usual for their colleges. Other schools are still locked down tighter than Fort Knox. Some have announced reopening plans for the fall. Others have already announced there will be no in-person class. Generally speaking, it’s likely that if the college has opened its doors to students, it’s also welcoming prospective students. A new form of a campus visit, amended to fit certain social distancing restrictions, will be introduced.

If the college isn’t allowing students on campus, it’s probably not rolling out the red carpet for visitors either. Just be sure you check out each school’s website for information. Also understand that just because a college is open to visitors, you shouldn’t feel pressure to go. If you have concerns about the virus or safety of your health, listen to your gut.

So, what do you do if you can’t visit colleges?

Most are offering virtual tours right now. The good news here is that you can do these anytime and from the comfort of your own bedroom. You don’t have to arrange for travel or any other logistics! But no matter how well-done a virtual tour is, it’s never the same as being on campus. You may have seen pictures of the Sistine Chapel, but if you’ve never stood there, gazing at Michelangelo’s work, you really have no idea.

RELATED: The Best Virtual College Tours Online

Also realize that virtual tours often reflect the size of said school’s marketing budget. You will get the very best edited, scripted, and strategically selected videos that each school can afford. Be sure you’re not judging colleges based on the size of their wallet as opposed to whether or not it’s a good fit.

Some colleges are also offering virtual admissions information sessions. Sometimes these sessions are pre-recorded… a little lazy on the college’s part if you ask me.

One very cool new college tour we heard about? The University of Southern Indiana has started “drive thru” car tours — driving through campus with narration. Check them out here.

In other cases, the admissions representatives are offering synchronous information sessions during the times they would have normally welcomed visitors. You can actually tune-in and interact with and ask questions of the admissions representative. In the case of the synchronous information sessions, make sure you follow-up with a nice thank you email (or handwritten note is even better) to the person who delivered the session. It gets your name on the radar as having interest, which is tracked by some schools. It’s also just polite and appreciated. Check individual college’s websites for details about their information sessions.

The New College Fair

Next, let’s dissect what the college fair might look like this year. I had a nice chat with a friend of mine who still works in college admissions. She confirmed my expectations.

Most colleges are not planning on attending many (if any) college fairs or conducting high school visits this fall. In my state of Virginia, the annual “Virginia Tour” — an 8-week long tour around the state where various high schools and other event venues host hundreds of colleges for college fairs — is cancelled. It’s a pretty sure bet that these fairs which regularly boast hundreds if not thousands in attendance are a no-go during COVID.

RELATED: The Coming ‘Hybrid’ College Education

Enter, the online college fair. NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, usually hosts large college fairs around the country. Most of those fairs are also cancelled so they are hosting at least three virtual fairs. Registration isn’t currently open, but sign up at this link to receive an email when it does.

Other organizations are also stepping up and offering some interesting forums to learn more about colleges. Colleges that Change Lives, a non-profit focused on a student-centered approach to the college search that places emphasis on a transformative college experience rather than rankings, has put together an impressive list of virtual presentations from its member schools. They have also hosted panel-style college presentations in the past so I wouldn’t rule out additional opportunities with CTCL in the future.

Applerouth, a widely respected test-prep and tutoring company, has put together a “Road Trip” of sorts where you can register to attend virtual student panels from some big name schools grouped by similarities.

Get Virtually Creative

Regardless of the format you choose, these virtual opportunities are becoming increasingly common. And not just because of the COVID college search year.

Don’t just assume that if admissions offices are closed to visitors that there aren’t ways to learn more! If they can’t come to you this year, make sure you go to them – virtually, at least! Be sure to register when allowed. This documents your “attendance” and gets your name on their list which demonstrates your interest. And, just like you should do if you had met admissions representatives in person, don’t forget those follow-up emails or thank you notes when you’ve received any kind of individualized attention.

Just like everything else, parts of these new ways of researching and learning about colleges will become normal. The COVID college search will blend with the “old” college search methods!

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