by Cathy Copeland Titus, Strategies For College

Typically, touring US colleges and universities happens over three seasons: high school fall and spring breaks and summer vacations are viewed by many families as prime time to explore campuses. This year, many of you are trying to build and refine your lists without the opportunity to personally experience a college tour due to current health and safety precautions. With college campuses empty and closed to visitors, a new approach is required to explore the schools in which you are interested.

In the pursuit of the best fit college, Strategies advisors consider three key attributes: academic opportunity, financial sensibility, and the somewhat elusive social/emotional fit, i.e. the “vibe” on campus. Academic offerings are accessible on college websites, and the financial picture is laid out in advance with your family and advisor. Discerning whether a college is where you will make friends, play sports, join clubs, and become a valued member of your new community is crucial to a successful transition. This is really what we mean when we talk about the vibe. First year to sophomore year attrition rates are over 33% nationally, with half of those students citing unhappiness and inability to fit in as their reason to leave. Getting a feel for a campus and your ability to see yourself there is important to making a successful transition.

We asked veteran counselor Andrea Torello, “What advice do you have for students in lieu of a campus visit?” She has zeroed in on key ways to help determine that all important fit.

1. Virtual tours: many colleges have produced very engaging virtual tours that walk you around campus. This helps you see the physical space, but remember how wide angled the images can be—everything will actually be smaller and closer together in real life.

2. Many schools allow you to sign up for virtual tours and attend virtual information sessions. We urge you to do so because it is a way to demonstrate interest and admissions will see that you’ve registered.

3. YouTube is a great resource for official campus tours, but pretty quickly viewers will start to see student-made and other unofficial videos in the queue. It’s a good opportunity to hear the perspective of a student who isn’t an official tour guide. This may be a more candid view of a college, but remember that they only represent one person’s experience.

4. Use Google street view to look around the area surrounding campus. Note how close restaurants, shops, museums, and other activities are to campus. Pretend you’re going on vacation!

5. Go to social media to see what colleges, teams, clubs, etc., are posting on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.

6. Ask your Strategies For College advisor if they will connect you to a current student at the colleges where you are applying. We suggest asking questions that you may not get answers to on the website, such as “Do you feel safe on campus?”; “Do lots of students go to the sports events?”; “Are the clubs welcoming?” These kinds of questions and anything else that is specific to you will help you determine the campus atmosphere.

7. In all likelihood, you will be able to visit colleges where you’ve been accepted before you have to make your decision next spring. Although this may not be the ideal sequence of events for the decision-making process, it may be the best way to solidify your final choice.

8. Pro tip: Accepted Students Day is when colleges show their best effort, cleanest campus and friendliest smiles. If you want to see what a campus is really like, make the trip more than once if possible. Visiting a college on a dreary February day and still loving it is a good indication that you will thrive in day-to-day life on campus.

This season is like no other we’ve experienced in our 30 years of guiding students at Strategies For College. We welcome your feedback, insights and experience. As always, let us know how we can help.