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College visits go virtual: With most campus tours canceled, prospective students are booking viewings online

Gonzaga University freshman Stephanie McLaren, 18, right, and her mother, Denise McLaren, move into her new dorm room in Catherine Monica Hall on Aug. 26. For high school seniors, the chance to see colleges now is challenging since many campuses don’t offer in-person tours because of COVID-19 restrictions.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga University freshman Stephanie McLaren, 18, right, and her mother, Denise McLaren, move into her new dorm room in Catherine Monica Hall on Aug. 26. For high school seniors, the chance to see colleges now is challenging since many campuses don’t offer in-person tours because of COVID-19 restrictions. (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Like other high school seniors considering college applications, Samantha Seaboldt can’t make choices based on campus visits this fall.

A Spokane Valley STEM Academy student, Seaboldt wants a glimpse of future campus life, so she recently booked virtual tours at Washington State University in Pullman and at Western Washington University.

COVID-19 has canceled most in-person college tours, a tool for families to see academic programs and a campus’ vibe, though those aren’t in full swing, either. In the gap, colleges here and nationwide have expanded online platforms, from webinars to student panels on Zoom.

“It is rather challenging right now because I can’t go anywhere and talk to them,” said Seaboldt, considering a biomed career. “I’m trying to decide between colleges, and it’s sort of difficult.”

Admissions advisers respond promptly, however. “They email you back very quickly and go over all your options.

“I’ve been able to attend virtual meetings where they give us information. Overall, it’s a lot of paperwork to be applying and looking at the colleges.”

Parent Andrea McIntyre said her family recently stopped at the University of Washington – a self-guided visit – to walk around campus with daughter Julia, a Gonzaga Prep senior.

“We saw maybe five students walking around over the course of an hour,” McIntyre said. They didn’t go on a planned California trip to walk around schools because of wildfires. “College reps are doing all they can online.”

Owen Manfred, also at Gonzaga Prep, has relied on virtual platforms.

“A lot of universities are doing webinars; I’ve been able to do that,” Manfred said. “They’re doing virtual tours. We’ve also had some college visits at school over Zoom.”

There are tips to better navigate these platforms, say local university contacts and an adviser with Collegewise, a private college counseling organization. It starts with any university’s admission page, then register for as many virtual interactions as possible.

Katie Konrad Moore, who runs Bellevue’s Collegewise office, has advised many seniors in past years who changed their minds after visits.

Now, many students aren’t traveling, and there’s the lack of tours and on-campus events. It’s a big factor, she said.

“They think they like what a college has to offer, and then they see it in person and realize it doesn’t, or vice versa.”

However, universities are working to compensate.

“There are tons of options now. Several schools that I’ve seen recently will have a live virtual tour. It’s not prerecorded. It’s somebody who is taking you around on FaceTime or Zoom showing you the different buildings.”

“They’re also doing things like info sessions where you hear about the school and how they admit students. They’re doing those live, as well.”

Websites for Gonzaga and Whitworth universities list limited in-person tours with layers of safety protocols and mostly virtual admission interactions. Eastern Washington University’s campus is closed, as students do online studies, but it has added multiple virtual options.

“For virtual campus tours, we actually have our tour guides meet with the students on Zoom meetings and give a virtual tour as if they were on campus,” said Crystal Medina, EWU events and visitation manager. “It’s a little more personalized with conversations.”

Only eight participants can register per each virtual tour to better manage questions from seniors and parents.

Recent “mock classes” were popular among prospective students. New monthly webinars cover topics such as financial aid and housing. Admission advisers do one-on-one virtual visits.

A regular Q&A panel series includes current EWU students.

“It’s really unscripted,” Medina said. “They get opportunities to ask questions and get a feel for campus life – about why they chose Eastern and what they recommend.”

“I don’t think these events are going to go away. We’re seeing a lot of students who maybe financially couldn’t afford to come visit our campus who are visiting virtually, specifically out-of-state students.

“If a student is really interested in going to the university, they can look into it right now at really no cost except for their own time.”

Gonzaga’s fall 2021 application deadline is Dec. 1. Erin Hays, director of undergraduate admission, said GU also offers virtual tours held live over Zoom, with a student ambassador taking participants around campus.

Other additions include new virtual “preview days,” Zoom student panels and webinars such as “Demystifying the College Application.”

“We had been talking all last year about how we can do things virtually – really thinking about our on-campus visits and how can we project that out to students who couldn’t come,” Hays said. “Then COVID hit, and we were forced into the virtual world.”

“We’ve been able to serve so many more students from all over the United States and other parts of the world who never would have had a chance to visit on campus before being admitted. We’ll never get rid of it.”

But online, it’s challenging to show GU’s spirit. “We just have this great spirit on campus and great community, and that is so hard to convey in a virtual space. I do think that is a downside to being virtual-only.”

Research shows seniors most want to talk to students, admission advisers and faculty and to see the campus.

“We are offering one-on-one (virtual) meetings with faculty and current students,” Hays said. Admission interviews offer chances to ask about Gonzaga.

Hays suggests going into such virtual visits with a senior’s priorities, such as class size or activities, and ask about them.

Jana Jaraysi, EWU director of recruitment, reminds seniors to focus on deadlines such as for scholarships. Ask about what the region is like and campus life.

“Even though we’re virtual for another quarter, it doesn’t mean that our clubs and organizations have stopped providing different ways for students to connect,” she said.

EWU’s priority deadline for fall 2021 is Feb. 1, but applications are accepted after that, she said.

When seniors talk to college representatives, Collegewise’s Konrad Moore suggests asking what students typically do for activities on and off campus. Another question might be about any improvements they think a school needs.

College students’ online reviews can help, including on niche.com, she said. Collegewise offers a free online training program called Runway. She also reminds students about social media connections.

“They might not be real close friends, but they’re connections. If they know somebody who is at a school, ask them how their experience is there.”

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