College Visits, During a Pandemic

Many families want to make an in-person college visit before choosing a school

By Kayt Myers August 11, 2020

My 17-year-old son, Jacob, will be a senior in high school this coming school year. We had grand plans to visit colleges he is interested in this summer, but coronavirus and the risks and restrictions of traveling put a halt to those plans. 

It's unfortunate because I feel it’s key for my son to visit the colleges he is interested in before making a decision on where to attend. I wondered what other parents and students were doing about this issue, so I asked a few friends and readers. 

They told me in-person visits were important to them too.

Talking to students on campus matters

Jennifer Rombalski says her son, Ethan, 17, is interested in schools where he can earn a BFA in musical theater. 

“The top musical theater programs are very difficult to get into, with a 1 percent or 2 percent acceptance rate, so he will have to apply to more schools than is typically recommended in hopes of getting into a program," she says. “First, he applies for an audition, then he auditions and then finds out if he gets accepted. It’s a long process.”

She and Ethan toured three colleges in-person prior to COVID-19. They tried virtual tours, but didn’t find them as useful, so they have decided to hold off on further college exploration until they can visit in-person. 

I asked Jennifer if she would feel comfortable with Ethan choosing his college without having visited in person. She said no.

“The best, most informative part of the in-person tours were talking to the students (the tour guides were helpful, but talking to non-tour guide students was even better). We will definitely be taking steps to visit the campus and not just relying on a virtual tour.”

Virtual tour didn't make the grade

Diane Johanson also has a 17-year-old son, Reed, who is interested in engineering and wildlife biology. She said their family had great intentions to visit colleges this year. 

“April vacation would have included trips to New England schools,” she says. “This summer, our family planned a trip to the Rocky Mountain states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming for school tours. COVID-19 put a halt to those plans.”

The Johanson family did one in-person tour pre-COVID. 

“We were able to sit in on a general welcome and intro to the school, two major presentations of our choosing, and a thorough tour of the campus, including dorms. It really gave us a true feeling of the campus, school, and the types of students who ultimately attended,” says Diane. They then experienced an online tour and it fell short of expectations. 

“In April, we participated in Bronco Day 2020 at Boise State. It was a full-day of live Zoom presentations, from a general overview and campus tour to specific majors and admissions information. We sat in on the general info and campus tour before we called it quits. Although we learned a lot about the school, we missed the personal interaction you get from in-person events. We still couldn't get enough of a feel of the school to determine if it would be a good fit.” 

Diane and Reed realize the value of visiting campuses in person and plan to visit the western colleges he’s interested in this October. She said the colleges are taking additional precautions to ensure safe visits including tours mostly outdoors, limiting the attendees, and not including dorms and classrooms in the tours.

Taking precautions to visit schools

Walesca Whitcomb and her 17-year-old daughter, Bailey, have done two in-person tours during the pandemic. She said mask-wearing, small groups, physical distancing, and hand sanitizer were all enforced during the tours. 

“We weren’t able to go into all the buildings at each school, but I can’t imagine looking at a school virtually. It’s just not the same feeling as when you walk on a campus. We felt completely comfortable with the tours and precautions.” 

Bailey and Walesca have a third tour lined up this August.

Colleges make adjustments

So how can parents and students make in-person tours work for them — or make the best of a virtual tour if an in-person option isn’t a feasible choice? 

I asked fellow Macaroni Kid publisher Alison Wenger. She is the communications specialist at Lebanon Valley College near Hershey, Pa. 

“Lebanon Valley College has adjusted its visit opportunities and events to meet the evolving circumstances of the pandemic,” she tells me. “As restrictions have lessened, we reopened campus for individual tours for families and even created new events such as Twilight Tours that act as a smaller-scale open house event with presentations on academics and campus life at different outdoor locations around campus. We also recognize that not all families are able or ready to make in-person visits so we are still offering virtual open houses and information sessions with our admission counselors and an interactive walk through our virtual tour where participants can ask questions of our student tour guide to mimic what they would hear and talk about on an in-person tour.”

'This is a tremendous time to personalize your college search'

Alison says they have seen a higher demand for the in-person offerings on campus as the pandemic has stretched on, which makes sense given everything I have experienced and heard from others. 

“This is a tremendous time to personalize your college search and get individual time with admission counselors and student ambassadors to highlight the information you want to know,” Alison says. “They can also help connect you with faculty in your area of interest and staff members if you have specific questions or needs. Admission offices want to be helpful to your family, just ask.”

Our family will be taking part in some virtual tours in order to help narrow the list of top choices down for my son. From there, we hope to choose a handful of schools to visit in person this fall and winter. Adapting plans due to the environment — and making the most of it — is a great lesson for our high-schoolers on the brink of adulthood.