A new virtual reality to students’ college search

Universities offer live video information sessions from the comfort and convenience of home

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Photo by Emma Baker

A college admissions officer explains the process of applying to the university during a virtual visit. Throughout the pandemic, more and more high school seniors are turning to the internet to aid their college search. “The group virtual visits always include a quick tour of the campus, a student panel, explanation of the application process, and a time to ask questions,” senior Sabrina Delaney said. “My least favorite part is the Q and A session because if the questions don't apply to you it is easy to lose interest.”

Emma Baker, Staff Reporter

After years of coloring with crayons, playing Cool Math Games and working not-so-diligently on summer reading assignments, the dawn of real adulthood is upon high school seniors. For many, the first step of the rest of their life leads them to the social, yet academically challenging confines of a dorm. 

The college search is on, but, in this new digital age that COVID-19 bears, in-person visits to prospective campuses are far and few between. Instead, eager students may have to venture online and register for a virtual information session, campus tour, current student Q&A, virtual explanation of the application process or anything else the college may offer. 

“Visiting virtually allows me to learn about the school without actually traveling there to see if it is a good fit for me,” senior Sabrina Delaney said. “I have gone on virtual visits to Drake University, Southern Illinois University and Friends University. I’ve had private Zoom calls to speak with professors of my potential majors and learn about what they have to offer. Speaking one on one with a professor is my favorite part because it gives me the opportunity to imagine myself in those classes and connect to the teacher.”

While these visits have been great for allowing students to get a basic understanding of the university and help narrow down their list of potential schools, a quintessential part of the college search is missing: the campus feel.

 “Nothing can replace stepping foot on a college campus and getting a feel for the campus, the atmosphere and really being able to see yourself as a student on that campus,” Millard West school and post-secondary counselor Amy Reoh said. “ I always recommend an in-person visit when possible.  The second best option during these times are the virtual visits and many colleges have really stepped up their game in offering Google Meet visits and Zoom visits where you actually get to interact with an admissions representative to ask questions and often get the virtual 360 tour hosted by the representative.”

As important as the information is, students agree with Reoh that the Zoom visits seem to put a damper on the enthusiasm of this exciting moment in their lives. They do not get the college initiation of reciting the school’s cheer back to the admissions officer or meeting people from across the country—it’s not the personable and engaging experience kids desire.

“How the current students speak on the panel is a big thing I look for when picking a school virtually,” Delaney said. “If the students seem uninterested or don’t have cool things to share about the college, it makes me lose interest in the school because I have nothing to look forward to.”

Along with the challenge of understanding the school’s spirit through a screen, comes difficulties for students and counselors to access important college admissions information in the first place. With only half the senior class at the school at a time and the need for safe distancing measures, the standard informational senior meetings in the auditorium would be inconsistent and less effective. And, although many schools are going test optional, the Class of 2021 brings with them concern about missing their free and state mandated ACT in the spring. This makes the arduous task of filling out college and scholarship applications a bit more tricky. Right now, the best thing students can do is have patience, keep lines of communication open with their counselors, and start their search the best they can.

 “I strongly encourage, now more than ever, students getting on college websites, signing up for the virtual visits and really researching the characteristics of a college that are most important to you as a student,” Reoh said. “From there, seniors really need to be making a list of colleges they plan on applying to and putting that into their Naviance account under ‘Colleges I am applying to.’ Final decisions for all colleges aren’t due until May 1st, so students have plenty of time to make the final decision, but they just need to be cognizant of application deadlines which are typically this fall.”

With COVID-19 bound to stay for another season or two, changes are sure to be left in its wake—even to the college process. But change doesn’t have to come in a negative context. 

“I think the expansion of opportunities to engage with colleges directly, in lieu of in-person visits, is what has changed the most,” UNL recruitment specialist Logan Spackman said. “I anticipate these will continue to be part of the college search process long term. We’ve seen students and families utilize these additional connection opportunities to learn more about specific college-going processes, and I think we’ve seen just how valuable access to that information can be.”

Just like Reoh, Spackman advises students to do and find what works for them during these unique circumstances and to stay in touch.

“Admissions representatives want to help you find the college that is the perfect fit for you, and to find that usually means talking about your goals and desires for your college experienceeven if you don’t know what those are yet,” Spackman said. “Take advantage of college reps visiting your school, go to virtual sessions, make campus visits where possible, call our admissions officesthat process of engagement is going to help you find a school you feel great about.”

As school gears up and moving out looms nearer, seniors will certainly come face to face with a college admissions process unlike any other. There will be challenges, such as limited in-person visits and application changes, but with the help of admission specialists and the support of understanding communities, the Class of 2021 will make it through.