Non-travel ways to explore your college list
What’s the difference between the Claremont Colleges? Where do the students hang out at Bucknell? Do the dorms at UVa have private bathrooms or shared bathrooms?
If you’ve got a lot of questions about the schools on your potential college list, it might feel like the only way to answer them is to visit those schools. Campus visits can help you understand how far it will be to walk from the freshman dorms to the buildings where you’ll take most of your classes. You’ll see whether the dining hall is set up as an all-you-can-eat-buffet or more like a food court. Thankfully, however, the on-campus tour doesn’t have to be your first stop for discovering more about the campus or more about how the current students feel about their lives there. I’ve put together a list of some useful “virtual tours” and “campus review” websites that put your virtually in the middle of everything at nearly every college and university in the US.
The college website: Spend some time looking through the college’s actual website. Take note of the way they describe themselves. Do they say they are a “top tier research university” or a place where you get “one-on-one attention from your professors?” Are they proud of their diverse student body, or the opportunities for great internships. Explore the admissions and financial aid page and take notes on all the things you’d likely learn at an admissions info session: deadlines, special requirements, honors applications, additional scholarship requirements, etc.
While exploring the website may only show you the glossy marketing about campus, a little digging can show you things you may not have known. Look through the residence life site and explore some of the “living-learning” communities or “residential colleges” and you might find a place where you can get the benefits of a small-liberal arts college while having access to a large university’s library and research resources. Look at the student clubs and check out the newspaper’s archives. What are students passionate about? Do they have an outdoor excursions program? A religious community? Greek life? What are the required general distribution requirements, and what kinds of courses can you find in the catalog that fulfill those requirements? Do they sound like you’d enjoy them? Check out departmental sites and look through syllabi (outlines of what the course work and books are for each term), do those look like classes you’d like to take?
www.Unigo.com and CollegeClick.com: The college site won’t tell you everything, so sites like Unigo and CollegeClick give you reviews and interviews with students on campus. On Unigo, you can read responses to survey questions that range from “What should a freshman know before they start?” to “What’s the worst thing about your school?” On CollegeClick, you’ll see interviews with students in various places around campus. You’ll hear them tell you what they like about their dorm, or what are the hours in the late night cafeteria. You’ll also see the background of those places on campus where they film the interviews. You can see what kinds of students attend the school and hear their perceptions of life there.
Virtual Tours: Some universities offer virtual tours on their website, but also check out YouTube, YouVisit (YouVisit tours are paid for by the schools), and It’s Nacho (YouniversityTV) for different perspectives. Schools create virtual tours partly as a service to international students who can’t visit, but also as a marketing device to encourage you to think they are the best school in the world. That’s why it’s important to compare tours produced by the school themselves to some produced by students or independent companies. Keep in mind that just because a school doesn’t have a fancy virtual tour doesn’t mean it might not be a good match for you, it just means you’ll have to learn more another way.
Email: Come up with some specific questions about an interest of yours and email a student leader or professor in the department and ask them. You’re most likely to get a useful response if you’re questions are detailed and not readily answered by google or the club or department website. If your questions are specific to the application, or to your personal circumstances, email your admissions or financial aid rep. They’re happy to help you understand more.
Live-cams: Most universities have live cams somewhere on campus. They may be in a student hot-spot, or they may show the slow process of a new dorm being built. Do a search to see what your schools have.
Books: While books may seem old fashioned, well-respected guides like Fiske’s, Colleges That Change Lives, College Finder or Hidden Ivies can give you insight into how the school is perceived by professionals and into what the students do with their education after graduation. Try not to base too much on the US News Rankings, as they are easily manipulated by schools and don’t accurately reflect meaningful differences between schools. They most accurately reflect which schools have hired rankings-consultants and paid money to increase their scores.
Admissions blogs on the school website: Not only will these highlight interesting things about each school, but they may give you insight into what the admissions officers are noticing when they read applications. Are there a lot of posts about famous incoming students? About partnerships between students and faculty? About possible visits to your part of the world?
Social Networking: Current students are on all the social networking sites. Some admissions offices have set up groups to help applicants understand more about life on campus, but you can also join groups that are comprised of real, everyday students and see what they chat about or ask them questions. Feel free to be brave!
If you are going to be touring campuses soon, check out our College Tour Notebook.
Do you have your own favorite ways of getting information about a school without visiting? Share them in the comments!