Five campuses, 1,800 miles, 4 plane tickets, 3 tanks of gas—and lots of meals out. Depending on which schools you're considering, campus visits can really add up. And though college visits—and the official campus tour—might be touted as something you absolutely shouldn't miss, they aren't always possible. If cost or time constraints preclude you from taking a trip to campus, don't despair. There are a few non-traditional ways to visit that can help you make a final decision—or narrow down the field of choices. They can't entirely replace the real thing, but they can help broaden your perspective on a college and fill in some of the blanks.
The college visit hits home through virtual reality
If you can access the Internet, you can take a virtual tour of almost every campus in the country. Hundreds of schools instantly link you to photographs, facts and figures, and plenty of other information ranging from course syllabi to cuisine. There are even some that offer 360-degree virtual tours from the comfort of your armchair.
Of course, just as travel brochures won't let you hear the traffic on the Champs-Elysées or feel the warm sand of Waikiki, photos found on typical Web pages can't compete with a real stroll through the library or dining commons. However, you can access many student publications on the Web, and you may find them a more-telling resource about a school's culture and social climate.
Make the campus tour scene by screen
Most colleges put a lot of time and energy into developing recruiting videos to show off their best traits. Ask the admission offices of your selected schools to send you a copy if they have one. Check in with your high school counselor as well because they should have all sorts of resources available, including a wide range of videos or DVDs. Then all you have to do is turn on the tube, pop some popcorn, settle into your chair, and let the schools show and tell you everything they want you to know.
Go to the fair for your campus visit
Check with your school guidance office about college fairs or college nights in your area. These events are attended by representatives from many types of institutions and vary from large and noisy occasions to smaller events limited to students and parents from a particular school. Expect to see tables piled high with brochures, festooned with catchy banners, and staffed by admission officers or local alumni. If it's a slow night, you'll probably be able to have lots of your questions answered and feel you've made a connection with a particular college. On the other hand, it could be very busy, in which case you'll be able to get in some good browsing, see what's out there, and get on some mailing lists. Definitely try to attend these events and "work the room."
The National Association for College Admission Counseling posts schedules of college fairs on its Web site (www.nacacnet.org). Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can actually attend regularly scheduled online college fairs on this site as well. The site hosts a virtual exhibit hall where you can peruse "display tables" hosted by participating colleges and participate in live chats with campus representatives. The sessions are free, but you'll have to decide if it gives you enough information to shell out the cost of admission for a particular school. However, if you live in a remote area it might be the only shot you get at the semblance of a college fair.
Admission representatives are busy people. During the day when the college fairs are closed, many of these reps are making their rounds to the local high schools, bringing the college visit to you. Your school should post a schedule of these visits and you can usually get excused from class to attend a group presentation or individual meeting. While these aren't usually official interviews, they do offer a handy up-close look at some colleges. Find out ahead of time if an interview is an option.
College visits can be made with the alums
It's not at all unusual for colleges to maintain a network of graduates who help with the admission process. Sometimes, these alumni conduct interviews that are just as official as those held on campus, complete with an evaluation sent afterwards to the admission office. If they don't conduct interviews, they might still provide less structured ways to teach you about their former schools. The admission office can give you the names of alumni in your area—you might be surprised by how widespread these networks can be.
If you arrange a meeting with an alumnus, find out in advance if you'll have a formal interview and if you are, prepare accordingly. Try to remember, though, that even when alums are trained to represent a college as interviewers, they're often better at answering general questions about the school than specific questions about admission. They're also likely to paint a subjective picture of the school, rather than a factual one. Recent graduates should have the up-to-date scoop on a range of topics, but other alums may only offer enchanting anecdotes about the good old days, and offer pretty limited information about the campus as it is now. Such a campus tour may be entertaining, but it won't be very enlightening.
That being said, connecting with local alumni might even help you at decision time. There are influential and experienced alumni who will be eager to promote you if you make a good impression—and they may have the ear of top-ranking admission officials. It certainly can't hurt to check it out.