How to Make College Decisions When Campuses Are Closed

As colleges and universities nationwide shift to online classes in an attempt to curtail the spread of the coronavirus, the usual spring break college tours have been upended.

Things are changing fast, so it’s important to check with individual colleges, but most prospective student visits, including events and overnights for admitted students, are off the table for now. With campuses closed, frustrated high school juniors face tour cancellations, and seniors won’t be able to step foot on most campuses to feel the vibe before their deposits are due on May 1, National College Decision Day.

Choosing a college can be a stressful decision any year, and the special circumstances this spring call for extra resilience. Parents can help their teenagers keep their perspective and stay levelheaded, weighing the pros and cons of the schools on their lists remotely. In addition to the usual factors like academic and social opportunities and financial aid offers, the public health crisis may make some families prioritize closeness to home.

Following are some ways students can get creative to gather their information for college decisions while maintaining plenty of social distancing.

Your high school counselor can provide a wealth of information about specific colleges or connect you with former students from your high school attending the colleges you can’t visit right now. And just because the college admissions office isn’t open to you doesn’t mean it’s not open at all. Admissions staffs are scrambling to provide as much information as possible so students can make informed decisions.

Sulgi Lim, director of admission at Williams College, said her team is “gearing up to provide alternative opportunities for students to get to know Williams from afar.” Williams admissions counselors continue to answer phones to field students’ questions, and the Williams website now includes profiles of current students with diverse interests, along with their email links, so prospective students can communicate with them. No hand washing necessary.

The admissions counseling team at the University of Washington “is scheduling appointments by Zoom and phone and offering online information sessions for all prospective students and their families,” said Paul A. Seegert, director of admissions. “Soon, we’ll also have the ability for current tour guides to chat with prospective students online.”

Mr. Seegert pointed out that the university’s shift from live to online classes may provide a unique opportunity for more visitors to “sit in” on classes, albeit virtually. “We’re excited to extend our reach to communities who may not otherwise have had the opportunity to visit our campus,” he said.

Cate Granger Zolkos, dean of admission at Amherst College, expressed the pervasive feeling of disappointment resonating among admissions staffs nationwide. “I love welcoming our admitted students to campus — we all do,” she said. “Best time of year!”

Ms. Zolkos reassures students awaiting notifications, “We will enroll, as planned, a typical class of 473 incoming first-year students,” and the admissions staff encourages prospective students to visit the college website, take a virtual tour, and learn more about student life by reading the student blogs linked there.

At the Ohio State University, although all undergraduate admissions visits and on-campus recruitment events scheduled through April 20 were canceled, Beth A. Wiser, executive director of undergraduate admissions, said Friday that a skeleton crew was still in the office to greet walk-in prospective students. Virtual webinars with admitted students were in the works, she said, and the admissions staff planned to add more opportunities for in-person visits for juniors when that’s once again possible.

[From 2017: Skipping the College Tour]

For a less biased contact than the college admissions office can offer, mine your personal virtual networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn to find and connect with enrolled students or alumni to learn more about a school. Email or message to set up a time to chat over FaceTime, Skype or even an old-fashioned phone call. As a bonus, you’ll have a contact no one paid to peddle the school, who can provide candid, useful information you’d never hear in an official information session.

Many schools offer virtual campus tours — whether elaborate virtual reality experiences, videos or slide shows — where you’ll find images that can give you a feel for what a campus looks like and highlight what each college holds dear. Dig further, and you’ll find admissions blogs, podcasts and links to follow a school on social media. You may also find free access to the school newspaper that covers events, sports, politics and opinions of real students.

While juniors may have future options for college visits, seniors will need to make a final decision as best they can with the tools available, including their gut instinct. When admitted students are having a tough time choosing among colleges, it usually means that any of their finalists could work out well. Remember that once you have made your choice, you have the power to arrive on campus with a great attitude and make your college experience your perfect fit.

Jill Margaret Shulman is a college essay coach and the author of “College Admissions Cracked: Saving Your Kid (and Yourself) From the Madness.”

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