While college visits aren’t always possible, I don’t think the available virtual campus tours are the solution either. Don’t despair, there are useful alternatives to a college tour but it won’t happen with just a click of a mouse. Yes, it’s a do it yourself alternative but it can be just as useful as a campus tour and a lot cheaper.
Before you get started you need to know why you’re trying to find out something about a college. There are two basic reasons. The first is obvious, you’re trying to get information to decide if it is a school you want to attend. Will you fit in socially and academically on campus? Will the available classes and resources meet your needs?
The second really depends on the college or university. Some schools want information on students to gauge how likely they are to attend if they are accepted. This is called demonstrated interest.
Ultimately, finding information to meet the needs of the first reasons will generally satisfy the requirements of the second reason as well.
So what to do?
Start with the Website
First, get to know a college’s website. Not the part for future students but the one for current students. How easy is it to find departmental contacts, the course schedule, and graduation requirements? What sort of activities are being offered to students? Do the dorms offer wifi or is it only available in certain parts of the campus? Does the IT department’s page look useful for student support or not?
Now before I go any further, there will be those that will argue that a college isn’t its webpage any more than a single student tour guide can represent a university. We can argue about the tour guide but given the internet’s importance in the daily life of a college student, its usability is definitely a legitimate point for comparison.
An increasing number of college websites have a password protected area just for students that makes this information inaccessible. Some will provide applicants with a password, others to anyone who requests access. I have to admit that I’m always suspicious when the course schedule is behind such a firewall. After all, that is the heart of a learning institution, why should it be hidden?
If you can’t access the information, look for the course catalog. It should have names of most of the people you are looking for. Once you have the names, you can search the website directory for contact information.
Research Specific Departments
To continue with your alternative college tour, students should check out the websites of the departments that they are interested in. Here I’m willing to cut some slack, you never know who’s in charge of a department website. However, somewhere students should find a list of department members along with their academic background.
Compare the names officially listed with the department to those who are listed teaching for the semester’s course schedule. If you don’t see a lot of matching names, you need to find out why. Also take a look to see how many students are enrolled in the classes you’ll be required to take. If most of the classes are listed as closed, you have to wonder about how hard it will be to get classes you need to graduate.
Now is the time to ask the college tour question, “how are the professors?” Use the names from the course listing to look up faculty on RateMyProfessor.com. There are all kinds of warnings about problems with such rating websites. You know, people will rate professors poorly because they received lousy grades and such. We used these ratings for my son in picking out community college classes and found that it was fairly easy to distinguish sour grapes from the real thing. Look at how many reviews there are and what exactly people are complaining about. There’s no way to avoid having a bad class now and then, but what you’re looking for is to avoid a bad department.
Just as you can arrange to meet with faculty on actual college tours, you can always email or even phone professors with specific questions. You try directly or go through the admissions office. Ask them questions about what kind of students have been successful in their major. Where do they go after graduation?
Alumni interviews can be a great way to get more information. Most people think of them only as something to “ace” as part of the application process. However, they can be a valuable source of information as well. And if a college doesn’t offer alumni interviews, try contacting the alumni organization directly for someone to talk to.
Even if you don’t do a campus tour, you can still talk to students. You can ask the admissions office to put you in contact with current students who would be willing to talk to you about their experiences. Skype is a useful thing. If there are specific clubs or activities you’re interested in, you can ask for students involved in those areas.
Ultimately, visiting a college website may not substitute for an in-person visit. But it can certainly prevent unnecessary visits or prioritize them when money is an issue. I cover these and other ways to use college websites in Creating College Lists: Your Guide to Using College Websites to Pay Less for a Better Education.