In the era of COVID-19 social distancing and limited travel, more students will rely on virtual campus tours than ever.

College campuses are doing their best to welcome students back to campus in the “new normal.” No one knows how long measures like masks, distancing and remote learning are going to be part of the college experience, but they are here for the time being. Those measures can impact how schools recruit, as well. 

Students typically want to know five things about a college or university before they choose to apply: 

Admissions requirements
Application process
Majors offered 
Campus life 

While a good admissions counselor (and website) can handle the first four, a tour, whether virtual or in-person, is the best way to get insight into campus life. That’s where the pandemic has impacted recruiting. 

There are two times a year when high-school seniors typically visit college campuses: early fall, when they’re finalizing where to apply, and spring, when they’re making acceptance decisions. 

Spring is also a big time for visits from high school juniors getting a jump on the process or looking at schools further from home. Scoir, a college admissions network, reported in a spring survey that “80% of juniors and 84% of parents reported that campus visits are very important or extremely important in their college selection process.” 

As the pandemic forced campuses to empty and states to shut down last spring, colleges turned to virtual tours to entice admitted students to make a choice without being able to visit. Schools have taken different approaches to virtual tours, using a variety of options — including video walkthroughs, virtual reality tours and combinations of both — to reach the widest audiences. 

According to Inside Higher Ed, high school seniors took tours at a rate 228% higher in spring 2020 than spring 2019. 

Both students and schools benefit from virtual tours

Obviously, during the pandemic, safety is the primary benefit for students who choose virtual tours to visit potential schools. Air travel and staying in hotels are low on the list of activities for a lot of people during this time, especially if they live with anyone who is at higher risk from the COVID-19. There’s no hanging out with strangers on a tour either (even masked and socially distanced), making virtual tours by far the safest choice. 

Virtual tours allow students to see many more campuses without spending money or hours traveling from one school to another. No travel means no costs! That option for a greater range of virtual visits might encourage students to check out and then apply to schools further from home that they wouldn’t have otherwise considered. 

Students can tour at their own pace and without concerns about walking speed or accessibility. There are no ramps to negotiate, no elevators to wait on, no landscapers drowning out the tour guide and no sore feet at the end! 

On the university side, virtual tours let a campus show off its best face on every single tour experience without pesky weather, road construction or other interruptions. Going virtual allows the school greater control over what is showcased on the tour and how. Every tour is given by the best guide! 

Virtual tours also allow a far greater number of students to experience the campus at one time than possible under current health and safety guidelines. 

Virtual campus tours have drawbacks 

Some educators feel there’s no replacement for the experience prospective students get from visiting a campus and talking to current students, faculty and administrators. Obviously, students won’t be staying in dorms, dining on campus or going to events on special recruiting weekends. There’s no way to replicate those aspects at home, but recruiters and administrators may have to adapt to virtual-only experiences. 

Virtual tours can have an impersonal feel that makes it harder for some students to connect with the campus. Schools should invest in the same strategies they’d use to increase current student engagement online, but direct that content to prospective students. 

The university also needs to expend the resources to make sure information about the school is kept current in a virtual tour, including enrollment numbers, majors and acceptance rates — just like on the institution’s website. 

Schools can improve their virtual campus tours 

For some prospective students, virtual tours may be a starting point for getting a feel for the campus, laying the groundwork for a later in-person visit. For others, especially in the current economic crisis, a virtual tour may be their only campus experience before enrollment. Both should get the richest experience possible as they make their decisions. 

Good virtual tours require an investment, just like traditional in-person tours: 

Professional photography and videography are key, as are good scriptwriting and the personality of the virtual guide. 
A great campus map will give prospective students and parents a good foundation for understanding the campus and how to navigate it. 
Creative design and direction show off your institution’s brand and personality. 
Layered multi-media experiences will keep students and parents engaged.
Provide accurate contact information or a chat feature for students who have more questions. 

Follow up virtual campus tours with opportunities for personal connection through Zoom or other video conferencing. Virtual coffee dates are a great way to connect with students! 

Although third-party services are clamoring to host virtual tours for higher education institutions, long-term maintenance and content updates may be easiest for the university if the tours are integrated into an existing website. 

To learn how you can make the most of your website in student recruiting, as well as to improve experiences for current ones, contact us for a site audit today! 


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