COVID-19 effects college research process, virtual tours rising

The college application process is intimidating. Scrambling to meet deadlines, stressing over the Common App essay, receiving hundreds of emails and letters from colleges making their pitch, standardized tests: the college application process is as stressful as it gets. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, that normally daunting task has amplified drastically. College researching is different. Visiting colleges is different. Thinking about applying to college is different. The pandemic has challenged the way that students look at and research colleges of their choice, the days of visiting college campuses for a tour with a large group are on pause for the time being, and the number of trips taken to visit distant colleges is down significantly. So, how are students researching colleges in this new time and age?

Virtual campus tours provide one way for students to become situated with a college and learn some facts about it in the process. These virtual tours are now available on nearly every college’s website, as it allows students to get a glance at what their school has to offer with no physical interaction. The virtual campus tours are very convenient, as students can tune in from wherever and whenever. They are a great alternative to a physical campus visit that gives viewers information and as much of a feel as possible for the particular campus. Some include synchronous interaction, where current students or admissions officers at that particular college walk viewers around the campus, stopping to point out facts and important information and questions from the audience. Others are asynchronous, where the viewer can click or “walk” around campus and stop at certain landmarks, buildings, and other points of interest.

For the interim, these virtual campus tours are of great popularity amongst students. However, the virtual campus tours are different from in-person visits; taking a trip to walk around a college campus is a significant part of the search process, one that is not easily emulated. Senior Milo Waltenbaugh is a student who has participated in virtual campus tours. “I have attended numerous virtual campus tours […] All of the virtual tours were pretty weird, I did not feel like I got a good concept of what the campus layout looked like,” Waltenbaugh said.

Waltenbaugh offers a unique perspective that other students may not have. Having older siblings pass through Saint Paul Academy and Summit School, Waltenbaugh has witnessed “normal” college searches firsthand. In particular, his older brother, Tucker Waltenbaugh (Class of 2018). “My brother spent much of his college search flying out to different areas to visit colleges that he considered attending. I am unable to do this because of the current climate of the pandemic, so I will likely wait until I am admitted to places to decide where I should visit, and then where I should attend,” Waltenbaugh said. The juxtaposition between then and now is stark. “It is definitely weird because only a few years ago I saw him flying out to visit places and now here I am sitting in my bedroom being taken around a college campus through my computer,” Waltenbaugh said.

All of the virtual tours were pretty weird, I did not feel like I got a good concept of what the campus layout looked like”

— Milo Waltenbaugh

Gap years are another possible option for soon-to-be high school graduates. The percentage of gap years taken for the 2020-2021 school year has jumped dramatically in comparison to years prior. The University of Pennsylvania reported a 300% increase in gap years at some point during the 2020-2021 school year, largely due to COVID-19. “I was debating taking a full gap year after graduation. If college was still in an online format, I decided it would not be worth the time or the money to attend,” Waltenbaugh said. However, with the announcement of a potential vaccine for COVID-19, students are beginning to look forward to going to college. “With the announcement of a vaccine for the virus, I am feeling more excited than anything else. Before, my process looked like nothing. I didn’t really put any effort into looking at colleges at all. Now that the virus is winding down (hopefully), I am spending more time diving deep into college websites and different organizations to understand what my experience might look like at a specific university,” Waltenbaugh said.

Waltenbaugh also credited College Counseling for their help in the college search. “Without the help from the SPA College Counseling team, I would be nowhere. The resources they have shared with me have made the process much easier. The use of Naviance as a way to communicate with parents, college counselors, and teachers, is especially useful. Niche.com has been one of my go-to websites for narrowing my list of colleges down,” Waltenbaugh said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly changed the college application process, however, Waltenbaugh and many others have been able to adapt to the new process, whether willingly or not.