Virtual campus tours, which many schools initially implemented as a way to keep up with the technological times, proved a necessity once the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the normal flow of the college-seeking process.
Now, college admissions and marketing professionals say virtual campus tours are a vital component of the college search. Using 360-degree video and virtual reality, colleges are able to welcome students to campus from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
“I think virtual tours can be a great pre-screen or preview for students who have maybe never seen campus,” says Kristi Lafree, director of enrollment marketing at Butler University in Indiana, which offers a 360-degree video tour alongside supplemental videos. “They might want to get a gut check. They want to make sure that if they do come visit that it will be worth it.”
Hundreds of US colleges now provide prospective students with web-based virtual tours, complete with interactive photos and videos, designed to be compatible across all devices. Some schools are even using virtual reality, though VR headsets are required for those experiences.
University officials say they hope virtual tours give students a sense of what college life at the school looks like, from the architecture to the activities. Students can dive into exploring buildings and parts of the campus that might not be covered as deeply on a standard in-person campus tour, says Joffery Gaymon, vice president for enrollment management at Auburn University in Alabama, which has a 360-degree virtual tour on its website as well as a video of a student-led tour.
Through a virtual tour, students can hop from the business building to the student union, or from athletic facilities to residence halls. A general in-person tour might not include a visit to the student newspaper building, but an aspiring journalism major may be able to tour it online.
Virtual tours have become a critical tool for attracting international students who might not be able to visit the campus in person, Gaymon says. Auburn has about 2,500 international students, visiting scholars and employees from 100 different countries each year, according to the school.
“It’s a way for them to dive a little deeper and to have a greater sense of familiarity with the university while they’re exploring options,” she says.
The University of California—Berkeley also offers 360-degree virtual tours for prospective students. Previously, the school was posting YouTube videos and virtual question-and-answer sessions, but it has since moved to a platform called YouVisit, which is used by about 700 schools across the country. Virtual tours proved to be a game changer for admissions, says La Dawn Duvall, executive director of visitor and parent services at Berkeley.
Students visiting Berkeley can start in the center of campus with a virtual tour guide providing information about the school while they explore at their own pace. In the last year, Duvall says more than 22,000 unique visitors have taken a general virtual tour of the school with about 3,000 more touring specific locations around campus that are available on YouVisit, including residence halls and academic buildings.
Auburn averages nearly 30,000 virtual visitors, including students living in India, China, Canada and Brazil, and about 25,000 in-person visitors per school year, Gaymon says.
These numbers suggest how important virtual tours have become for schools across the board, Duvall says. In a matter of minutes, students and families can visit a school in California, then zip to one on the East Coast, saving hours in the car or thousands in airfare and hotel bills, which allow families to plan other visits.
Lafree says she expects these trends to continue, even as in-person visits resume.
“The demand for that virtual admission visit has really hardly decreased at all, so there’s no going back to pre-COVID for college admissions,” she says.
Well-produced virtual college tours also offer pizzazz that experts say prospective students may not see in other marketing materials. For schools that use VR, it provides an immersive experience; users have the sense that they’re in that environment.
Prospective college athletes don’t have to visit an actual campus to get a good idea of what the school and its athletic facilities look like, says Zvi Goffer, a co-founder of CampusVR, the platform a number of universities and college athletic departments use for VR tours. This has been especially beneficial for schools and athletes as National Collegiate Athletic Conference transfers have become more prevalent, since it allows athletes to take an unofficial visit of a school without having to leave their living room, he says.
“This is going to become the norm,” Goffer says. “Visualization, as much as some people want to fight that trend, there’s just no substitute for it.”
But universities are also aware that prospective students are craving authenticity, even through virtual experiences and in social media, says Alexa Heinrich, social media manager for St. Petersburg College in Florida.
Lafree says high school students are cognizant that virtual tours and other school-produced content are intended to be marketing tools, so they’re also looking at a school’s TikTok, Instagram and YouTube pages to find first-person, user-generated content from other students.
Many students have begun to use social media apps the same way they might use a search engine, Heinrich says, and experts say visiting social media channels is a good way for students to make the most of virtually vetting a school. With this in mind, Heinrich says some schools have started to do “student takeovers” on their social media pages, where students show what a typical day is like on campus for an average student.
Potential students are craving something “that feels a little less robotic,” she says.
“Social media plays a huge part in showing what student life and campus life is going to be like for them,” Heinrich says. “We can put out emails and tell you about the affordability of our college, but social media is going to do its best work when we’re showing students enjoying their experience at our college.”
Prospective students are applying to more schools, according to a March 2022 Common Application report, which showed the number of submitted applications rose by 21.3% between 2019-2020 and 2021-2022. (That includes data from 853 member schools.) With shortlists now longer than ever, students can use virtual tours to weigh options.
Campus officials advise prospective students to use the virtual tour as a jumping-off point and then to weigh academic programs, admissions requirements and other factors that will shape student experiences at the school. If students have interest in a specific program or activity, they should follow up directly with the school to gather more information.
“I would recommend taking their time and not just using just the tour, but using the larger campus website, the websites of your department or academic area of interest – supplementing those together,” Duvall says. “Take information from all of those places, because there’s not one that’s going to give you everything you need to represent the experience.”
While college officials praise virtual tours as an option, they also encourage students to visit campus if possible. Gaymon says the function of a virtual college tour is to get a look at campus life. Other questions are best reserved for the admissions office.
“The virtual tour does not replace the traditional visit,” she says. “For us, it truly enhances it.”