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  • Writer's pictureTrudy Horsting

How to Get a Feel For a School When You Can Only Visit Virtually

In the age of COVID-19, travel has been not only physically limited but more expensive, more dangerous, and overall, more complicated. For those trying to decide what university may be a good fit for them, the complexity of travel has made things particularly difficult.

Every school has a different personality and every city and town has its own culture. Although looking at statistics, facts and figures, scholarship opportunities, available majors, and other data online can help you determine where you want to go, it is also incredibly helpful to understand the culture of the school. That is innately difficult to do online.

Although I was able to visit a few schools before deciding on where I wanted to go for my undergraduate degree, I was only able to visit one school in person for my graduate degree. Here are some of the tricks I used to get a better understanding of graduate schools without stepping foot on their campuses. These tips can be applied to both undergraduate and graduate programs.


1. Talk to Current Students

Before accepting my offer to attend graduate school, I asked a current professor if she would be able to connect me with a current graduate student. I cannot emphasize enough how helpful this was.

I was put in contact with a student who was originally from the east coast, just like I was. She was relatively early on in the program and was able to talk to me not only about the nuances of the program, school, and area, but also about what it was like moving across the country, finding a new place to live, and adjusting to life in a southwestern desert.

By talking to a student I was able to get a candid feel for the personality of the program, how students interacted with one another, whether there was a competitive or collaborative atmosphere, whether there was any socialization between students and professors, and generally, whether the students in the program got along.

Especially when you are considering a small program, it is incredibly valuable to understand how students feel about the program and interact with one another within it.

2. Talk to Current Professors

I know it can feel a bit intimidating to talk to current professors, particularly if you’ve never done it before. But reaching out to a professor in your major field can be one of the best ways to understand if a school is the right fit for you.

If you are currently in high school, talk to your teachers to see if they have any contacts at the school you’re looking at. This can help to break the ice and give you a starting point for initiating conversation with a professor. Likewise, if you’re currently an undergraduate student looking at graduate programs, talk to your current professors to see if they have connections at the graduate program you’re exploring.

Instead of cold emailing a professor, talking to someone who knows one of your current connections can be a bit less intimidating and you’re more likely to get a response.

Speaking to professors prior to starting my graduate program allowed me to feel as though I was making the right decision. The professors I spoke to were so kind and open. They were easy to converse with and made me feel as though the program would truly be a collaborative and welcoming environment.

We discussed our similar research interests, my own career aspirations, and how they and the program could help me get where I wanted to go. Particularly for graduate programs, I think speaking to current professors can help prospective students understand how they would fit within the program and how the program might help support their long-term goals.

3. Join a Facebook Group

For undergraduate programs specifically, it’s now very common to find Facebook pages for current, former, and incoming students. By interacting with the people on these pages, you can get a better understanding of the personalities which are common at that university. Even if you don’t interact, simply observing interactions and posts can give you a bit more insight into what a certain school is like.

You can also private message individuals who have the same major or minor as you to ask their opinions on specific classes, professors, curriculum, and more.

4. Watch YouTube Tours

Before I chose to attend graduate school in Arizona, I had only touched foot in the state once. I was 10 years old and my family had been on a road trip exploring some of the national parks. All I remember was sand, heat, and cacti. It wasn’t ingrained in my mind as a particularly appealing place and quite frankly, I was apprehensive to move somewhere I hadn’t truly explored.

Although this was prior to the pandemic, flights were very expensive to go across the country, and I didn’t have the time to take off work to visit long enough to really get a feel for the area. I did get to visit, and for that I am very grateful. But I still didn’t feel as though I had a good enough understanding of where I would be moving and if I would like it.

That’s when I turned to YouTube. I watched driving tours of the city I would be moving to and tried to get an idea for the different sections of town. This helped me to not only understand the general area better, but it helped me determine where specifically I may want to live.

I also watched tours around the campus itself. Although I knew all of my graduate classes would be in one building, getting a feel for the campus helped me to get a feel for the culture of the university.

I watched tours at every school and town I was considering to try to uncover the culture of the area and how I may fit into it.

Second Best

I won’t tell you that these online strategies make up for visiting a school in person. However, they are a great second best when circumstances (financial, logistic, or otherwise) don’t allow you to travel to a school or talk to people in person. Technology is an incredible resource and you can make meaningful connections with current students and professors virtually if need be.

If you’re able to travel to visit a school or program before making a decision, I highly encourage that. But when circumstances eliminate that possibility, turn to the internet to help you make a strategic choice.


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