The Benefits of Armchair Travel

 

“Mrs. T., it’s basically impossible to figure out these schools without visiting. They all sound the same.”

Back when I was a college counselor, I spent hours talking about researching schools with my Loomis Chaffee juniors and seniors. After laying the groundwork with a basic understanding of academic programs and cost, we routinely turned attention to the “big” things:  how far from home did they want to go; how large of a school did they think they wanted; did they want to be in a more rural setting or an urban one. And for the vast majority of the students, they landed on the following criteria:

Not too far from home, but not too close.

Not too large, but not too small.

Not too urban ― definitely needs to have a campus ― but not in the “middle of nowhere.”

In other words, they all wanted schools that sounded the same. They wanted a kind of a mythical Camelot of Goldilocks size where they wouldn’t feel lost but also wouldn’t know everyone; a campus with Hogwarts-esque splendor a stone’s throw from a city so they “wouldn’t get bored;” and one where they wouldn’t have to fly home, but wouldn’t be so close that their family would be on their doorstep at a whim (Note: I never pointed out to those who lived within driving distance of Windsor, Conn. that their parents never visited Loomis on a whim. I just nodded understandingly.). On paper, at least, it seemed like everyone wanted the exact same school.

And that’s when the opening sentiment was typically expressed, and the immense pressure on the campus visit would begin. Starting with their assumption that a school must be a “best fit school” or even ― talk about pressure! ― a “perfect fit school,” students’ expectations of colleges rested heavily on the “little” things ― the “vibe” they had decided could only be discovered on a visit to the campus. Like Dorothy landing in Oz, many students embarked upon their college journey believing they would open the car door in the admissions parking lot and step out into a technicolor dream college. And when that did not happen, students would wonder if it was them, or if they were somehow missing That Perfect School They Just Haven’t Found Yet. What they often didn’t realize was that the campus visit is, by its nature, somewhat limiting: it’s limited by the day of the week and time of day of the visit; the tour guide or guides and whether they are good fits with one’s particular interests; for some, it’s even limited by the weather on a given day.

In researching schools, the “big” things are important. (If they want to swim, there needs to be a pool, for example.) Many students apply to Loomis because of these “big” things: the fact that the location is accessible; that we have a bucolic campus that is only a five-minute walk to town; that we are a medium-to-large sized school with a large and deep curriculum and extracurricular opportunities. But the “little” things are significant, as well. As far as secondary schools go, things like the dress code, study halls, the way the residence halls run, or whether athletics are required are small yet important pieces of information that combine to reflect the school’s philosophy and values. However, contrary to the popular opinion of my former college counselees, it is not necessary to visit a campus to learn about the “little” things that make up this culture of a community. Does it help? Yes. But sometimes visiting can actually muddy the waters in unexpected ways. As I wrote in Tour Guides, Gorillas, and Breadsticks, it can be easier than one thinks to get distracted on the campus visit and miss out on a great potential school.

For admissions professionals, doing virtual recruitment is not the same; we miss our lobby bustling with tour guides, the hum of our reception room, and the crank of our free spin gumball machine (well, maybe that last one is just me). But virtual campus visits bring significant benefits ― and not just that they are free and require no travel. Learning about both the “big” and “little” things schools offer through a virtual medium can present opportunities to dive deeply into a school’s culture much earlier than the traditional calendar, which focuses much of its intensive programming in the spring after students have been accepted. Walking around campus for an hour with a tour guide or two in the fall or winter just isn’t as comprehensive an experience of a school as, say, watching an online conversation between students and faculty, listening to podcasts where parents are interviewed, and participating in a zoom meeting with a coach and their current players from the comfort of a living room. And students can do one, some, or all of these things ― and many more ―during the process of determining where to apply to school, rather than waiting until decisions are released next spring. Talk about an advantage! Knowing more about a school before applying doesn’t just make the decision to apply easier; it makes the application itself easier (not to mention the interview!). Thanks to the restrictions COVID-19 has imposed, this year we are able to show all prospective families the many facets of our community ― not just those who can visit campus ― and we are able to do so in a much more comprehensive way. And yes, that includes a virtual tour of campus with two tour guides, as well.

So, while it may seem that not being able to visit a school in person is a major downside, it can present significant opportunities that have never been possible. Or maybe they were possible, but no one ever thought of them because we never had to. Just one example of how COVID-19 has forced us to do our work not just differently but perhaps do it better. Genuine admission, though: I may be excited to share the story of Loomis Chaffee further and wider this year, but I’m still looking forward to the day I hear the crank of that gumball machine.