“We just have to get them on campus. I know that once they step foot on our campus, they will feel that ‘aha’ moment and know that our school is the one for them.” 

We have all heard this phrase in one form or another, and many of us have believed it up until the pandemic forced colleges and universities to pivot to virtual options. You may still believe that in-person should be the gold standard. There is validity to the “aha” moment of planting your foot in the soil (or more likely concrete) of a college campus and knowing deep down it is the one you have been waiting for. But this realization is not an achievable reality for many, especially when considering where to apply. And for students who can’t afford a visit or can’t reach your campus due to a plethora of reasons, this may never be a possibility before their move in day. Yet so many institutions bank on an in-person visit as the factor that will get a student to apply, and especially to enroll, at their institution. 

The concept of college visits and tours must be reframed to mirror the needs of this generation of college bound students, and the gravity of in-person college visits being the gold standard of a student’s decision-making process must be re-evaluated. The current weight given to in-person visits by admissions and enrollment staff leaves too many astounding, qualified candidates stuck going another direction. In addition, the ability for prospective students to visit an institution’s campus varies drastically. Factors such as socioeconomic status as well as geographic location are just a few examples of these barriers. Any leader looking to reach a wider audience and increase their institution’s diversity, equity, and inclusion must avoid focusing all of their campus-centric recruiting energy on the “it factor” of an in-person college visit. Students who can’t make it onto your campus will opt for another institution that will provide them with the virtual offerings and experiences they desire. 

In addition to reframing the importance of virtual tours in our industry dialogue, we also must reimagine what a virtual tour is at its core. Your virtual tours should not attempt to mirror the exact experience of your tours on campus. As we all know, part of what makes the on-campus tour so special is that students are able to see the organic student traffic around them. So, instead, we must reimagine the format and focus of our virtual tour offerings to target the voiced needs and expectations of your prospects and admits who yearn for virtual options. 

What can you do to complement, or even supplement, your in-person experience in a virtual world? Keep reading for tangible ways to think outside the box and elicit powerful epiphany moments that even the playing field for all of your students.  

The Virtual Tour

Virtual tours should take a variety of forms, from a quick pre-recorded three- to five-minute video spotlighting the best places on campus, to a full scale thirty-minute live event featuring a combination of information session topics and recorded campus tour content. If you want to add an interactive self-guided element to your virtual tours, platforms such as Concept3D allow institutions to build virtual renderings of an on campus tour experience, allowing the user to wander around your institution’s campus at the click of a button, whether it’s on their tablets, phones, or computers. 

Thanks to research done by Niche on this year’s freshman class of 2025, we know that 60% were unable to visit many if not all of the campuses they wished to tour. At the same time,  79% were able to tour or engage institutions of their choice virtually. Of those who engaged virtually, 80% found it to be a meaningful experience and only 1% found these experiences to be negative. We also know that only 30% of this year’s high school senior class (the incoming class of 2026) had toured a university or college campus prior to beginning their senior year. In addition, prospective students are 5x more likely to begin actively researching your institution if they begin their inquiry with a virtual tour as opposed to simply the .edu site alone. 

Clearly, the aggregate data backing the importance of virtual tours does not lie and it’s time to take your passion for in-person visits and put that energy towards hosting a best practices-backed virtual tour offering. Give these students who won’t be able to make their mark in-person alternative methods to engage with your institution and reach that “aha” moment in a virtual environment.

To learn more about ways to reimagine virtual tours, check out Part Two of “The “AHA” Moment:  Reimagining the Virtual Tour.