With college campuses closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, free virtual tours have grown in popularity. High school juniors hoping to begin college in autumn next year are not able to visit campuses in person, but they and their families have many ways to explore their options while staying safe at home.
Here is a guide to some of the tour sites that aim to help students feel as if they are walking around campuses. They can visit as many colleges as they like, without the cost of a road trip or the aching feet.
STARTING ON COLLEGE ADMISSIONS PROCESS
The National Association for College Admission Counselling provides information from more than 1,000 colleges and universities on changes to admissions processes resulting from the pandemic. The tool lets students get an overview of resources available at each institution, including links to virtual tours offered, said the association's president, Ms Jayne Caflin Fonash.
"If someone wants to know only about schools in a certain state, or is interested only in finding out about standardised testing policies for autumn, they can drill down to get that information," she said.
StriveScan is offering the Strive Virtual College Exploration programme to take the place of in-person college fairs.
Students get advice on how to write a college essay and apply for financial aid, and the chance to ask questions to officials from more than 450 colleges from 45 states and 13 countries - Canada, Britain, Ireland, Italy, France, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Belgium, Australia and Mexico.
All sessions are taped, allowing students to download them.
StriveScan president Dan Saavedra said that more presentations will be held in the coming weeks, including one focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics schools and another on small, private liberal arts schools.
STARTING THE TOUR
There are several websites that allow students to tour and compare schools. These sites offer interactive maps, photos, videos and testimonials.
CampusTours offers tours of more than 1,800 schools in the United States as well as tours of schools in Britain, Canada, China and France. Its advanced search feature allows students to fine-tune details they are searching for, such as how much tuition fees they want to pay.
About 100 schools offer insights from enrolled students during parts of the tour on campus life, the company's president, Mr Christopher Carson, said.
The firm is also working on a feature to allow students to ask questions while they are on the tour that are sent to college officials.
YouVisit offers tours of more than 600 US schools. The tours offer prompts that pop up asking students for input that is sent to college officials to respond.
It also offers students to tour using "virtual reality" tools.
"There is nothing that replaces that in-person experience that makes a student fall in love with a campus, but the goal of a virtual tour is to do as much as it can to replace those moments," said Ms Emily Bauer, vice-president for agency services at EAB, the education research and technology company that owns YouVisit.
OTHER VIRTUAL TOUR SITES
YoUniversity: Students can click on tabs such as "safest campuses", "most diverse campuses" and "top academic colleges", as well as "best campus food" and "coolest dorms".
CampusReel: Students enrolled at colleges can upload their videos to this site for sharing, after being vetted. Students or parents must register to join.
The Gap Year Association offers videos on what it means to take a gap year and is building a new student membership platform - a nominal fee will be required to join - that will give students access to weekly calls to learn about gap year opportunities, said its executive director, Mr Ethan Knight.
The website also offers information on accredited gap year programmes and counsellors.
Virtual tours, like the ones at YouVisit, can put students in the stands or on the playing field to get a simulated experience of being an athlete there. CampusTours has a feature that lets students find sports offered at various schools.
AFTER YOU MAKE THE CHOICE
This is the time to start making personal outreach to schools, Mr Carson of CampusTours said.
"You can't rely on virtual tours to tell you everything about the institution; you need to reach out to the schools themselves."
Traditionally, students are told that some colleges rank in-person visits as a show of "demonstrated interest". This year, that could take different forms, such as e-mailing professors and admissions officers or attending Zoom meetings.
"Demonstrated interest is very valuable," he said.
"Make personalised phone calls and write e-mails."