It’s a beautiful day at Harvard. The sun is out, filtering through the trees and lighting up the green yard surrounding you. Widener Library towers above as tourists snap photos of the surrounding scenery. Your guide, McKenna, explains the three lies of the John Harvard Statue and welcomes questions from the group. Before she can explain, you’re moving on, clicking the white arrow on your computer screen to see the next photo.
This is your first impression of Harvard’s campus, and it’s a virtual tour.
For the admitted students of the class of 2024, a virtual tour is now one of the only ways to learn more information about Harvard. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all universities have cancelled welcome weekends and sent current students home to complete the semester online. Following the release of many college decisions in late March, students who were hoping for on-campus experiences now need to find alternative ways to inform their final decisions.
Jasmine M. Green, a student admitted to Harvard’s class of 2024, says the cancellation of welcome weekends means making a decision is more difficult. “For me, when I go to college campuses, I have a gut feeling [about the school],” she explains. “I really wanted to go to Harvard and get the feel of the campus and compare that to the other schools, but now I can’t go and see any of them. So I have to get that feeling somewhere else, virtually, and it’s obviously not going to be as strong.”
Even students who have been to Harvard before say the experience of a campus changes after being admitted. “There’s a lot of schools that I applied to that I didn’t want to get emotionally invested in until I got in,” explains Rothsaida Sylvaince, another admitted student. “So I feel like there is a lot left to be desired.”
The “gut feeling” that Green describes is often helpful for students who find it difficult to distinguish schools that are similar academically. But without the ability to experience campus, the class of 2024 must now make a decision based predominantly on online resources, of which some students are wary because they are provided by colleges themselves.
Mira S. Becker, a student deciding between Brown and Harvard, says “the problem with virtual stuff is that neither college is going to showcase a student who doesn’t love the college, so it feels very biased.” As a result, colleges have organized GroupMes, Facebook pages, and Zoom meetings to connect admitted students to each other, and many admits rely on current students to relay a fuller image of campus life.
Beejay E. Odufuwa, an admitted student, says he “cold DMs” current students to get a better understanding of what schools are like. “They have the school in their bio, so I’ll just try to DM them,” he says. “I want to hear the good and the bad. And that’s one way I get a feel for the school because they’re obviously pretty honest.”
While factors such as financial aid, location, academics, and extracurriculars always play a significant role, many students ultimately rely on the feel and culture of campus to help make their final decision. Though colleges are doing what they can, capturing a campus’s atmosphere digitally is difficult, especially under such short notice.
“I feel like it’s very hard to calculate the culture of the school within a virtual tour,” Sylvaince says. “I feel like I’m just looking at architecture.”
Without a campus visit, a college might initially seem like a good option. When Green visited a school that was originally one of her top choices, she says she realized the “disconnect” between her perception of the school and its reality. “But on paper, I loved everything about it,” she says. “I’m scared of making [a] decision because there are schools that I have not seen in person, and I won’t be able to see before May 1st.”
And for some students in the class of 2024, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new criteria in how they evaluate colleges.
“How the college campuses have responded to the pandemic that’s going on [impacts my decision], just to see how they treat and how they care for their students,” Olusola A. Babalola explains.
Green, who is still deciding between five colleges, is also taking university responses into account. “Even in an emergency situation, I want to see how schools had a support system to handle that,” she says. “I think every school is trying their best to deal with it or have dealt with it the best way they could, but I think initially some schools handled it better than others.”
Though many admitted students are disappointed, they also say they recognize the severity of the situation and know that careful deliberation led to these cancellations.
“[Welcome weekends] were definitely going to be an important factor in making [my college] decision, but of course, I’m not going to be upset about it. It’s not within Harvard’s or any of the other school’s control, so I can’t blame anybody,” says Brandon J. Demkowicz. “I do believe that they’re doing the most they can be doing.”
Committing to a college is meant to be a relief, a culmination of years of hard work and focus. But for Babalola, that relief will be harder-won than she had anticipated. “The college admissions process is very long, and throughout, I did a lot to ensure that I wouldn’t have any regrets,” she says. “I thought I would be able to go to these weekends and visit and have these things to help me make a decision, but now I don’t have that guidance to help me. It’s like I’m back at the beginning of the process.”
— Magazine writer Scott P. Mahon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @scott__mahon.