“An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest,” said Benjamin Franklin, American politician, inventor, and author. Knowledge gained through higher education is an investment in your future. Today, an excellent education becomes the foundational knowledge necessary for a successful career. Every prospective college student should consider all of his or her options during the application process before making such an important decision. So, don’t skip the campus tour!

An essential part of the college application process, and an excellent way to help make up your mind, the campus tour has become a standard part of the process when selecting the best fit for your college experience. A rising trend for prospective students, especially those deciding between multiple colleges and universities options, is to tour campuses virtually. These days most college admissions offices offer virtual college tours as an option for prospective students. 

Virtual campus tours are becoming more and more popular -- and it seems to be a win-win both for admissions and for students. The invention, and continued innovation, of virtual reality (VR) technology has allowed colleges and universities to offer virtual campus tours. As a prospective student, you can tour multiple college campuses from the comfort of your own home. Tim Hyland of YouVisit.com explains how both students and colleges are taking advantage of VR technology. He says, “The compelling nature of immersive 360-degree content hasn’t escaped the notice of the colleges and universities who are successfully using virtual campus tours in impactful ways. Fast-evolving and scalable technologies enable conversion-focused institutions to create virtual campus tours across mobile, desktop, and VR headsets that can virtually transport a prospective student to the middle of a beautiful campus square -- even if that campus is actually thousands of miles away.”

Clearly there are pros and cons to the virtual campus tour; here are highlighted some of the most important ones to consider. However, the most important things to remember are do your research ahead of time and make sure you leave any tour, in-person or virtually, with a better sense of whether or not that particular school is a good fit for you or not. In this case, your increased knowledge will pay off. 

1. Compare virtual tour options

Due to the rise in popularity of virtual campus tours, there are now several virtual “tour operators” or website hubs with listings and access to multiple school campuses. Pay attention to what each offers before signing up. For example, the University of Oxford’s virtual tours offer “360° views [which] cover facilities such as the dining hall, library, JCR, chapel, as well as an example of a student room, garden or quad, and the porters’ lodge.” On the other hand, companies like Ecampustours.com offer searchable features and listings of featured and most popular tours. It’s a good idea to compare virtual tour options, and to also search the college or university admissions office’s official website for virtual tour options. 

2. Pro: virtual campus tours are easy on the wallet

If you are coming from a family with limited time and resources, you might not be able to afford the costly travel expenses to tour a college campus you are interested in. In rare cases, if you’ve caught the eye of the admissions staff (maybe as a star athlete or brilliant academic) you might get asked to go on an 'official visit' that will be paid by the college or university. However, most visits are 'unofficial' and require students and parents to pay for all campus tour expenses.

In this case, affordability is a major pro for virtual campus tours. You can tour multiple campuses from the comfort of your own living room without spending any money. USA Today explains the significant cost advantage to virtual campus tours. It explains, “While you should not make your college decision exclusively on taking a virtual tour, it can definitely be a helpful tool for figuring out whether you find a campus appealing. Virtual tours can cut back on your travel costs by eliminating some less-appealing schools on your list and hopefully give you a better idea of college fit.”

3. Pro: virtual campus tours increase accessibility for all

Let’s be honest: the college application process isn’t equitable nor is it an equal playing field. If you are more well off than your peers, you can travel and tour campuses in person, which is certainly an advantage. However, virtual campus tours level the playing field a bit by increasing accessibility for anyone and everyone. Rural students can tour large campuses in major cities; international students can get a better idea of studying abroad will be feasible for them; and virtual tours allow for visualization opportunities for prospective students. 

"I like this better," prospective student Nyah said of the virtual college tour in comparison to the physical tour she took earlier this year, according to Carol Cutler White, Assistant Professor, Community College Leadership, at Mississippi State University. “Virtual tours can also help increase yield numbers, or the percentage of accepted applicants who end up enrolling,” and “virtual tours aim to demystify the place for students,” reports Christopher F. Schuetze for the New York Times. 

4. Pro: Make informed decisions on multiple campuses, with your family

One major pro for virtual campus tours is that you can include all of your family members in the decision making process. Today, it is common for both parents to work making it hard to bring everyone along for multiple college tours. It’s even harder if a more elderly relative, one that can’t travel, wants to add their two cents as well. Virtual tours mean that everyone can come along from the living room couch. Making informed decisions on multiple campuses simultaneously allows for instant comparison and processing. 

“If ‘seeing is believing,’ visual content has the power to inform and persuade an audience more effectively than words alone,” says Kevin Renton of Ecityinteractive.com. On a virtual campus tour you can return multiple times to campus for free and you’ll get a better sense of how large the campus is; you’ll be able to visit multiple different dorm rooms; and you’ll get a sense of the classrooms, lecture halls, labs, and other important facilities like the fitness center, library, and study areas. 

5. Cons: Impersonal feel and technical glitches

Although there are many pros to taking the virtual campus tour, there are two major cons to the overall experience: 1) Touring a campus via your computer screen can feel a bit impersonal and might not give you the same experience as an in-person tour. Depending on how much talking to a person is important to you, consider pairing a virtual tour with a phone chat with an admissions officer or an alumna from the college you’re interested in. 2) Wifi connections and other technical issues with programs or VR technology sometimes create delays and glitches in the virtual campus tour. This can be ameliorated by making sure you have a secure and fast Wifi connection and update your browser’s cookies accordingly. Innovations and updates to VR technology are rapidly changing make sure your computer is up-to-date and ready to process the applications. You might also have to purchase a VR headset -- still a cheaper option than an in-person tour.

One pleasing side benefit of VR technology is that you can get the sense of “going back in time” while wearing the VR headsets looking around at a place or neighborhood that you have visited before. The images might be from earlier photographs or images taken at a much earlier time. This gives the prospective student both an eerie frame of reference for historical markers, and also gives the student a sense of context for how a campus might be improved or new buildings recently added.  

Overall, depending on your situation, resources, ability to travel, and other factors, a virtual campus tour might give you the most insight into helping you decide from the long list of colleges and universities. The most important thing to remember is that you should make an informed decision on selecting the college or university where you’ll complete your higher education. This is your best investment in both yourself personally, and also in your future career. Whatever way you can, if a virtual campus tour gives you the edge you need, then make it happen!