For high school students who have the time and money to travel, visiting a college campus is the best way to get a sense of the students, the faculty, and the feel of the place where they'll be spending four years (or more).
But for those who can't visit, or who are just beginning their search, there's now a Web site called YOUniversityTV offering virtual tours of about 400 colleges and universities.
The Web site offers videos of four-year institutions all over the United States, from the Ivy League's Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., to Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu.
The quick and breezy videos show campus landmarks, introduce regular students and faculty, and describe some of the course offerings and local attractions that set each campus apart.
Colleges and universities neither pay nor are paid to have their videos included. The tours are filmed and produced by YOUniversityTV itself, said spokeswoman Kathleen Rojas.
College trips are an important part of high school for many students, and experts say a virtual glimpse of campus is no substitute for the real thing. "Some of our kids will use Web sites to do virtual tours, but a very large majority of the kids, if they can pay for it, will take college trips," said Marcia Hunt, the director of college counseling at the large Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale. Hunt's school takes groups of students on a weeklong college tour each year for $1,900.
Real, not virtual, trips do a better job of helping students gauge how well they'll fit into a campus, said Hunt. "When you're taking a virtual tour you're missing that interaction with everyday students," said Hunt.
But not every college-bound student can afford to travel around to campuses. For them — or for anyone too busy to trek around on college visits — YOUniversityTV serves an important role.
"Virtual tours can be helpful for the kids for whom financially it's difficult to make college trips," said Hunt.
All of the YOUniversityTV videos are presented in a similar format, which makes it easy to do a quick comparison of campuses rural and urban, large and small. And the site includes a page for student-posted home movies. Brief videos of random campus scenes, such as wintertime break-dancers on the street at Monmouth University in New Jersey, give an unscripted look at student life.
YOUniversityTV chooses its schools based on criteria such as out-of-state enrollment, national ranking, academics, research, athletics, student body size, and religious affiliations, said Rojas.
A few big names are missing from the site at this point, such as Georgetown, Brown, Wellesley, Harvard, and Yale. Rojas said YOUniversityTV hopes to add another 100 to the 400 schools already included as schedules for the campuses and the Web site's crews permit.
The site was founded in 2008 and officially launched April 2009.
Joanna Schultz, director of college counseling at The Ellis School in Pittsburgh, said she advises students to use as many sources of information as they can: The institutions' Web sites, sites like YOUniversityTV, and even catalogues and brochures printed on paper.
"It's not the same as being on the campus, but on the other hand you can't get there sometimes, and then you use what you can," she said.