For many high school seniors, visiting a college campus is the make-or-break event that helps them decide:

  1. Yes, this is the right school for me!
  2. Ugh, what was I thinking?

But due to financial or time constraints — or both — not all students are able to visit every college on their list, let alone one. If that sounds familiar, you’re in luck. Today, it’s entirely possible to get a good sense of a campus without stepping foot in it.

Go Online

For a truly immersive experience, CampusTours provides detailed virtual tours of hundreds of state schools and private universities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. You’ll see inside and get facts about the dining halls, dorms, athletic facilities and more. And when it comes to viewing the surrounding area, Google Earth’s satellite images are your friend.

Many college websites also feature student blogs and vlogs, complete with contact information for the creators. This allows you to reach out with specific questions like:

  • Does everyone really buy a tailgate pass?
  • Which dining hall gives the best bang for your buck?
  • How long does it really take to walk from the freshman dorms to the arts and sciences building?

That said, while official school websites can give valuable perspective, they do tend to put a positive spin on campus life. For a more balanced view, you’ll have to look to the student-run newspaper. “It’s the one unfiltered piece of most college websites,” says Anita Gajula, an independent college counselor at My College Planning Team.

Connect IRL

A phone or, better yet, face-to-face conversation with a current student from your area who’s home on break or a recent graduate can also give you the dirt on student life. Most college admissions offices maintain a list of current students and alums you can talk to, but since they’re usually pre-vetted and chosen because they love the school, it’s sometimes best to do a little digging of your own. Search the online student directory for current students in your desired major and LinkedIn pages for recent graduates, then reach out politely and earnestly.

Ask for Assistance

Some colleges will foot the bill for students who can’t afford to spring for an in-person visit. These programs are run by the admissions and diversity departments and are often aimed at a handful of students who are pursuing a particular major or at underrepresented minorities. Call or e-mail your top prospects to inquire if they offer any relevant options. College Greenlight also has a comprehensive list of colleges with these diversity and fly-in programs.

In the end, it’s important to keep in mind that visiting a campus for an hour or even a weekend won’t necessarily give you a clear picture of what it would be like to be a student there. The same goes for virtual tours and conversations with those in the know. These things add to your information pool and can really help you make an informed decision, but the only surefire way to find out if a college is right for you is by actually enrolling.