Making K-12 Virtual School Visits Really Count: Strategies for Parents & Students

I have been advising students, parents and institutions on the selective secondary school admissions process for over 15 years, but the upcoming admissions season presents some new and unique challenges due to the global pandemic. Families considering K-12 schools are faced with a new question: How should we prepare for what’s likely to be a slew of virtual school events, like tours and open houses? I’d like to share some simple suggestions to help students and families put their ‘best foot forward’ and get the most from these events.

1. Understand your student first, and then build your list of schools

Before putting together your list of schools and events, it’s important to assess your child’s ideal learning environment, and what could represent the best fit for him/her. Students and parents need to spend some time on self-assessment before they can start assessing the schools under consideration.

2. Plan ahead

Once you have a working school list, be sure to bookmark each school’s website and set reminders for yourself to monitor these sites since this admissions cycle is new to us all and plans may be subject to change. Sign up for each school’s mailing list and register for admissions events as they are announced. Try to space out virtual visits so the experience of each school can ‘sink in’ rather than all of them blending together.

3. Practice makes perfect

Don’t visit your “first choice” school first – start your research with some schools you don’t know as well and encourage your student to engage and practice asking questions. 

4. Get organized

Start to lay key dates – like testing windows and application deadlines – out on a calendar. Have a system to take notes during online research and visits, and a separate place to develop your list. Include space to track the key school traits that matter most to your family. It doesn’t matter if your “system” is a series of spreadsheets or a folder of handwritten notes, so long as it works for you and your child and effectively captures the information that will serve you well when it is time to make some decisions.

5. Do your homework

Prior to each event, read a bit about the school and understand the structure of the event. For example, is it a virtual tour led by a current student or a presentation made by a member of the admissions team? Will there be other families attending or is it a one-on-one session? For a presentation with a number of attendees, you can listen and learn, but for a one on one conversation, families (both students and parents) will be expected to have some questions. Some prospective students go into an online event expecting to be anonymous, but there can be more individual attention in a scheduled appointment than a drop in open house. Don’t be caught by surprise by things that are completely within your control.

6. Be prepared

At least 48 hours prior to each event, check your technology platform to make sure everything is functioning and in place, including your mic and camera. Have your note-taking system ready to go, whether paper or electronic. Select appropriate “business casual” outfits for you and your child, such as a button down shirt or blouse; these are not as formal as interviews but you do want to look like you are taking the visit – and the school – seriously even if you aren’t meeting in person. 

7. Be ready with questions

You and your child should have conducted at least a cursory, 10-15 minute review of the school website, along with perhaps another online or offline source of information (Do you have friends or neighbors who know about this school?). You won’t know it all – and that’s okay – but be prepared to answer some fundamental questions, such as:

  • Why does this school, based on what I know so far, seem like a good fit?
  • Thinking beyond academics, what can my child potentially contribute to the school community (interests, passions, perspective, etc.)?
  • What are 2-3 genuine questions we are curious about, if the opportunity for a Q&A arises? Think of questions that are not easily answered from the school website or other marketing materials.
8. Show up

Double check your technology, sign in early and be ready with your note taking system and questions ready. It may be helpful to put a sticky note on your desk or computer with your key bullet points or questions. Choose a quiet space with no distractions and an appropriate background (non-virtual backgrounds are best for these events), and turn distractions – like your phone and computer notifications – off. Like in-person events, you are making an impression.

9. Engage

Listen closely, and when appropriate, ask questions. It’s okay to look down when you jot down notes, but keep your attention firmly on the speaker otherwise. Bullet-point a few things that make a positive impression so you can refer to them later on (see “Follow up” below!). Take relevant screenshots during the event – even if it’s just to help you remember the key players or an important slide.

10 Consider non-verbal communication

Imperative when meeting in-person, active listening, smiling naturally, and posture all convey powerful signals, even online. Remember that making “eye contact” in a virtual meeting really means looking into your webcam.

The day after the event, set aside some time for you and your child to follow up. A personal thank you note from you and your child (separately or jointly written, depending on your child’s age) will leave a positive impression. A generic note used for multiple schools will not. You should also ask your child to try to recall and record as much information as possible – let them take a stream of consciousness approach and try to withhold your own judgements or filters. Then you can do the same for your own memories and impressions. Type or write as many details as you can recall in five minutes – the good, the bad, the ugly. Make sure to update your spreadsheet or other ‘system’ with the new information you learned and any lingering questions you have. 

Your future self will thank you for putting in the legwork early on as the notes you take on these virtual visits will be enormously helpful when you are responding to application questions about why the school feels like a good fit for your family!

Maurice Frumkin is Founder and President of NYC Admissions Solutions, a school admissions consulting firm that supports families, schools and other organizations navigate all aspects of Pre-K through college admissions. Maurice is a former independent school admissions officer and former Deputy Executive Director of Admissions with the NYC Department of Education. Contact NYC Admissions Solutions for a complimentary, introductory admissions consultation to see how we can help your family or school. Finally, if you have a motivated student interested in how to effectively prepare for virtual school interviews, check out NYC Admissions Solutions’ upcoming online training in late August. Capacity is limited, and detailed information on fees and registration can be found here.

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