Virtual admissions process hopes to attract prospective students


Andrew Brinker

A view of Emerson’s campus buildings from the Boylston St. sidewalk.

By Mark Emmons

In a typical year, the fall and winter months bring prospective Emerson students, eager to tour the college’s flagship campus, to downtown Boston. For some, it’s their first time in the city. For all, it’s a crucial piece of the college decision making process—sometimes the motivating factor behind students’ final decision. 

In the era of COVID-19, prospective students must rely on a new, entirely virtual admissions process to determine where they want to spend their collegiate years.

Emerson’s Admissions & Aid Office has been forced to take many of their typical programs online, like information sessions, campus tours, and open houses, to conform to social distancing and travel restrictions. They’ve also introduced a digital “walk-in” help desk to answer questions from potential future students and their families.

“Our goal, certainly as an institution and admissions office, was to adapt quickly and find ways to connect with students and families,” Director of Admissions Michael Lynch said. “Keeping in mind the health and safety of the Emerson community and prospective students and families as well.”

In a regular semester, students and parents would be led on a tour of campus by student guides. After a more general trip through campus, they might be split into smaller groups and led through spaces they may frequent in their major, like film studios or performance spaces.

Current first-year students said 2019 campus tours showed them what their freshman experience on campus might look and feel like.

“It was validating, and I was already excited to come but it made me more excited,” Nicholas Wong, a first-year visual and media arts student said.

“I learned a lot more, by seeing everything and being told about what I was able to do as a freshman at Emerson, more than at other places, so I think it played a big part in [choosing to come here],” first-year Zachary Bennett, also a visual and media arts major, said.

Now, tours are conducted virtually via Zoom. 

“Once they’re in the Zoom environment, we have two student tour guides that will take them through campus virtually,” Lynch said. “They’ll describe the student experience, show pictures of facilities, and answer questions that students and families may have. So it’s a similar construction of the experience other than it’s been converted to a virtual environment.”

While virtual tours are not nearly as immersive as an in-person visit, an upside of the virtual admissions process, Lynch said, is the access it brings to students who may not have been able to visit campus in a normal semester.

“It does provide students that otherwise may not have had the opportunity to travel to campus to see it firsthand,” he said. “By doing these activities and events certainly with a higher frequency than we would normally do, it gives those students that normally wouldn’t be able to do that an opportunity to engage with the community on a more significant level than they might otherwise be able to do without those virtual components.”

Admissions typically hosts a fall open house, where students and their families can visit campus and learn about life at Emerson. With restrictions for outsiders coming to campus this semester, it’s been adapted to a week-long virtual event.

“The idea behind it was to not give students Zoom fatigue by having them on Zoom with Emerson all day on a Saturday,” Lynch said.

By expanding the open house to a weeklong event, the program has become a series of information sessions designed to let students pick and choose the meetings they’d like to attend.

“The goal of spreading it over the course of a week was to give students more opportunities to find sessions that fit with their schedule, but to still expose them to many of the same experiences that they would’ve had on campus,” Lynch said.

The college designed each online program to be functionally identical to its in-person equivalent, a process that started when campus shut down in March, Lynch said.

“We realize that virtual options of anything we’ve done in person in the past won’t fully replace that feeling of a face-to-face connection you get being on campus versus a virtual environment,” he said. “But of course our goal is to recreate that experience in a virtual environment as much as we can to ensure that the students can learn about Emerson—the key thing being doing so in a safe and responsible manner, in terms of our community as well as our potential students and their families.”