Learn about majors, financial aid and off-campus life, or take a virtual tour.

College websites can answer many of the questions you have about a school before you ever set foot on its campus. Though nothing can replace a campus visit for gauging the culture of a college, parents and students can get a sense of how well a particular school meets their interests by exploring online.

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The introduction Though college websites are all designed differently, with some easier to navigate than others, you can access much of the essential information by clicking on the tabs for Prospective/Future Students and/or Admissions. The main page usually features a short description of the college. I find this page interesting simply to see what the school has chosen to highlight about itself.

From here you can click through to begin an application or learn more about admission requirements, academics, costs and financial aid, visiting the campus and the social scene.

Academics The first thing you’ll want to look at is the majors and minors to figure out if any of the programs your teen is talking about are offered. If not, this college shouldn’t be on their list of prospective schools, no matter how attractive and affordable it is. Keep in mind, smaller liberal arts colleges tend to provide strong programs in the humanities and the sciences, but may not have business or engineering degrees. Larger universities are known for the wider variety of majors available to their students, many with a focus on professions.

The academic pages on the site can also link to department websites where you can “meet the faculty,” learn about faculty and student research and awards, and even scholarship opportunities.

Touring Some college websites feature virtual tours of the school, which can range from a series of  photos to an interactive program. This is helpful when you’re unable to visit a school before applying.

This page should also give you information about campus visits. Access to the specific dates and times might require your student to sign in and set up an account in order to see the calendar. I suggest doing it to see how compatible those dates are with your family’s schedule.

Money This info can be presented in different ways on tabs labeled Costs, Financial Aid, Tuition and Fees, or any combination of these words. You should be able to find the most current tuition information, which will come with a caveat explaining that tuition is likely to increase for the following academic year. All parents face sticker shock on this page. But catch your breath and take a look at the financial aid page again to learn about the available scholarships and grants and which might apply to your child. Some tell you GPA and SAT/ACT scores that make a student eligible for merit scholarships.

Colleges are required to include a Net Price Calculator on their websites, so pull out your most recent tax return and plug in the details to learn the potential cost of each school for your family.

Directions Because my children both had colleges on their lists that were more than a reasonable car ride from home, I gravitated to the Visiting and Directions tabs on the school websites. I clicked around to find out about the nearest airport, and train and bus stations, plus transportation to and from those hubs.

Many schools also provide interactive maps so you can check out the route and actual distance from your home to the college.

Commuter student info If the college has a significant number of students who drive to campus every day, you’ll likely find a tab for Commuter Students. If this is an option for your child, definitely click here to find out about the programs available to help commuter students feel the same connection to the campus as those residing there. You can also find details on parking fees and bus schedules here, too. If there’s no tab, then put the words “commuter students” in the search window.

Campus life Clicking this tab should lead to info about what there is to do on- and off-campus, details about the town around the school, and transportation that gets students around campus as well as into town.

Off-campus is a big deal because you and your child will want to know about the restaurants, malls, movie theatres and other social sites in the area. You’ll want to know where the nearest Target or big box store is located since you’ll be making a trip there on move-in day and on most subsequent visits.

The other parts of a college website Once you’re done with the Admissions or Future Students sections, continue to explore the website. Search athletics, student government, president’s office, academic calendar, etc. Click on some of the news items on the main page to see what the college is boasting about.

Practically anything you want to know can be found on a college’s website. So take the time to visit, and encourage your student to do the same. You might find an opportunity neither of you expected.

Share your experiences checking out college websites in the comments section below.