The CollegeWeekLive chat rooms have been used by students in 191 countries. (L.G. Patterson / AP Photo )
A curious high-schooler hurls a flurry of questions at a UC Riverside advisor. The student asks about tuition, SAT scores, study-abroad programs, diversity and whether she would need a car.
Once she gets her answers, she leaves. She doesn't bother to say goodbye.
The student was sitting at a computer in the Northern California town of Watsonville. And the advisor was on a computer at UC Riverside.
Colleges nationwide have taken to using online chat rooms as a way of reaching high school students in what these days is their natural habitat: the Internet.
The chat rooms, accessible from college websites, serve as a virtual college fair, without a crush of students crowding around a table in a school gymnasium.
"As high school students change in how they're getting their information, it's important for us to make those changes as well," said Emily Engelschall, director of undergraduate admissions at UC Riverside. "Students feel more comfortable in that environment."
UC Riverside uses the service, named CollegeWeekLive, year round but typically sees a rush of interest just as the November application deadline nears and soon after acceptance letters begin going out in February. The chat rooms have been used by students in 191 countries.
Questions run the gamut, from the weather to particular majors. Some students want to know if their grades and test scores are strong enough to get accepted and whether financial aid is available.
And at times, high school boys act like high school boys.
"Sometimes they ask questions like, 'How many cute girls are at your school?'" Engelschall said. "It's pretty funny, but we try to lead the conversation back to the admissions process: 'We have a diverse student population on campus.'"
The students in Laurie Kornblau's college preparation course at Sylmar High School frequently use the chat room.
Recently, fewer universities have been attending Sylmar's college fairs, and many of Kornblau's students cannot afford to travel to campuses to learn more about them.
"For a lot of them, this may be the closest they get," she said.
For college representatives who do attend the high school's fair, their attention and time is split among hundreds of students at once, Kornblau said. "You don't get the chance to really relax and talk — it's a cluster of people around a table," she said.
Students create a free account and are able to visit chat rooms for the 300 or so colleges that use CollegeWeekLive. Students can choose to give their name or stay anonymous, and they can browse videos and other information on each college's specific site.
For teenagers, the option of anonymity online gives them the freedom to ask whatever they want. They're not afraid to seek answers — even if they think it's a "dumb question," Kornblau said.
Anna Farello, a senior at El Segundo High School, chatted with multiple colleges earlier this year searching for information not found on the website or brochures. Some chats are monitored by current students, providing firsthand experience on campus life.
"I wanted to learn about things that you can't find on the website, ask questions about their personal experience," she said. "What was their favorite part about the college?"
In a recent chat, a student from Michigan asked a Pepperdine University representative about financial aid options and whether students are religious at the Church of Christ-affiliated school. Then she turned to life in Malibu.
"Great question Maggie!!" the representative wrote. "I would say the vibe of Malibu is Chill. It is really relaxed; even though it's Malibu and a ton of celebrities and other rich people live here, it's nonchalant and a family environment. Adam Sandler plays basketball on campus, [Pamela] Anderson is always at Starbucks."
The student replied: "That sounds wonderful!!! :) Thank you for all of your help, I am super excited to finish my applications and possibly begin a future at Pepperdine!"
At times, chat rooms can be difficult for counselors who must answer questions on the fly, said Engelschall of UC Riverside. Some questions can be very specific and send advisors searching for information while simultaneously answering other questions.
And the already short attention span of teenagers seems amplified on the Internet, Engelschall said.
"If they don't get their answer quickly, they're out of there," she said.