For teenagers, the option of anonymity online gives them the freedom to ask whatever they want.

A curious high school student hurls a flurry of questions at a University of California-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, called 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.

(Next page: How the service works)

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