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Lousy Tour Guides Can Ruin First Impressions of Colleges

Today I’m in Austin touring the University of Texas. I’m here with a group of college counselors from all over the country who are descending upon the city for the annual convention of the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC). The visit went pretty well. The food was nice, and for the most part the information delivered was useful.

However, the student volunteer who led a group of us around campus was completely useless. Low speaking voice. Inability to walk backwards (you may giggle, but this is important!), and a complete lack of useful information (how many students are at UT? don’t you think she ought to know even a ballpark figure?).

Anyway, I fell back from the tour and began to walk up to students randomly and quiz them about their experience. What did they love most? Is the campus politically active? What was the worst aspect (not the size insisted one student)? Was the campus safe? I got tons more useful information this way.

What is my point? Depends on the audience.

For admissions offices: Train your tour guides. Pay them. Monitor the tours. These kids are the front lines of your marketing campaign. A terrible tour guide can leave a negative impression. Good tour guides can help you sell the school. Don’t neglect this element of your recruitment efforts.

For parents: Plan more time than you think you’ll need to visit each campus. The tours organized by the admissions office are either bland and uninformative (as was my experience today) or they are polished, marketing presentations. In order to get a better idea of whether a school is right for your child, you need to take the time to get off the beaten track, wander around, find the departments or programs that your child is interested in, and ask questions of random people you meet. So plan for the extra time this takes and don’t try to visit too many schools in a single day.

For prospective students: remember that the tour guide is only one student of many (at UT, our tour guide was one of nearly 50,000). The guide’s perspective cannot be taken as representative of the entire school. Sometimes you’ll “click” with a tour guide. Sometimes you won’t. The tour is an important aspect of your overall evaluation of a college. But try to separate the tour from the tour guide. Furthermore, you need to become inquisitive. You need to ask questions of everyone you meet. Walk up to information desks. Ask the woman behind the counter what she thinks of the students. Ask the student at the library reserve desk where he likes to study, or what dorm he lives in, and ask him about his experience. Talk to the waitress at the local diner what the students are like. And most important, try to corner a professor for a few minutes…they are generally the best sources of information of all. Walk around classroom buildings and look for open faculty doors. Introduce yourself as a prospective student and ask a couple of pertinent questions (see my previous post here for some tips of what to ask).

Everyone needs to remember that colleges are businesses. You are a potential customer. Look before you buy. Kick the tires. Go for a test drive. You need to get as much information as possible to know whether the school is right for you.

Don’t pay too much attention to the sales pitch, whether it’s a good one or a bad one. Know what you want. Know what you like. And then compare the options against your criteria.

It takes time. And it often takes guidance. That’s what we independent college consultants provide: expert guidance through the college admissions and selection process.

Mark Montgomery
Montgomery Educational Consulting

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