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Visiting College Campuses: Observations by a Professional Tour-Taker

I spent a few days in Minnesota last week visiting colleges. My itinerary included (in alphabetical order) Augsburg College, Carleton College, Macalester College, University of Minnesota, and St. Olaf College.

Why do I spend so much time and money investing in college visits? So I can help you find the best college for you. I’m a matchmaker. I spend time to learn about you. I spend time learning about colleges. They I can match you to the right place.

But the subject of today’s post is not about me. It’s a list of observations that can help you get more out of your college visit.

ASK QUESTIONS. When I was at Macalester, it was preview day for admitted students. Scads of families wandering around campus in groups of three (one student, two parents). And tours left from the admissions office constantly all morning. So at any one time I could run between this tour and that one, listening in on the tour guides’ patter and make some comparisons. I must have followed six different tours. Despite the constant refrain from the tour guides (“Do you have any questions?”) virtually nobody asked any. If you don’t know what questions to ask on a campus tour, look at this post of things you might consider asking.Macalester College Student Center

DON’T LET THE PARENTS DO ALL THE TALKING. A word to the wise, folks. It’s not a good idea for parents to ask all the questions. It makes the students look dorky and shy. It makes it seem that your parents are making this decision for you. I know it may feel uncomfortable in a group environment, but show some curiosity! You are considering investing four years of your life in a college, and to just follow a tour passively without engaging yourself is really a waste of time.

TAKE NOTES. I am constantly amazed that virtually no one on a college tour (except me) takes notes. This is a perfect job for a parent (let the student ask the questions, and the parents can be the silent scribes). Often I ask parents how many colleges they are visiting, and many cite double digit numbers. How can they keep it all straight? How can they make meaningful comparisons if they don’t write down their impressions and discuss them afterwards? No one can possibly retain all the information divulged in a tour. While I do know that picking a college can have a “gut level” aspect to it, it’s important to take notes to give yourself a “gut check” after the tour is over.

IGNORE THE WEATHER. It was raining in St. Paul the day I visited Macalester. Dreary. Cold. The weather can affect our moods, and it’s important to keep that fact in mind when visiting a campus. Of course, you will want to consider climate when picking a college. For example, Minnesota’s winters are not the same as Florida’s. And you will want to take into account how the college is integrated into the environment (for example, St. Olaf has lots of skylights and enormous windows that let in tons of natural light–even on a frigid, winter morning, while Carleton–two miles away–has fewer windows, more classic “collegiate” architecture, and a less airy feel). But don’t let the weather on a single day dampen your enthusiasm for a college that seems perfect in all other respects.

DON’T KILL (or HUG) the MESSENGER. Tour guides can be wonderful. Or awful. I really enjoyed my tour guide at St. Olaf. He was a funny, intelligent young man who showed his pride for St. Olaf without showing off. A few hours later, at Carleton, my tour guide was equally enthusiastic, but spent a good portion of the tour talking about herself. She came off as a smarty pants, and was much less helpful in communicating interest in her college. For example, when one prospective student declared her interest in art, the tour guide just pointed to the building. When the prospective student asked if we could take a short detour inside, the initial response was “it’s not on the tour.” But since she was the only student and I was also interested, I convinced the tour guide it was worth a quick look. It turned out that the tour guide had never been in that building before, and had never even looked into any of the art studios. The point is, some tour guides are great, and others are lousy. Don’t judge the college by the quality of the tour guide.

TOURS ARE CAREFULLY CHOREOGRAPHED. It was fun to compare tours at Macalester. I could just hang out in the foyer of the library and wait for new tour groups to shuffle through. And for each tour, the guide’s patter was virtually identical. Maybe the order in which the information was presented was different. But each guide used the same phrases. The same script. Keep in mind that every building, every stop on the tour has been carefully chosen by the director of admission to pique your interest and to show off all the positive aspects of the college. At all times you should be asking yourself, “what are they NOT showing me?” and “why did they pick this building and not that one over there?” The point is not to trip up the tour guide and hijack the tour. But once the tour is over, spend the time to investigate the corners fo the campus you did NOT visit on the tour. For example, it’s always a red flag for me when a tour does not stop at the library. Ordinarily, it should be the centerpiece of the intellectual life of the college. If the tour does not stop there, I know something is up. Perhaps it’s ugly. Perhaps it’s never used. Perhaps there is not enough study space. The point is that you have to look beyond the script and the choreography if you’re really going to get the most out of your college visit.

I love visiting colleges. I learn a ton, and get a good feel for the campus geography, the “vibe” of the student body, and a sense of what it might be like to attend. But visiting is work, folks. Don’t be a passive recipient of the college’s party line. Investigate! Inquire!

Mark Montgomery
Great College Advice

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  1. Hi:

    Thanks for participating in this week’s Carnival of Family Life, hosted by Jen at Diary of 1. Be sure to drop by tomorrow, April 28, 2008, and check out some of the many wonderful articles submitted this week!

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