The campus tour is perhaps the biggest fleecing attempt in the college-admissions process—the quad has been perfectly manicured, the student tour guide carefully selected. But the campus tour isn’t just about seeing the campus. It’s all about finding the school that will change your life—a goal that can mean many things. Students may be looking for freedom, intellectual passion, or just hot girls. Parents, meanwhile, dream of a school with a drug-free (or at least drug-minimal) atmosphere and a tuition that doesn’t push their retirement start-date into their late 70s.
How to make the most of your campus visit while ensuring you’re not getting duped by the meticulously choreographed tour? The Daily Beast spoke to admissions officers, parents, students, and former tour guides for their advice on how to see the college for what it really is.
Don’t View Your Tour Guide as an Example of the Average Student… “Of course, we always looked for the most enthusiastic students we could for tour guides. But they also had to be the dullest ones, too. We wanted to present the happy side of campus, nothing controversial at all, and nothing off the script. You learned nothing remotely interesting on our tours.” — a former admissions officer at Northeastern liberal arts college
…Case in Point “At Yale, my daughter asked the guide what his least favorite part of school was. Good question, I thought. He literally said, ‘Only that school is only nine months a year.’” — Lauren Spaduzzi, a New York City mother
The Prospective Student Should Schedule the Tour “My boss’ son is applying to college this year, and they’re going out to L.A. to visit some schools. He’s interested in Harvey Mudd, one of the Claremont-McKenna colleges. So I called and scheduled a tour and interview for him. My boss freaked out and asked why I’d done that, because apparently Harvey Mudd tracks who calls to schedule the interviews. Ideally, they want the kid to call, to show interest. Or fine, maybe the parent. But the parent’s assistant? That’s the worst.” — a well-meaning New York City personal assistant
Get to Know Your Tour Guide After the Tour “Last fall I went along with a friend on a tour of Lewis & Clark. The tour guide was super-psyched when we said we were locals, almost to the point of being a little sketchy. At the end of the tour, he asked if he could speak to us for a minute, and I thought he wanted my friend’s number for sure. Nope. [Instead] he whispered, ‘Do you guys have a hookup for some good pot?’” — Anna Gill, 18, a Portland, Ore., high school senior
Don’t Get Wasted Before You Get In “We always told kids if they were caught drinking or doing anything else illegal on an overnight visit, they more or less could count on not getting in. Yet every weekend, one of us could count on being called to the campus hospital to deal with a case of alcohol poisoning. Every weekend. How stupid can you be?” — a former Ivy League admissions officer
Sit In on a Class—to Observe the Students “Visit a class or two for first-year students, and try not to be steered in your selection by the admissions office. Don’t pay too much attention to the person at the front of the room, but look around closely at the students. Are they participating? Are they engaged? Did they do the reading? Because students educate themselves in context, and you have to see if they want to be present in that classroom.” — Doug Bennett, president of Earlham College, an Indiana liberal-arts college
Ditch Your Folks
“[There was] the tour of a certain Ivy League campus wherein a certain B-rate comedian turned almost-senator (and alumnus of said institution) huffed, sighed, squatted, and wisecracked his way through said tour—to his son’s chagrin, and everyone else’s disgust.” — a 2007 Yale alumnus
No, Really, Ditch Your Folks “The hardest part is getting the parents to stop freaking out. Usually, they spend the tour asking every single question they’ve ever thought of. Or they’re obsessed with crime stats or the one murder on campus in 1982. Or just repeat the tuition price over and over again. I always wanted to shake them.” — Doug Baker, independent college consultant and former admissions officer in Los Angeles
Be Prepared to Make Tough Choices “I turned down a full ride to Duke for [University of] North Carolina after one weekend visiting a family friend there. He took me to a party at his frat that was, more or less, a drunken orgy—it was unbelievable. I woke up in a fountain half-naked, and I wanted every night of college to be just like that.” — a UNC junior
Have a Meal, and Consider the Season “Be sure to eat there at least three times and at least once in the cafeteria. And visit in the winter. I visited Cornell on a gorgeous day last summer and fell in love. Now I’ve had to suffer through some of the worst food ever and the freezing cold for a year, and I seriously considered transferring.” — a Cornell rising sophomore
Inquire About Your Chances of Finding Your Soulmate “One Southern not-quite-Ivy’s info session quoted a statistic about the percentage of students who meet their future spouses at the university—it was a ridiculous percentage and was meant to be a draw.” — a Georgetown alumna
Don’t Plan Too Far Ahead “I always suggest families limit [the number of] college tours during the summer before senior year, because kids change. One of my students started senior year straight-laced and dreaming of studying engineering at Georgia Tech. By the spring, he’d found punk rock and was desperate to go to the Berklee College of Music.” — Meg Thomas, a high-school guidance counselor in Miami
Parents: Don’t Oversell “I’ve been trying to sell my kid on Dartmouth, but he complains it’s too conservative and lacks diversity. Of course, we get there and the tour guide is the whitest guy you’ve ever seen who starts bragging about interning for John McCain’s campaign and loving hockey. I was dying.” — George Kyles, a Washington, D.C., stepfather
If You Suspect Your Tour Guide Is Sabotaging the Tour, She Probably Is “My roommate was a campus tour guide at Notre Dame. She always dressed the part, wearing her J. Crew sweaters and knee socks. But, inevitably, she found me on campus and introduced me as her ‘lesbian lover’ to the families. She loved to freak out the Catholic parents.” — a Notre Dame alumna
Get a Feel for the Level of Pretentiousness and Backstabbing “Our eldest daughter’s tour at Northwestern was crazy. It was her dream school for years. With every person we met, you could see the dream being chipped away by the bitter reality that the ivory towers were more like The Lord of the Flies. To a student, each one of them said the most important relationship was with your academic adviser. Oh, and don’t lend out your lab notes if you don’t want them to be sabotaged.
She wanted to jump off the rocks into Lake Michigan by the end of the day. If we heard one more kid drone on about their IB curriculum and the play they were writing for Tony Kushner, we would have joined her in that plunge. At some point, you wonder if they are accompanied by their parents or their agents.
I have purged that awful chapter from my mind. Our second daughter is more than a little miffed that we are not indulging in her fantasy college tour. We told her to see where she gets in and then we will think about visiting. I could not care less if the campus espresso bar and vegan food depot are to her liking.” — a St. Paul, Minn., mother of four
Kathleen Kingsbury is a writer based in New York. She's a contributor to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health and education since 2005.