College Tour Time: 7 Valuable Lessons

In addition to scores of schools I’ve toured as an admissions consultant and hundreds of experiences my clients have shared, I schlepped my own son to 17 colleges in his quest to find his dream school. Here are 7 valuable lessons:

1) Do the information session before the tour. You’ll be armed with smarter questions if you get an overview of the school beforehand.

2) If your tour guide seems confused, stuck-up, or overly scripted, find another.Some are friendly, funny, and chock full of info; others are …not so much. I am amazed that there is not more quality control in this area and that schools are essentially leaving it to novices to “close” big ticket sales. But there’s no law that says you have to “dance with the date that brung ya.” Vote with your feet and move on to another group. Simultaneous tours cross paths all over campus.

3) Take the “tradition” talk with a grain of salt. You will hear exactly the same spiels about “bad luck” from stepping on the college seal at Georgetown, Hopkins, and U Chicago. I don’t know where the real tradition started and I don’t care. And FYI, it is NOT true that Yale undergrads touch the toe of the statue of former Yale president Theodore Woolsey for luck… nor that doing so will increase your admissions odds. Leave the toe alone!

4) Now get off the tour. Spend as much time as you can exploring on your own. Amble to where the tours don’t take you. Snoop. Sneak. Eavesdrop. Stand outside classrooms and listen. Try to eat at the dining hall. Talk to – and observe – random students in action. Are they smiling? animated? Talking to one another or zoned out in iPod land?

5) Peruse bulletin boards and school papers. What activities are coming up, where people are volunteering, and what social issues are getting attention? It’s a great way to scope out the non-academic scene.

6) Try to go when school is in session – even as a “drop-in.” There are lots of Saturday morning tours (when “real students” are sleeping) and lots of summer tours (when undergrads are home). These are ideal times for administrators to show you what they want you to see, but less ideal for you to get authentic campus flavor. Scheduling college visits is always a challenge, but if at all possible try to go on a “typical” day in the life of the school. If you can’t coordinate with their official tour, the trip is still worth it. You can learn a lot with a drop-in visit to admissions, a campus map, and a sharp eye.

7) Gather clues about administrative attitudes. On our worst day, at a selective mid-size university in a Boston suburb, the Admissions Office charged a small fortune for parking (no validation!). Then, because we were early, suggested we get lunch at their student dining facility. The bill was $20.01, and the stone-faced cashier frowned sternly as we searched our pockets for a penny rather than break another large bill. She was NOT going to let that penny slide. That tells you something right there, doesn’t it?

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