Although it’s been many years since I worked as a campus tour guide at American University, I can still tell you all there is to know about the place, and can do so with pride. After all, it’s one of the top schools in the country — when ranked alphabetically.
Tour guides share a bond that stretches across universities: We all have unabashedly dorky pride in our schools, and we all have horror stories of over-inquisitive parents asking about our sex lives as their children shrink in embarrassment.
I’ve talked to enough guides to know that tours at every university are all basically the same: the walking backward, the parade through the library and cafeteria, the dorm room inspection, the corny jokes (my favorite: noting how everyone who takes org-chem works closely together, you could say the chemistry department has strong bonds).
Don’t get me wrong: Organized tours can be really useful in helping a prospective student learn more about the university. But the similarities of all the tours across all the campuses lull the guests into treating each school the same way, instead of doing the extra work necessary to learn what makes the place unique. Here are some tips that might put the tour guide on her toes, and will help you determine whether one of the most important decisions of your life will be made with the most useful information possible:
Don’t go on weekends or in the summer:
Touring a campus during the summer is like watching “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” by yourself on an iPhone: It might be more convenient, and you’ll get the gist of things, but you’re missing out on the main experience. Visiting on Saturdays and Sundays is a whole other story, especially in the mornings. You’ll see some students, all right, but they may not be so keen to be seen by you. Or to answer questions. Or hear loud noises.
Ask your tour guide where the Hillel is:
The biggest Jewish center on campus is almost always the Hillel. Ask your tour guide — especially if she’s not Jewish — if she knows how to find the Hillel. If she does, that means one of two things: Either the Hillel is so popular on campus (sometimes even among non-Jews) that all students know where the Hillel is the same way they know where the library is, or there are so many Jewish prospective students that the guides are trained to answer Judaism-related questions. Both of these possibilities are strongly correlated with vibrant Jewish campus life.
(For indispensable information about Jewish life on campuses across the country, consult the Forward College Guide — forward.com/college)
Don’t believe the tour guide when she says the food is great:
It’s not quite a lie, more of a selective truth. Most universities have good food options — sometimes. At American, the food varied widely in quality: All attempts at tofu usually ended catastrophically, but mac-and-cheese Wednesdays were the stuff of legends. Most schools require underclassmen to pre-purchase a certain number of meals on the meal plan, so freshmen are going to be spending a lot of time in the cafeteria. Buy a meal there after the tour is over, and ask yourself, “Can I picture myself eating this every day for the next two years?”
This is especially important if you keep kosher, because even though many schools advertise their “kosher food options,” some places have kosher cafeterias with hired chefs, while others offer only boxed soggy pastrami sandwiches.
Read the student newspaper:
Picking up a copy will give you a full, unvarnished picture of university life and priorities. The opinion pages will tell you what the main campus controversies are; the size of the sports section will show you if students give a hoot about the sports teams; the culture articles give a sense of what the nightlife is like, and the front page illustrates what students care about the most. At a college I recently visited with my little sister, the top story in the student newspaper was about a mouse infestation in the freshman dorms. This is very important for future freshmen to know!
Treat claims about clubs with skepticism:
Tour guides love to boast about how many clubs their university offers: 150, 200, 400 clubs, every outlet of self-expression you could possibly want, from a cappella and improv to ax throwing and bagpiping. There’s only one problem: Many of those clubs don’t actually exist.
It’s possibly true that the student activity center has 400 clubs that exist on file, but the number of active clubs is almost always far fewer. Most university websites feature a list of clubs. Before your trip, reach out to the ones that interest you the most, and arrange to meet up with a board member after your tour. They’ll be able to tell you specifics about what their club does and how often it meets (an important factor when planning your class schedule). And they’ll give you the lowdown on what being a student is really like.
Remember: The college tour is not a safari:
Don’t be afraid to interact with students you encounter along the way. Students are usually willing to talk to high school kids about their life on campus. The truth is, most students like where they go to school, though they certainly aren’t shy about sharing what they find frustrating about the place. Hearing unrehearsed answers about the dorms, classes, administration and extracurricular activities will give you just as much helpful information as the guide’s practiced patter.
Ask your tour guide why he/she picked the school:
Yes, tour guides are prepared for that question. But their answers are true. Not every high school student falls in love with his or her future college on a tour — and not every college student geeks out about the place the way a tour guide does. But, more than receptacles of information, the guides act as ideals or templates for what the prospective student could possibly be one day: someone who loves the school so much and will volunteer time to tell strangers how great it is.