College Tours Summarized in One Sentence

The WSJ has an editorial on college tours, wherein they talk about the sameness (and lameness) of most college tours.

Most colleges offer both an information session and a tour.  We always found the tour, given by students, more useful than information sessions given by the admission department.  I came to hate the information sessions in large part because the Q&A seems to be dominated by type A helicopter parents worried that Johnny won't get into Yale because he forgot to turn in an art project in 3rd grade.

My kids and I developed a joke a couple of years ago about information sessions, in which we summarize them in one sentence.  So here it is:

"We are unique in the exact same ways that every other college you visit says they are unique."

Examples:  We are unique because we have a sustainability program, because we have small class sizes, because our dining plans are flexible, because we don't just look at SAT scores in admissions, because our students participate in research, because our Juniors go abroad, etc. etc.

There you go.  You can now skip the information session and go right to the tour.  Actually, there is a (very) short checklist of real differences.  The ones I can remember off hand are:

  • Does the school have required courses / distribution requirements or not
  • Is admissions need blind or not
  • Is financial aid in the form of grants or loans
  • Do they require standardized tests or not, and which ones
  • If they do, do they superscore or not
  • Do they use the common app, and if so do they require a supplement
  • Do they require an interview or not

My advice for tour givers (and I can speak from some experience having gone on about 20 and having actually conducted them at my college) is to include a lot of anecdotes that give the school some character.   I particularly remember the Wesleyan story about Joss Whedon's old dorm looking out over a small cemetery and the role this may have played in the development of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The biggest fail on most tours is many don't show a typical dorm room, the #1 thing the vast majority of prospective admits want to see.


  1. Wilhelm Arcturus:

    Nice summery. We're about there with my daughter. I'll save that list of questions.

  2. MingoV:

    Here's an important factor that never gets discussed: How many required courses are there, and is it possible to take them all within four years? My daughter got into two required courses only because she's in the honors program, and those students can register a day early. Many of her classmates couldn't take a course they needed. The school (U. of Delaware) increased its student population by 60% in the last 12 years. It didn't build a single new classroom building, and it added almost no professors of any rank. It packs every classroom and uses part time instructors. It refuses to offer more classes for required courses. Some students need to stay an extra semester. This combination results in huge profits for UD.

  3. marco73:

    Your comment about Type "A" helicopter parents is spot on.
    Just a few years ago, when my daughter was touring the flagship state school with dear old dad, a parent actually consumed almost the entire Q&A session by hammering the admissions folks because they DID NOT KNOW if her dear daughter could be both pre-med and pre-law. The admissions lady kept to the sensible approach; if your daughter wanted to be pre-law, go English or Accounting. If she wanted to be pre-med, go Biology or Chemistry.
    That was just not a good enough answer for helicopter mom, and she just kept hammering that the admissions person should come up with a program, ON THE SPOT, that would allow dear daughter to go both paths at once.
    Oh yeah, but you didn't touch on the required student sketch show where your dear child was supposed to make friends with that fusion Asian/Black/Hispanic/Lesbian in their dorm, so they could be a well rounded college student.

  4. bw1:

    I think the campus visit/tour is the genesis of more poor college choices than any other factor, and should more often than not be skipped. I've seen so many people whose choice of college was based on emotional reaction to characteristics discovered during the tour that had nothing to do with the reason people attend college - getting a solid formal education. In my view, the ideal process for choosing a college is first to determine your field of study, and then choose a school that will offer the best instruction in that field. That can be determined without a campus visit, by reviewing faculty CV's, material about laboratory facilities, research, etc., and the school's requirements for the intended degree (how rigorous are they, do they include both a strong core major focus and breadth in other subject areas.)

    Having attended three separate universities and visited friends at several others, I haven't seen a campus at which someone can't be happy, provided they are focused on the job of getting an education and the school well serves that end. I've seen far too many college careers end prematurely when the attractions discovered in campus visits turn out to be distractions from the educational purpose of attending college in the first place.

    I'm a firm believer in outside the classroom learning and the value of one's fellow students to a well rounded education, but the single best way to insure that is to choose the most selective school into which you can gain admission, so that all one's fellow students will be positive influences from whom one can learn.

  5. Elam Bend:

    My school didn't do this, but I saw many of my friends forced into extra semesters or years due to these kind of shenanigans.

  6. slocum:

    "I think the campus visit/tour is the genesis of more poor college choices than any other factor, and should more often than not be skipped."

    Yep. It's a big part of what I think of as the 'one true love' model of college choice -- the idea that every student should choose a college based primarily on a gauzy, starry-eyed emotions. And the financial aspects? That's so grubby -- let's worry about that later! (when we'll show you how easy it is to borrow sums of money to pay us that you can't even quite grasp at your age). Universities market to prospective students and parents about the same way as De Beers markets diamonds to prospective newlyweds.