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USACollegeChat Podcast

Jan 7, 2016

Welcome to a new year—2016—but a continuation of our current Series 5 about higher education in the news. We have been looking at news stories of all sorts about colleges—some that might immediately influence your teenager’s decision about where to apply or later about where to attend and others that might take longer to impact your family.

In this episode, we are going to look at an article from a somewhat different news source: not the usual newspapers or education newsletters, but rather a college alumni/alumnae magazine. You might guess that it is one of my own alma mater’s magazines, and you would be correct. The article is from last fall’s Cornell Alumni Magazine.

1. Cornell University’s Campus Tours

The article, by Beth Saulnier, is cleverly titled—“Tour de Force”—with a tour de force, of course, being an impressive or highly skilled performance; but, in this case, those performances are actual campus tours. Ms. Saulnier’s article tells the story of Cornell University’s campus tours, which are provided every year for some 50,000 prospective students and parents. The capsule summary of the article in the Magazine says this:

They’re a familiar sight on East Hill: the University’s friendly, helpful, backward-walking tour guides. For the eighty or so undergrads who serve as guides each year, showing visitors around campus is a passion and a calling. It’s a competitive gig, with only 10 percent of applicants selected. And it can be a high-pressure job—because, as the guides well know, a campus tour can make or break a prospective student’s impression of their school. (quoted from the Magazine

So, listeners, it’s even harder to get to be a tour guide than it is to get into the University, which has an acceptance rate for students of about 14 or 15 percent compared to the 10 percent acceptance rate for tour guides. The University must think that they are indeed important.

The article quotes Taiya Luce, the director of visitor relations, as saying this about Cornell tour guides:

We’re looking for people who can work with diverse groups, who are flexible and charismatic, who can answer tough questions honestly and authentically. Parents are looking at this tour guide and thinking, Will you be my kid’s friend? Is my student going to have a community here? . . . We’ve moved away from a lot of facts and statistics, which make people’s eyes glaze over. We focus more on authentic storytelling. (quoted from the Magazine)

Interestingly, Cornell tours run regardless of weather—which, given Ithaca’s long snowy and rainy season, is an impressive claim. Ms. Luce said that she has cancelled a tour only once—in the midst of tornado watches. And, by the way, tour guides are not allowed to wear sunglasses or hats with brims, because eye contact with the visitors is thought to be critical in building rapport. 

2. How Important Could a Tour Be?

Because it is certainly true that facts and figures are readily available on college websites, perhaps it is that personal touch that will make the difference in how your teenager feels about a college and, subsequently, in whether your teenager will apply to it. You might think that meeting one student on campus would not be so powerful, but many researchers will tell you that the value of a case study of one individual can sometimes weigh more in people’s thinking than mounds of data; a person somehow just makes a more vivid impression.

I believe that is true. I recently took my niece to meet with an alumna from a college I thought she might find attractive. Sydney is interested in theater, and I have a young friend (here’s a shout-out to you, Holli Campbell) who graduated just a few years ago from the University of Evansville in Indiana. Holli, who majored in theatre management there, was the youngest company manager on Broadway last fall at the age of 24. The University of Evansville is a relatively small, private university with a total enrollment of about 2,500 undergraduate and graduate students, offering about 80 undergraduate majors in liberal arts, business, education, health sciences, and engineering. It has a lovely campus. 

Now, I knew that Holli would give the University of Evansville a big pitch. And I knew that she would be persuasive—in part because of her sparkling personality. But, I can tell you that I would have gone to the University of Evansville at the end of that meeting. So, you cannot underestimate the value and the influence of one person who is talking about a college that he or she loves.

But let me get back to college tours. While my niece Sydney was visiting, I took her to see Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. We recently talked about Pratt in Episode 53. Pratt serves a total of about 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students. Undergraduates can pursue degrees in architecture, construction management, fine arts, photography, digital arts, graphic design, industrial design, fashion design, interior design, film, writing, the history of art and design, and more. 

We were on a tight schedule, so we thought we would just look around and get a feel for the campus—and it is quite an attractive campus with clear boundaries, albeit in a very urban setting. As luck would have it, a tour for a handful of families was just starting from the admissions office, and we happily joined it. The tour was led by Pratt student Joe Mendoza, who did a great job.

We saw a lot of the campus: the library so beautiful that I took pictures inside it, the on-campus dorms (including a look at an actual freshman room), the athletic facilities, the cafeterias, the cool old building where you looked down on the old mechanical stuff (I know there is a more precise description of that, but it escapes me at the moment), and more. We learned a lot about Pratt’s history (including the reason that there are well-cared-for cats on campus), about its services for students (including the career services office, which helps students get internships while they are students and helps graduates forever with their career moves), about the security on campus (a really helpful and reassuring discussion, given Pratt’s urban Brooklyn surroundings), about the pros and cons for the different freshman dorms, about when the public is allowed on campus and when it is closed, and more. Because two students on the tour (including my niece) had an interest in the film program, Joe took us to the building that houses the film program, with its theater, stages for filming, and state-of-the-art recording studio. Not a theater student himself, Joe really went out of his way to accommodate the interests of the tour group. At the end of tour, I wanted to go to Pratt. He sold that institution in the subtlest possible way.

3. The Lesson Learned

So, here’s the lesson I learned—and I really should have known it already. Whenever we went to museums with our children, my husband would always say, “Let’s take the tour.” This was not because he loved to spend time in museums, but because he knew that the children would get much more out of the visit if they heard someone knowledgeable talking about what they were seeing.

Well, the same is true for college visits. Take the tour, parents and kids. There is probably not a better way to spend an hour or an hour and a half during a college visit. Why?

  • Because you will be able to see lots of things you would not have access to as a visitor wandering around the campus on your own
  • Because your teenager will likely feel more comfortable asking a question of a student guide on a tour than asking a question of a college staff member in a group information session or even in a private interview
  • Because you will be able to get some of your questions (and maybe all of your questions) answered in a relatively straightforward and honest way (That’s not to say that student tour guides aren’t trained in how to answer certain questions, especially sensitive ones—like about safety issues, for example. Because, of course, they are trained carefully—at Cornell, training lasts a full semester.)

3. What To Do Next

Our new book (that’s How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, available electronically and in print at talks about visiting colleges. We said that college visits are very important—because there really is no substitute—and that it is only the when and how of those visits that needs to be discussed.

We talked about the luxury of visiting colleges before your teenager applies, though that can be a time-consuming and expensive proposition. We explained that not all colleges of a certain type are the same. For example, my niece visited three urban colleges—two in Manhattan and Pratt in Brooklyn. They couldn’t have been more different in every respect: small and large, faith-based and not, selective and not so selective, broadly liberal arts and more focused academically, tiny campuses and not-so-tiny campuses (even multiple campuses in more than one borough of New York City). So, if you have the time and money to visit colleges at the beginning of the application process, that’s great.

However, visiting after acceptances have been received makes a lot of sense, too. As college application deadlines loomed this month, I have been saying not to worry about doing a lot of last-minute visits. Just wait. If your teenager is accepted at more than one college, spend the time and money in April to visit those colleges your teenager is trying to decide among. It might be that visiting your teenager’s first choice is all that is   needed—if the visit is successful and confirms that college to be the right one. That is a great cost-saving method.

Of course, sometimes visiting a college is simply not an option. In that case, as we said in the book, talk to anyone you can find who has visited the college. That might be a family friend, a high school friend, a teacher, a school administrator, a guidance counselor, or someone else. Some colleges have alumni/alumnae interviewers, who could serve this function nicely, too. In the case of my niece’s late-in-the-game interest in the University of Evansville, we had Holli, a proud alumna—as good and reliable a substitute for an actual campus visit as you are going to get.

Remember, too, we said in the book, that it is not only about the physical surroundings on a campus, but also about the intellectual and social surroundings. Photographs in a brochure or on a website or even a virtual campus tour on a website might resolve your teenager’s or your questions about the physical surroundings, but probably cannot answer questions about the intellectual and social surroundings, which are more likely to affect your teenager’s satisfaction with his or her college choice. So talking to current or recent students—sometimes even one student—can make all the difference.

Most college websites have a place for signing up for a campus visit, including a tour. Do that before you go—in case you are not as lucky as we were at Pratt to happen onto a tour that is about to start. I believe that a tour is likely to make your teenager (and you, too) like a college more—partly because you end up feeling more comfortable with the college and feel as though you know more about it. And that’s a good feeling when it comes to choosing a college.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • What you should watch out for on a campus tour
  • What you need to do on campus besides a tour
  • What parents can do that kids can’t

Check out these higher education institutions and organizations we mention…

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