How to Make Campus Tours Inviting (Review)
Of all the experiences I’ve had in three decades of working in the admissions counseling profession, visiting colleges is my favorite. I was in peak visiting mode during my nine years as a college counselor, and I’ve continued to find every excuse I can find to walk around campus since I left high school.
Turns out, parenthood is the best excuse of all.
My wife and I recently spent a week visiting colleges with our youngest son, a high school student. I must admit from the outset that I am fully aware of the privilege that allows us to make such a trip. It’s the shocking reality that hits when you work for an organization whose mission is centered on equity and access. It’s also why the innovative ways colleges have found to connect with students virtually over the past two years must continue even as in-person visits resume.
This ability to make connections, whether in person or remotely, is essential. He sets the tone, he keeps the interest going and he closes the deal. Here are some of the ways the colleges we visited and the tour guides we met tried to connect and how their approaches worked or, in some cases, didn’t work.
Useful hints. The visiting experience begins even before a family sets foot on campus. The confirmation emails my son received were mixed. All did a great job of advising when we should arrive and where we should go. But finding a parking space and then driving from the parking lot to the visitor center? This is where things got dicey.
The best arrival experience came from a college that emailed precise instructions, complete with photos, on where to enter the garage, then put up directional signs at each exit. We followed these signs like breadcrumbs to the check-in counter.
At the other end of the spectrum was the college which directed us to a large and confusing expanse of faculty, staff, students and visitor parking, which depending on where we found may or may not being close to where we needed to go. The greeting for visitors might as well have been “Welcome and good luck!” »
A sense of belonging. All of the colleges we visited were larger, both in terms of student population and campus area. Personally, I find that any unfamiliar space tends to seem bigger than it is until I understand how things fit together. That’s why my family and I found the two-college approach particularly appealing.
On the first, the tour started at a visitor center which upon arrival made us feel like we were in the backcountry of campus. The fact that we had to take a bus to get to the starting point of the walking tour only reinforced this impression. The visit was preceded by an information session which ended very intelligently with a huge map of the campus. “Before you go,” said the admissions officer, “we want to show you where you’re going.” On the map appeared a small animated bus icon, and he used it to map out our tour route, explaining what we would see and pass along the way. The strategy was ingenious and instantly made a very large campus feel quite manageable.
On the other campus, our first tour stop was on a grassy expanse leading down to the library. Our guide explained that the campus is organized as a series of concentric rings: a library in the middle, academic buildings around them, residential and student services buildings around them, and sports facilities flanking them all. We couldn’t immediately see everything from our perch, but as we walked around campus, we almost instinctively knew how all the spaces related to each other.
Personal talks. Forget the culture wars – the most polarizing issue on a college campus is whether tour guides should back off. There is no middle ground. Period.
I don’t particularly care which direction my guide is facing as long as I can hear what he is saying, but here is something we had never experienced before. On two of our tours, our forward-facing guides started by explicitly stating that they would not back up as it limits who they can talk to. Instead, they planned to use the time between tour stops to converse one-on-one with as many potential students as possible. And they did, meeting a different student after each stop, introducing themselves and asking about their interests and questions. It was a simple gesture that proved surprisingly personal and effective in a large group.
Tale. Years ago, when I was an admissions officer, I had a standard shtick in my presentation repertoire. I would say, “If you’ve ever visited colleges, you’ve probably learned two things. The first is that we all love to tell you how unique we are. The second is that we are all unique in the same way.
The line wasn’t particularly funny, as the polite, weary laughter of the parents reminded me each time. But it was true. Nearly three decades later, that’s still the case: colleges can struggle to distinguish themselves from each other.
Students are a powerful antidote to this homogeneity. Their stories are rich, their personalities vibrant and their experiences diverse. When guides reflect on these stories, campuses come alive.
A guide shared that he failed his first calculus exam and used that as motivation to take advantage of his teacher’s office hours. He got an A in the class. A sports guide has recruited friends to be the unofficial cheerleaders for their dorm’s intramural contests, uniforms and all, so they can be part of the fun and community-building experience. A third guide explained how he felt left out after missing the entire freshman orientation due to a family marriage until a random guy in the hallway walked into his room, fell on a chair and starts talking. This random guy is now one of her best friends.
The goal of any campus visit experience, whether in-person or virtual, is to help prospective students answer a single question: “Can I see myself here?” The key to answering this question will lie in how connected they feel. Colleges can lay the groundwork with clear pre-visit communications, a welcoming arrival experience, and a visitation program that invites personal stories and one-on-one interactions. During our visits, when our son felt connected as a visitor, he easily believed that he would feel connected as a student.
His parents too.