Touring colleges is an important part of any student’s college search. It’s just too bad so many colleges’ tours are so ineffective.
Here’s your typical college tour. Parents and students are led around the campus by a polished, rehearsed student who tells them that the library has two million volumes, the average class size is surprisingly small, and students can study abroad. Tour ten colleges, and I promise you that at least nine of them will say those three things. So while students still get to see the campus and breathe in the atmosphere, the only real insight they pick up from the tour is whether or not they liked their tour guide.
Given that so many colleges seem alike to the college researcher, I think schools are missing a huge opportunity to stand out and make a memorable impression on the students who are most likely to apply and later enroll.
If I ran tours at a college, here’s what I’d do.
1. Understand that your job isn’t to sell the school to the group. It’s to help the visitors make good decisions about whether or not your school might be a good fit.
2. Accept that you’re not for everybody. Once you do that, it will make it easier to do #1.
3. Let the tour guides design the tour based on what they think students would want to see and learn about. If your ten tour guides do ten slightly different tours, that’s good. No cookie cutter tours. Sure, they’d have to get their versions approved. But if you’re terrified that your tour guides would say something inappropriate, you either need new tour guides or you need to start trusting the ones you’ve already got.
4. At the end of the tour, separate the students and parents. Let the students go to a room staffed by five undergrads who take their questions for the next 30 minutes. And here’s the important part. Empower those five staffers to tell the truth. Have them say to students,
“Our job isn’t to sell you on our school; it’s to help you make the best decision for you about whether or not you might enjoy spending four years here. So for the next 30 minutes, you can ask us any questions you want to, and we’ll answer them honestly. We won’t be telling our bosses or your parents what you ask us. This will probably be your only chance throughout your college search to get honest answers from someone at a college who isn’t trying to sell you anything, and we hope you’ll take us up on it.”
Do the same thing with parents, but make the panel a mix of faculty and staff. You could have two professors, an academic advisor, a counselor from the health center and someone from the housing office. Bonus points if the panelists have their own kids in college (any college).
5. Have the visitors fill out evaluations of their visit. And I don’t mean long forms where they have to choose statements like “strongly agree” or rate the tour from 1 to 5. Just come out and ask them what they liked most, what they liked least, and give them space to write. Add a space at the end where they can ask a question that wasn’t covered on the tour, and invite them to leave their email address if they’d like it answered. Have the tour guides reply with answers within 24 hours.
It wouldn’t be easy. It would take guts to make the change. But imagine the impression you’d make.
And more importantly, don’t you owe it to your prospective students?