“Skipping the College Tour”


1405092101253A recent article in the New York Times advises families to “Skip the College Tour.”  Many students and their families count on the college tour to give them a feel for what campus is like, and some even say that the tour sealed the deal on their college choice.

Experts in psychology and behavior economists warn, though, that the campus tour may “hinder students’ ability to pick a college that will further their interests and goals.”  Per President Hilbert of Harvard University and President Wilson at the University of Virginia, most of us make decisions on what feels right in the moment, versus what is truly right for us down the road.  In other words, students and families can have an extremely positive experience at a campus tour, and a semester later, students find that their college choice do not necessarily mesh with their actual needs.

Consider this: on a campus tour, families see the best facilities, learn from a highly trained student tour guide, and if they are particularly lucky, students will meet with faculty and staff within their potential academic programs.  Yet, most college students change their academic paths multiple times, visit a variety of locations on campus not spotlighted on the tour, join clubs they never expected to join, and develop peer groups that are potentially vastly different from the people they met on the tour.

In my own experience, I completely discounted an institution because of its older residence halls and cost.  The campus, however, had a strong history of living learning communities, literary societies, and small class sizes—all positive aspects that would have supported my growth.  At my own alma mater, I could not even tell you what I learned on the campus tour.

How, then, did I make a decision that worked for me?

A friend and I stayed on campus and visited friends.

We stayed with great friends from home who took us to a basketball game, brought us to the dining halls, showed us where Dunkin Donuts was, and introduced us to their friends.  I knew what it really “felt” like to be at UConn, and I made a more informed decision based on what I knew about myself and my campus culture needs.  I knew that my friends had similar needs for a positive campus culture, a diverse peer network, a commitment to finding community service opportunities, and a healthy balance of independence and reliance on mentors.

As Dr. Gilbert explains, my friends served as “experience surrogates.”  One of the best ways to know if a campus is the right choice is to learn from the experts: older students and graduates.  These students know what it feels like to be a student; they know the campus culture firsthand: where to eat, supportive faculty and staff, how to get involved in clubs and organizations, and how to navigate campus systems.

If we make better decisions based on learning from experience surrogates, how, then, do we, as housing professionals, help make these connections for students?

Here are four ideas:

  1. Allow campus tour guides and housing ambassadors to share their real stories and experiences. We expect our involved students to put their best faces on, but let’s also allow them room to talk about their first week on campus, how they found friends, and some of those hidden spaces on campus that students love that might not be highlighted on the tour.  Let’s ask them to share struggles and who helped them navigate those struggles, and how living on campus encouraged their learning in and out of class.
  2. Engage in social media dialogue. On our housing and other social media accounts, create ways for older students and graduates to share their experiences and be involved. Ask students to share tips on the housing application process and advice on what to bring to campus.
  3. Create events that allow multiple generations and constituents to see campus. Sibs and Kids Weekends, Family Weekend, summer camps and conferences, and similar events bring families and friends to campus in a way that allows for more unstructured, natural ways for potential future students to experience campus.
  4. Provide easy access to upperclass mentors. Hire student workers to answer office phone calls, and recruit older students to write postcards and blog posts directed to incoming students.

In doing so, we need to keep in mind the diverse backgrounds and needs of our students.  We should help potential new students connect with students who can help them find their niche on campus.  Students ultimately want to find a campus where the overwhelming message is, “You matter.”  As we develop opportunities, we should consistently ask ourselves if our strategies not only welcome students, but also communicate the message that they are important to us and that we a have a home for them on our campus.