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College Tours: How Much Should You Trust Your Tour Guide?

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It’s a springtime ritual: college-bound high school students and their parents hit the road and take campus tours in hopes of narrowing down the list of prospective schools before ultimately making the big decision. Online virtual tours are fairly common, but knowing what a campus looks like in person is justifiably important to most people.

If you’re considering spending four years of your life (not to mention a lot of money) at a college, it’s a good idea to take a campus tour to get a sense of the school’s facilities and all it has to offer. Enrolling in a college or university sight unseen can be cause for disaster. A tour is also an excellent way to connect with current students.

Student Ambassadors Paid to Lead College Tours

Student-led campus tours are the norm—just ask any student who has gone to college or their parents. Traditional college tours are led by energetic students who are often called ambassadors or admissions associates. They are perpetually cheerful, familiar with the campus, know nearly everything there is to know about the school’s history and can easily spout off a list of the academic programs and student organizations offered.

And although work jobs on campus are nothing new, many people fail to realize that students who work in a college’s admissions office are usually being paid.

“Good information may be provided, but it is not necessarily from an independent voice,” Mark Sklarow recently explained to U.S. News and World Report. Sklarow is executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a professional organization based in Fairfax, VA.

Student ambassadors can share their own college experiences, but they often have a somewhat-scripted spiel for prospective students and parents. The Prinecton Review cautions that tour guides aren’t allowed to be 100 percent truthful with prospects, and Bev Taylor of The Ivy Coach told U.S. News the tale of one student tour guide who was fired after giving brutally honest opinions during a tour.

Speak with a Variety of Students

During your campus tours, try to visit schools while students are out and about. It might be tough hitting campus on a weekday afternoon if you’re still in school yourself, but you won’t connect with as many real-life, non-tour-guide college students wandering around on a Saturday morning or summer afternoon as you will on a weekday while classes are in session.

Always remember that even not-for-profit colleges and universities are still trying to sell themselves to you and your parents. Try your best to speak to a variety of students, not just your official tour guide or other admissions office employees.

Keep in mind, too, that some of the facts ambassadors are taught to share are really just ways to hide other less-lucrative information. For example, a school that does not have teaching assistants may hire a lot of adjunct professors, who work for far less pay than full-time salaries professors and may be hard to get in touch with. If a campus can boast hundreds upon hundreds of student organizations, there might be few things to do in the surrounding community.

Some schools don’t mind if their ambassadors tell it like it is, and a lot of colleges are forgoing traditional campus tours in hopes of offering students and parents a different experience than they’re used to or are expecting. “My father and I noticed on the Hendrix tour that the guy wasn’t rehearsed, which we really appreciated,” Katie Bigbee told The New York Times while describing her college tour at Hendrix College, located just outside Little Rock, AR. “I didn’t need to know all the facts and when the buildings were built. I was going to so many colleges that the facts weren’t sticking.”

Top Questions to Ask During College Tours

Asking current students the following questions can help you learn a lot more than only listening to your tour guide. Ideally, ask several students to get a variety of answers.

  • Why did you decide to come to school here?
  • What do you like the most about this college?
  • What do you like least?
  • If you could change anything about your school, what would you change?

Narrowing down your prospective colleges? StateUniversity.com offers a wealth of information for students and parents including college rankings, college safety rankings, and college financial aid guides along with over 4000 career profiles.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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