Prospective Perspective: Student Tour Guides

I’m sending two sons off to college this fall. For the last couple of years, I have been your target market. I’ll be writing a few posts from the perspective of the prospective parent, and I invite you to ask whatever questions you might have for a person who has recently experienced your world from the other side of the admissions desk.

A couple of summers ago, my wife and I piled our rising high school juniors in the car and went on a college tour. The schools we visited on that particular trip all happened to be big endowment schools, and they were obviously engaged in an arms race, each trying to one-up the next with multi-multi-million-dollar student centers and wellness centers and student housing that looked more like resort accommodations than the old two-bunks-and-a-sink dorm rooms of my college days.

As I reflect on that trip, I have a hard time remembering which school had the Starbucks in the library, which one provided free laundry service for the students, and which one had the physics lab that looked like something you’d see at Los Alamos. But I do remember every student tour guide. I listened with about half an ear as each went through his or her spiel. With the other ear and a half I was listening for other clues: does this student really love this place, or is she just doing her job? Does he seem smart? Curious? And perhaps most importantly, Is this the sort of person I’d want my sons hanging out with? My unspoken (and perhaps unfounded) assumption was that these tour guides would be among the most impressive students the school had to offer.

Which brings me to our most memorable tour. I decided to pop in at a school that we weren’t terribly familiar with, but that we had heard great things about. From what I had heard, it would be a great fit for one of my boys, who wanted to major in business. I was ready to love this school. The campus was beautiful.  A recent bequest by an obscenely wealthy alum had sparked a very impressive building campaign. The financial aid office was famously generous. But our tour guide was a dud. She was friendly enough, and she seemed to have more or less memorized her script, but if we asked her questions, she was at a complete loss. I was astonished at what she didn’t know about her own school—what she had never stopped to wonder about.

I realize this isn’t fair, but my interest in that college died completely on that campus tour. Their brand-new $50-million Business Department building meant nothing to me, because their $10-an-hour student tour guide was boring and ill-informed. Again, I know this is irrational and unfair. I know in my head that anybody, especially a nineteen-year-old, can have an off-day, and I know that one student, whether brilliant or dull, can’t represent a whole student body. I’m just telling what happened.

I suppose this story serves as a warning for admissions departments like yours. Hire the best student tour guides you can, and be sure you’ve trained them well. But more than a warning, I hope you will find encouragement in this story. When it comes to facilities and marketing budgets and similar recruiting advantages, there’s no competing with schools like the one I described, unless you have a few obscenely wealthy alumni of your own. But student tour guides who are engaging and curious, who come across as the kind of people who prospective parents want their own students hanging out with—there you can compete all day long, and you don’t need a big budget either.

You wouldn't tolerate a lousy website or sloppy print pieces. Make sure your tour guides and campus visit experience reflect the excellence you expect in your branding. After all, every experience with your institution is part of your brand.