Op-Ed: College tour fail: Why can’t admissions offices tell it like it is?

A James Madison University tour guide leads a group of prospective high school students around campus on Aug. 1, 2016, in Harrisonburg, Va.
(Austin Bachand/Daily News-Record via Associated Press)

I traveled across 12 states, from Georgia to Rhode Island, touring colleges this summer, a ritual thousands of families take part in every year. I listened while admissions officials repeated the dos and don’ts of the application process: Don’t send 20 recommendation letters when only two are required, meet the deadlines, don’t email random questions to demonstrate your interest. Asking about the weather in a particular college town, for example, doesn’t qualify as a necessary or thoughtful query. (As one admissions officer said, “Do I look like the weather channel?”) I appreciated all their useful advice, and I’d like to return the favor with some of my own.

I went on my tour to get a sense of each college’s personality, to experience in person what I couldn’t by reading brochures. I wanted to feel a connection with a school. Yet I came away without a clear favorite since no school combined a great information session and a great tour. This led me to an unexpected conclusion: You never get both.

At Georgetown, the guide told us that he was from Boyle Heights and knew where all the fireplaces on campus were so they could stay warm in the winter.

Some information sessions were PowerPoints filled with facts, like acceptance rates and notable alumni, that I could find on a website. Or I heard about new buildings and school rankings, statistics I forgot the minute the presentation ended. Some sessions showed emotional videos filled with soaring music and photos of crying graduates, and while the pictures were touching, I felt like I was watching a commercial. What mattered most was hearing an admissions representative talk extemporaneously, authentically, about what students and professors at the school were like, what they cared about most and how they viewed their college experience.

The best information session I went to was at Emory University because the admissions rep was original, funny and straight to the point. Emory was where I started, so I didn’t realize how special the presentation was. If it had been the last one I attended, I would have given the speaker a standing ovation. She described what not to write about in our personal essays: no more sports melodramas where it’s always the crucial fourth quarter and raining hard, no journals about service trips to a third-world country where you have an epiphany while playing soccer with the locals, and no profiles of the inspiring person in your life who sounds like a better candidate for admission than you do. She pointed out that everyone used quotes from Martin Luther King, Gandhi and the Bible: “Be the change you want to see in the world” doesn’t sound as original the thousandth time around.

I feel the exact same way. I heard “holistic admissions process” repeated at every session along with “rigorous classes” (as in all students should take them). Every college explained “early decision” in detail: It is fully binding. I was told again and again that students declare a major in the second semester of their sophomore year. What I wanted to hear was what made this school unique.


Colleges have a second chance to wow prospective students on the student-led tour. It’s difficult to herd 50 or more people across a campus and still make a tour personal, or even audible for the whole crowd. If I didn’t elbow my way to the front of the group in these situations, I was left hearing nothing and looking at random buildings.

Real life stories make a school come alive. At Georgetown University, the guide told us that he was from Boyle Heights and how he and the other Californians there knew where all the fireplaces on campus were so they could stay warm in the winter. He also told us about the tradition of graduating students climbing onto the lap of Bishop John Carroll’s statue in the quad for luck in their future endeavors. These anecdotes stayed with me, as opposed to the facts and figures at the information session. I wish that tour guides sat in on information sessions so they’d know what they don’t need to say again.

And let the student guides change the script. At Amherst College on a scorching, humid day we were ushered into a non-air-conditioned dorm while our guide explained for 10 minutes how students do their laundry. Everyone stood there politely sweating until a parent interrupted to say the guide should just show us a dorm room and let us leave before anyone fainted. (Yes it was my mother, and yes, I was embarrassed.) Only two student guides spotted such problems and improvised on tours.

As much as colleges want to find the students best suited to them, I want to find the perfect college for me. Every prospective student deserves an info session that delivers more than basic facts and a tour that provides a true feel for campus life.

I want to see the real you, colleges, just as you want to see the real me.

Simon Kuh, a senior at Oakwood School, plans to major in history or economics.

Simon Kuh, a senior at Oakwood School, plans to major in history or economics.

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