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The secret to making the most of a campus tour

Make an ATP (Active Tour Plan) to get the most out of your visit

The secret to making the most of a campus tour

This summer, thousands of you soon-to-be seniors will visit college campuses across the United States to take a collegiate rite of passage: the campus tour. A campus tour is the best way to gain a general understanding of a college. 

But with only an hour to form an opinion about a college, are you getting all you can out of your campus tours? 

How do you approach each campus tour? Do you take copious notes? Do you stake out the admissions building to find the best tour guide? Or are you a prospective student without an Active Tour Plan (ATP)? 

For four years, I gave tours at Connecticut College. During that time, I learned the intricacies of the unsuccessful campus tour. Most of my charges didn’t have an ATP. They were passive listeners who let me tell them what I wanted to (and didn’t want to) about my college. Only a few bothered to use the hour to their best advantage. But your days of visiting colleges without an ATP are over.

Here are my suggestions for triumphing on every campus tour, how to keep the multitude of tours and guides and campus quads from running together as you try to find out why each college is unique. If you care enough to visit a college map out what exactly you want to get done on your tour. You’ve got one hour—how are you going to use it?


Before the tour

Do research
Research its outstanding programs, faculty-student ratio, educational mission—even its mascot. Know the competitive sports teams and major rivals. You should prepare yourself with all of the pertinent, public information there is to learn about the college before you set off to take a tour. 

As a tour guide, my worst tours began with groups that confused my school, Connecticut College, with the University of Connecticut (approximately 30 times bigger and an hour north), or who mistakenly believed that we were still an all-women’s college (we went co-ed 40 years ago).

Read while you wait
Once you arrive on campus, brush up on your knowledge in the admissions office while you wait for the tour to begin. If you arrive early (or if your guide is late), make good use of your time. Most college admissions offices are stacked with brochures; grab a few and review them and take a college map to make sure you can get around. Know if the college you are visiting is a small liberal arts college or a medium-sized university. Find out where students live and the division in which the athletic teams compete. 

The more you understand about a college, the more efficient you will be during the tour. You’ll be able to skip the intro questions and head right for the tough ones, like “How is the study atmosphere in the library at night?” 

Your tour guide will be an actual student at the college you are visiting—be prepared to use him or her as more than a walking brochure narrator. Preparing is the first step to a successful and efficient campus tour.


While on the tour

Engage the tour guide about his or her personal experiences
Nobody likes a boring tour. But that’s what you’ll get if you don’t have an ATP. Ask questions! Remember—focus on finding out what makes this college different from others.

The best questions are directed to a tour guide’s personal experience. Tour guides (like most people) are at their best when they’re talking about subjects they know well. Encourage tour guides to emphasize their own experiences instead of the usual canned speech about the history of the art building.

Ask your tour guide: 
• Why did you choose this college? 
• What have been your best experiences here? 
• Why did you stay after freshman year?
• What’s your plan for after graduation?


After the tour

Talk to the tour guide 
This is the best advice I can offer—make sure it’s part of your ATP. The time after a tour is golden. Most guides stick around to answer final questions and make sure everyone knows where to go next. Use this time to engage the tour guide about your own situation. Are you concerned about attending a large college or worried about making friends? Confide this fear to your tour guide, and ask the guide to address the issue. Are you nervous that your test scores aren’t high enough for admission? Ask the guide what other criteria the college values highly. In the time after the tour, you’ll get the guide’s full attention, and if you’re lucky, candid answers.

As a tour guide, I took pains to educate myself about the admission process—deadlines, interviews, admission stats. But I rarely volunteered this information during normal tours, since it was difficult to explain concisely. In the time after tours, however, when prospective students approached me, I was free to speak to their particular questions. As a result, I often counseled students and families about the importance of scheduling interviews, which happened to be an important criteria for admission. The students who engaged me after the tour benefited from my knowledge simply by sticking around.

Write down five impressions you received from the tour 
Note the number of trees on the campus quad. Jot down how impressed you were with the lecture halls you saw. Also write down some of the things your tour guide highlighted, such as major academic programs.

Sometimes odd things will stick out. On a tour of a college in Oregon, my tour guide sported a shock of blue hair. I wrote it down and now, six years later, I still remember it. Anything that will help you remember the tour will be immensely valuable as you try to recall certain colleges.

Ask your tour guide for his or her e-mail address 
When you visit a school that you enjoy (or when you have a great tour guide), ask the guide for his or her e-mail address. Then send the guide a short thank-you note with any other questions. As your college search progresses, you’ll have an expert on your side. It will also help you establish a back door link with the admissions office. Like all employees, guides share information. It behooves you for your name to be fresh in their minds. A follow-up e-mail with more questions means that you are serious about your college search.

I spent hours answering e-mail from prospective students who were industrious enough to follow up with me after tours. I forwarded my correspondence to admissions so they would know which prospectives really cared about our college.

Explore on your own 
Taking a campus tour does not absolve you from discovering the rest of the campus by yourself! Take your college map to navigate around and see everything you want on your own time.


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