Students who visit Ohio State University’s main campus in Columbus may have their picture taken with a likeness of Brutus, the mascot. Before leaving they receive the photo in a themed card, as well as a chocolate-and-peanut-butter “Buckeye” candy. Later, the university sends thank-you notes to visitors. “You’re looking for takeaways that they remember,” says Mabel G. Freeman, assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions and first-year experience. “Yes, you want them to be great students, but first they’ve got to feel comfortable at the university.”
American University in Washington, D.C., recently relocated its visitors center to the breathtaking new visual and performing arts building. Each prospective student now gets a lanyard and a badge identifying him or her as a “VIP.” The badge accompanies a brochure about American and, as Kallay writes on his blog, “becomes a valued piece of memorabilia.”
Sharon M. Alston, executive director for enrollment management at American, says the consultants have helped the university officials understand that it’s okay for tour guides to take greater control of the tour, even if means sacrificing some of the pro-AU messaging. “It’s the authenticity piece,” Alston says. “If you’re asking people to invest forty to fifty thousand dollars a year, I think that we have to make an emotional as well as an intellectual connection to get them to make that decision.”
Adam Bigott made an emotional connection with Hendrix College last November. After he and his parents pulled into the parking lot, they discovered a spot with a sign that said, “Reserved for Adam Bigott.” They smiled. “It got me super excited,” Adam says.
By then, the Bigotts, who live in Illinois, had visited several small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Adam had applied to Hendrix, in Arkansas, but he was unsure about the college, which was ten hours away from home. His feelings changed after he spent a day and a half at the school, which epitomizes today’s campus tour like no other college. At Hendrix, each preregistered visitor gets a personalized pamphlet and itinerary. He or she chooses one of eight classes to attend; borrows a backpack and notebook; takes a guided walk of the campus; eats in the cafeteria; and meets with a faculty member and an admissions representative. Parents and students are split up, leaving teenagers free to ask all those questions about dating and drinking.
There’s a dash of sensory programming: visitors walk on a stretch of campus covered with pecan shells and dip their hands into fountains. When they leave, they will have met with at least five students from a vast team of volunteers. High school seniors will also find a packagewaiting for them in the mailroom. It contains a tie-dyed T-shirt bearing a slogan (“Are You Experienced?”) that evokes a famous Hendrix named Jimi.
Adam Bigott enjoyed all the fanfare, but what he liked best was the time he spent with the head of the physics department, who took him to the basement to show him high-tech laser equipment. That night, he stayed in a dorm with students, whom he peppered with questions about what was good about Hendrix and what wasn’t. The next day, he received an envelope containing an acceptance letter—and plenty of glitter.
“Hendrix never lied to me—they said this is who we are and we aren’t for everyone,” Adam says. “At a lot of other schools, it felt like everyone was pushing the school on you, like cheerleaders. I felt like they were the ones deceiving me.”
Bigott seems pleased with his experience and his choice of college, but of course even the most “authentic” tour is unlikely to reveal a school’s real warts. A campus tour guide is not going to admit that, say, cheating is rampant among math majors, any more than a prospective applicant is going to admit that he cheated on his last algebra test. So asking personal questions of tour guides will only get you so far, says Steven Roy Goodman, a D.C.-based college “admissions strategist” who makes a living helping students describe themselves favorably to admissions committees. Goodman thinks that tour guides’ life stories are of little use to visitors trying to determine how well they would fit in on a particular campus. So he suggests describing your own interests to guides, and then asking them if they know anybody who’s similar. “The question forces them to get off script,” he says.
Goodman is often reminded of how today’s tours push consumers’ buttons. Recently, he scheduled a visit to Chapman University, in California. He received a confirmation that looked just like an old-fashioned movie ticket, stamped with the tour’s start time. “The tour’s become an event,” he says. “There’s a reason Disney World is one of the most popular tourist destinations. Americans expect a show.”
Like many counselors, Goodman encourages students to consider where the information they hear is coming from. At all but the most selective colleges, admissions officers have a difficult job: filling campus beds with the most qualified students possible. This doesn’t mean they are bad people—just that they’re under a lot of pressure. Failure to meet enrollment goals has severe consequences, financial and otherwise, for colleges. So families should know that they are on the receiving end of messages shaped, at least in part, by competitive instincts.
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