I was a tour guide in college. I worked in admissions. I’ve consulted with students applying to college. I know campus tours. I believe in campus tours. My advice has long been to take official campus tours. Get a feel for the school when students are on campus. See a variety of settings and sizes. It’s good advice. Only now that I’m a parent of a junior applying to college attending campus tours, I’m here to say, what in god’s name is this madness?
The Scheduling Conspiracy
Let’s just start with the seemingly simple idea of scheduling a campus tour. How hard could this be? Well, I have lists. My lists have their own gravitational pull. I have spreadsheets. My spreadsheets have their own moons. You have to chart the days of week and times tours are offered, overlay that with driving distances, and cross match that with the laws of physics. I have a twitch in my right eye.
I won’t even go into it fully, but there’s a conspiracy, yes, a conspiracy, against students touring campuses. Sure the colleges seem welcoming on their websites. Come visit! It will be grand. But then they offer tours Monday-Friday at 10am and 2pm. Not sure if they are aware, but that’s the exact time high school kids are in school. Weekend tours seem like they’d make sense but when you see how few schools offer them, or how infrequently, you will lose your goddamn mind.
And if you are thinking you’ll just pull your kid out of school to look at colleges, you’re on crack. I’ve seen more lenient attendance policies at maximum security prisons than at our high school. Plus my kid is terrified to go to the bathroom during an AP class for fear of missing a month’s worth of material. Good luck getting her to miss an entire day.
The message from colleges is somewhat conflicting: Take tough classes, get straight As, be diligent…but, hey, just ditch and come see our school whenevs! It seems insane to me that these schools that charge upwards of fifty grand a year can’t float a robust weekend tour program and find like a few students with enough of a boring life to walk around campus for an hour. The application process hasn’t even started and I’m already doubting these schools can teach my kid critical thinking skills if they can’t figure this out.
Everything is Awesome!
But alas, eventually you’ll start touring campuses. You’ll quickly realize that all campus tours are basically the same, and, most importantly, everything is awesome! First you’ll meet your tour guide. Prepare yourself. They are mini gods. Most have already brought peace to several warring nations, started a non-profit, launched an online magazine, or are literally in the process of curing cancer. You will wonder what you’ve done with you life. Second, your guide will ask you to tell them if they are about to run into anything when they walk backwards. Third, they will insert a cute anecdote of that one time they did run into something. Actually, that's kind of adorable.
From there the tour will reveal the particular ways their school is awesome. At one school everything was seamless. Registering for classes? Seamless. Dorm assignments? Seamless. Study abroad? Seamless. Satisfying job? Seamless. Apparently Michelangelo, himself, flawlessly sculpted the entire campus experience from one piece of marble. And every school is number one in something, seriously. Something. Oh, and there is one special place on every campus where if you cross over it or stand under it you’ll either meet your one true love or curse your entire academic career. Good to remember which is which, I guess.
Laugh or Cry, Baby!
One thing you might find surprising about tours is how often you will laugh. To fully understand why tours are so damn funny, do me a favor and take a peek at the cost of tuition/room & board before the tour starts. It’s a number with so much power it actually has an arm and hand that will reach out from the glossy brochure and slap you hard across the face. You deserve it. That you don’t just pack everyone up and leave that “awesome” campus is a testament to how little you understand math, specifically, subtraction from your savings account, if you even have one. But, I’ll tell you this about the number…it will make you suddenly understand why everything is "awesome."
Just keep that number in mind so that every time your tour guide tells you something is free, you can have a good, long laugh in your head. The tour guide is unbelievably under the impression that things are “free” with your student ID. About half way through the tour it will take all the self-control you have not to scream out, “Your tuition is sixty-five fucking thousand dollars a year. Nothing here is mother fucking free!”
The only reason you won’t indulge this very appropriate outburst is because you love your child. Instead you will laugh quietly inside like a mental patient. But when your child turns to you with a grin and says, “I can’t believe the bus is included for free!” You will be tempted to pick up the child you have loved and kept safe for sixteen years and throw her like a football against the nearest perfectly planted shade tree in the manicured quad you will be paying to maintain. I laugh because I don’t want to throw my child into a tree.
You will keep it together pretty well, even when they tell you their sidewalks are heated. Heated! Just squelch that primal scream coming on. But then, they go too far. Our very sweet tour guide told us that students get 1,000 pages to print…free! "But, don’t worry, mom and dad, if they go over, we’ll still let them print stuff!" That was my come to Jesus moment where I almost lost my shit. Really? For sixty-five fucking grand a year you’ll throw in some extra pages of copy paper? To paraphrase Adam Sandler, whoop-dee-fucking-dooooooooo. That I didn’t throw myself over the tour group and swan dive on the tour guide while wringing his delusional neck was a miracle. But trust me, I’m now training exclusively in the dark arts of ninjahood just to be ready to execute this move should I need to on behalf of all parents everywhere.
The Jigsaw Puzzle
The thing is, my job is working with parents and student through this process. Sure, I knew the tedious application process would break me, but I never thought I’d be fantasizing about wringing the necks of campus tour guides. It seems too soon to be this broken. Maybe that’s the plan. Make the entire college admissions process so untenable that you are so completely shattered by the time you enroll them, you numbly hand them over every penny you’ve ever saved, hoping the eye twitch goes away.
The only thing I can tell you and myself is what I tell my clients when they start to lose it. It’s not you; it’s the process. You are being asked to do something fairly impossible. You see, the college process is a lot like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, only without all the pieces, or a picture on the box to guide you. As the months pass, you collect more pieces, the final scene becomes clearer, and the last piece fits in as if it was always going to make sense. I still think that is true. I know from many years of experience it will all work out. But I pity the next yahoo tour guide fool who tells me it will be awesome, seamless, or free. They are going to see what a forty-six year old ninja looks like.
Disclaimer and True Fact: None of these stories came from the tour of the school pictured. We all loved it, including my 10 year old who would sign today if they'd let him! And this student tour guide was super awesome and we all wanted to be friends with him.