There’s one on every tour: a parent or prospective student who tries to break up the monotony of her fourth campus visit in two days with a question that catches the tour guide off guard, resulting in a brief, unscripted moment of improvisation.
During my college tours, this person was my father. He would ask the tour guide what was in her refrigerator, or request to push the blue light to test the real-time readiness of campus security. These moments usually resulted in a much needed laugh or an instance of honesty.
Such atypical remarks enable parents and prospective students to open up the blinds of the campus window and see what life at that particular college would really be like.
College tours are a lot like reality TV; they can be completely staged and only offer the public small glimpses into real life. Yet, by asking new kinds of questions, you can get your tour guide to share what her experience has really been like.
What to Ask
Here are eight questions to ask your tour guide that will help you get a better sense of what the college has to offer:
1. What has been your best academic moment? What has been your worst?
The answers will give you insight into the learning culture at this school. A tour guide who talks about the struggle of getting an unexpectedly bad grade, versus one who discusses the difficulty of getting one-on-one time with her professors, is describing schools with different academic values and weaknesses.
2. What has been something unique you have seen on campus that can only happen at this particular college?
If you’ve been on a few tours, it’s easy for them to become a blur of fancy library names and lists of a cappella groups. This question cuts through the numbing similarities to give you a sense of what makes this campus stand out.
3. What was the last topic of debate between you and your friends?
College is so much more than what happens in the classroom. This is a great question to gauge the types of subjects people are interested in outside of class.
4. What career advice have you recently received from faculty?
This question will not only illustrate what kind of relationship students have with their professors; it will also help you understand the ways the school expects to set students up for success.
5. Where is your favorite meal on campus? Off campus?
Learning about food options isn’t just about whether or not the choices are gourmet and delicious. Meals are where you bond with friends. Hearing a little bit about the hole-in-the-wall that serves the best french fries, or the dining hall that’s open late during finals, is a great way to get a sense of the social life on and off campus.
6. What’s one thing you would change about this school?
No school is going to be perfect, so it’s important to know if the flaws of this college are ones you are willing to put up with. Be skeptical if a tour guide claims there is nothing she would change.
7. What was the last extraordinary event you went to?
This will give you a sense of the opportunities the school invests in. Do they invite senators to talk to students about current events? Does the school bring puppies to campus during midterms so students can let off steam? Does your tour guide have time to go to any big events, or is she too swamped with homework?
8. What is something you have achieved or been involved with as a result of attending this college that you never expected?
This question gives your tour guide a chance to speak about something she is really passionate about. Learning how someone was able to pursue an interest she loves will give you a sense of how the school supports its students on their paths to success.
Your Tour Doesn’t End Here
Remember, your tour guide can only draw on her personal experiences when answering questions, and is somewhat obligated to present the school in a positive light.
Get the most out of your campus visit by looking for information in other places:
Talk to other students: Learn if your tour guide’s descriptions are representative of the campus perspective by talking to other students. Explain that you are considering applying, and ask some of the questions above. It may feel intimidating, but if people aren’t friendly to you when you approach them, it may be a sign that this isn’t the school for you.
Look at flyers: Campuses are full of bulletin boards advertising the next big concert, performance, or club meeting. Ask yourself if any of these events make you feel excited, or if you can imagine yourself participating in them.
Sit in on a class: Some campuses offer the opportunity to attend classes as a prospective student. This is a great way to get a taste of the academic climate. If a school doesn’t offer this possibility, send an email to a professor who teaches a class you would enjoy. She may be willing to let you visit class, or at least meet with you afterwards.
Stay overnight: Certain colleges offer prospective students the chance to sleep over. Ask about this opportunity, since it allows you to come into contact with lots of students and to attend campus events. Remember to be a good guest; be mindful that the student you are staying with may have assignments due soon, so give her space to study if she needs it.
College visits are a great way to get an idea of where you might be spending the next four years. Take the time to make the trip worthwhile and informative.