A Dad’s Suggestions for a Better College Tour


I am sharing an email that I received this week from a dad who had just completed a college trip with his daughter and had some helpful suggestions for schools on how to operate better college tours. At the end of his suggestions, you will see which state university that the family visited. Lynn O’Shaughnessy

Hi Lynn,

I hope you will be willing to indulge me on this, but you seem to have a way of getting information about the college process out, so in the hopes and spirit of constructive exchange, I’d like to pass along some thoughts to college admission offices that might help the process.

An open letter to college admission offices,

Today we completed another multi-day trip to visit a large, well known university for an admissions tour.  Your campus was beautiful, the buildings impressive, the campus legends cute.  But you missed a golden opportunity to close the sale because you did not know your product.

In talking to my daughter on the way home, what she most stood out to her was what you did not mention and the questions you could not answer.  This led us to discuss what a tour should be like to better help prospective students.aboutiu

a.  Dress like you are representing the school in a professional manner.  This doesn’t mean suit & tie but a polo shirt in school colors and khaki shorts/slacks/skirt means more than a T-shirt and cut offs.  And wear a name tag.

b.  Don’t walk off and leave the tour group wondering where you are or struggling to catch up.  You may have walked this path a hundred times, but we are trying to observe as we go, and some older parents cannot keep up.

As an example our group left the admin building and looked for our guides only to find them across the street and leaving us behind before some folks had even gotten out the door.

c.  Be able to talk and discuss with us as you walk.  Practice walking backward and talking to the group as you go.  Long dead periods as we race across campus are killers.

d.  Know the critical information about campus.  Not just the useless trivia about campus legends and cute folklore, but tell us about the academics.  Ultimately that’s why people go to college – to learn.

We don’t expect you to know every class or major, but you should have a good idea of core curriculum everyone takes.  If your university has access to one of a kind facilities, mention that.  Heck, show us if you can.  Most people will be impressed by a particle accelerator, even if they don’t understand it.

e.  Show us some academic buildings from the inside so we can see where classes happen.  Tour the library.  And don’t forget the dining hall.  Let us understand what the meals are and what the meal plans are.  These things are important to parents who pay the bills.

f.  And finally, make that potential student feel welcome, like you can’t wait for her to be a fellow student.  Friendliness and openness does incredible things.

Why Does This Matter

Clemson University

Clemson University

I’m passing these along because college visits take time and are costly.  This trip was a three day round trip, with gas, hotel bills, and eating out.  As parents, we need to ensure these trips are worth the cost in terms of information gained.  Thank you Lynn for taking the time to understand and pass along.

In this case the latest university we visited was Indiana.  My daughter still plans to apply, but mainly due to information we have researched on line.

In many ways she was better informed on the academics than the guides were.

During the drive home she contrasted it with the tours at other schools we’ve visited and Clemson has become the standard she compares against.  At Clemson, for example, she noticed how welcoming everyone was when we arrived on campus – everyone we met that day made her feel like they wanted her to join them, from the lady who checked her in to the students who served her ice cream at the snack bar.

Our tour guide at Clemson took time to speak personally to everyone on the tour while walking between buildings and made sure to point out the related academic buildings for majors people were interested in.  She was able to talk knowledgeably about everything from academics to dining to recreation to campus safety.

I’m sorry this has grown so long, but my primary reason for trying to pass this along is not to complain, but improve the process at all schools.

There are thousands of students and parents spending hundreds of dollars for each college visit they make.  Some of my daughter’s friends are even flying across country to check out certain colleges.  When parents and students are spending that kind of time and money, colleges need to maximize the value out of those two or three hours the student is on campus.

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  1. I do have to agree with a lot of this dad’s suggestions. I remember a lot of my tours being more about the size and history of the campus and less about the learning and living options of the college. Though I do remember that on my tour of University of Washington a lot of parents were worried about safety so the tour guide used one of the emergency stations and there was a police officer there in less than a minute that impressed a lot of parents.

  2. The University of South Carolina is another example of a “Best in Class” college tour and orientation experience.

  3. Our tour several year ago at the University of Toledo was far beyond expectations. First it was just us and the guide – no other families.

    We did see a staged room in their ‘new’ dorm building but we also randomly stopped at one of the dorms where summer students were staying. The RA called someone to see if we could see their room. They came down and were very polite and frank about living there. We were completely unannounced.

    Any building we asked to see, the guide knew how to get in and show us or called ahead and a security guard was there waiting to escort us. We go over the map and where we were going and what there was to see on the way and it was our option if we wanted to go inside. They have 3 cafeterias and a couple café type places and she clearly explained to my son what to expect. Food seemed to be most important to him. That and student fitness center.

    When we had questions about the majors my son was considering, she took us to the college buildings and found a professor, who was also very willing to answer our questions and invited us into her office. Even better, on questions about classes, she addressed my son directly. On other campus visits, the adults addressed us and nearly ignored the fact that he’s present and is the one that will be attending. We got to see a large lecture hall, labs, library, and smaller class rooms of the higher level courses.

    What was even more surprising, was the tour guide. We asked what her major was and it was nursing – which is at the school hospital – another campus that has nothing to do with the majors my son was interested in. We were surprised she was so well acquainted with the main campus being that most of her courses were on another campus. So she explained the campus bus system and even that his college id could be used on city buses. If she didn’t know about what we were asking about, she found someone who did.

  4. Excellent post! As a dad who recently toured a university with his two children, my experience was almost identical. We learned mostly about the sports and recreational facilities; we did tour the freshman housing model. However, there was nothing on the tour about academics, housing for upperclassmen (my daughter will be a transfer student), or a look inside the building where actual programs of interest to the group were housed. With only three students on this tour, it could have been more personalized. The day was also hot and humid. When we sat down to cool off in the Admissions “Welcome” area, we were told we could not stay because our tour was over. My recommendation to parents and students would be to simply take a day and visit the areas of interest at the school. We received excellent information in the Housing Office, for example.

    1. Michael,
      We had a very different experience in the Admissions Office. We arrived about an hour before our tour following a three hour drive from the Chicago area. We decided to ask the Admissions staff if they could recommend a place to get a bite to eat. The woman we spoke to happily recommended a nearby coffeehouse/cafe that is popular with students. The recommendation was perfect because it focused on what our daughter’s experience could be if she chooses Lawrence. Following our tour, some students continued with interviews, but the rest of us were welcome to stay, ask questions, have a cold drink (it was a little warm and humid), etc. We left happy and knowing that our daughter could learn and grow in such a welcoming environment.

  5. We had a great experience visiting Lawrence University in Appleton, WI last week. Our small group (2 families) was led by a rising sophomore and senior. They showed us as much as they could given that school is out for the summer. The younger tour guide showed us his own dorm room, even though he was packing it up. We saw many academic spaces including the Psych, Chem, Art, Music departments. The guide attempted to show to show us classrooms in the oldest building on campus that used to house the entire University, but everything was locked up for the summer. We saw the student union, art galleries, performance spaces, the library. We didn’t care that the guides weren’t wearing polo shirts and khakis.

    In sum, my daughter loved the school and both my mother and I wished we could go there, too!

    1. Thanks Rachel.

      I have bittersweet memories of my visit at Lawrence U. with my son Ben because it was the last college tour that we took together before he started applying to schools. I miss those trips!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. Lynn,

        Like you, I am a Midwestern transplant (Chicago area) to Southern California who went to Giant Pubic (UIUC) but who always felt like a small LAC would have been a better fit. Though our daughter will apply to UCs as a financial backup, I have embraced the philosophies of you and Loren Pope. I feel so liberated from all of the prestige hullabaloo.

        1. Thanks for sharing Rachel. It is liberating when you realize that there are so many colleges out there that provide great educations and don’t reject the majority of applicants. It is freeing not to be slaves to the rankings.

          Lynn O’Shaughnessy

        2. It can also be financially liberating. As another transplanted midwesterner from Big U, I was surprised to learn that some of the smaller, less well known schools are also very generous with grants and scholarships . . . and have friendly, informative tours of their campuses. I would suggest that overnight visits are good if your child is comfortable with that–helped our kids learn what they liked and didn’t like about campuses. Not an option on our UC visits.

          New to us this spring were phonecasts from Willamette University: an in-depth extension of their college tour which are now posted on their website. The phonecasts (all 5 hours of input from professors and admin!) convinced us that it was a terrific school academically and socially, with many opportunities for the next 4 years.

  6. We toured Snoma State University, not only did they show us the dorms, but they were completely staged by Bed Bath and Beyond. The rooms were very cool and my daughter left feeling as though she could easily live there. These other school are missing a great opportunity and some free advertising.
    On our tour of Chico State our guide walked backward in the rain, showed us several classrooms, the library and the dorms.
    Some schools are doing it right!

  7. The worst tour experience we had with my daughter was at The University of Chicago. It was a cold and windy day in February and we basically walked the sidewalks and were told what each building was. We only got to go into two lobbies along the way. Everyone was freezing and we wondered what the point of the tour was if we didn’t get to see the inside of any buildings. They took us into the lobby of a dorm, but said “unfortunately” we could not see any rooms. I guess they don’t feel a real tour is necessary because they can rest on their laurels, give a lame tour and still boast about their 8.8% acceptance rate!

    1. Hi Wendy,

      Your bad experience reminded me of a tour my husband and daughter took at the University of California, Davis. The temperature was over 100 degrees, but tour guide stayed outside nearly the entire time. The school also wouldn’t allow anyone to see the dorms — and there were requests! I thought some parents were going to pass out from the extreme heat.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  8. This is a great list of suggestions. College tour guides often act as if college tours are a big chore or that they are in fact doing parents and their kids a huge favor by guiding them around campus. This sets a very monotonous mood for the tour. A little bit of openness and friendliness can change all that.

  9. I agree, except for the bit about wearing polo shirts and khakis . . I think this depends on the school being toured. For me, it would be a bit of a turn-off. It looks uptight, bland, generic. I would hope that wouldn’t represent the school.

    It must be hard for schools to try to appeal to different kinds of parents 🙂

    1. Parent 2014 — I’d have to agree with you about the khakis and polos. I know my son would have been totally turned off by that even though it shouldn’t matter!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  10. On these standards the best tour I’ve ever taken was Penn State’s. The guides knew the school, navigated everyone successfully through the rain and showed everyone enough of everything to help them make a decision. They also give you a pass to one of the newer dining halls for lunch!
    Two other schools where I thought the guides were well prepared were St. Mary’s College of Maryland and UConn.

  11. Like Clemson, we had a similar experience at St. Lawrence University in New York. Knowledgable, friendly people from the first interaction to the last. Also, one member of our family/friends group became very ill and the response from the school — students, administrators, staff — was exceptionally kind and reassuring, and more than I would have expected from any school.

    As the dad notes, making us feel welcome goes a long, long way. My son chose St. Lawrence, and I am confident that he will be well cared for, even 3,000 miles from home.

  12. Hi, Lynn,

    I am a college counselor and I love your blog and book! Every summer, I lead college trips with my students. One thing that baffles me is why some colleges refuse to show dorms on the tours. There are always lots of excuses (security, “it wouldn’t be representative,” etc), but it’s difficult for my students to picture themselves at a school without seeing where they would be living. Colleges fail to comprehend that they are going to be compared against places that do allow prospective students to see dorms. My students are so disappointed (and suspicious) when this happens, so I just approach random students and ask if we can take a peek. We’ve always found someone willing to accommodate us. We’ve seen everything from bongs to pet hamsters! Wouldn’t it be better to just show us a staged room?

    Thanks for sharing your expertise and opinions!