College Tours: What High School Students Want

By Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed

Walking backward on tours doesn’t impress anyone anymore. How can colleges make an impact? And how can colleges outside California attract Californians?

LOS ANGELES — Remember how at one point it was kind of cool when a guide on a college tour walked backward? That day is gone, said four counselors last week at a session at the annual meeting of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. The problem is that everyone does it, so it doesn’t stand out to any student (or parent) anymore, at least after visiting a second college with such guides.

The counselors were gathered to provide insights into what high school students (in this case from California high schools with high college-going rates) want when they are interacting with college admissions officers. The counselors acknowledged that students are fickle.

“Our business is designed around the predictability of 18-year-olds,” said Jeff Morrow of Oaks Christian School, who added that 18-year-olds are anything but predictable. But that said, they shared what they are hearing about student reactions.

While students are over being impressed by guides walking backward, they pay a lot of attention to the guides themselves, and college officials were urged to pay close attention to the quality of tours. Several counselors said that when they are being debriefed by students about their college trips, students will reference the name of the guide before the name of the college — and connecting with that person seems to be something high school students expect. This may be unfair to colleges, but institutions need to know that they are being judged by their tour guides, the counselors said.

Students want the information they receive to be customized and not just a general pitch, the counselors said. They criticized those colleges that send out representatives to high schools who just give the same talk over and over again.

“Sometimes the college just dives in to the general spiel” without customizing by asking students what they want to know about, said Casey Rowley, a counselor at Beverly Hills High School.

Colleges that are prestigious “assume that students will know things that they don’t know,” said Rebecca Heller of the Viewpoint School. While students may know that a given college is prestigious, they may not know much more, she said.

Morrow said that college recruiters frequently fail to meet the needs of all of the students who come to their visits. Morrow’s school opens these visits to sophomores, juniors and seniors — who are at very different stages of their college searches, and college representatives don’t seem aware of this all the time, he said. The sophomores “don’t always know what to ask,” so a college rep needs to provide some structure.

While the counselors were critical of some of the visits their high schools receive, they all said that they see better interactions in these small group meetings than at college fairs, where applicants and college reps are engaged in something that resembles speed dating.

“Everyone ends up looking the same. The brochures are all the same,” said Evelyn Alexander of Magellan College Counseling.

Several questions from the audience (primarily made up of college admissions officials) indicated that they agreed that there was relatively little value in many college fairs. But they said that they feel obliged to be there, especially if colleges with which they compete for students will be present.


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