You’ve probably heard it a million times already, but visiting a college and experiencing it first-hand is often the best way to determine if it’s a good fit — it’s the same logic as test driving a car or trying on clothes that you might buy. There’s really no substitute for experience, and at the center of that experience often lies a staple of the college selection process: the college tour.

A college tour is useful because it not only familiarizes you with the landmarks of a college and the history behind it, but also is a peek into the campus and its atmosphere.

But a resource that many people often overlook is the guide who leads these tours; not only are they a great source of information, but they’re usually students that attend the college, and have had their own unique social and academic experiences there.

Many people often like to ask about the objective facts about a college on a tour, which can be helpful. You’ll be able to learn important information about the college — like average financial aid award and the percentage of undergraduates in research — that will help you in filtering out colleges according to your needs.

However, there’s also very much a subjective side to the process of college selection, the more humanistic side that varies from person to person. And your tour guide is a great resource for this type of experiential knowledge and advice.

Not sure where to start? We’ve prepared a list of questions that will bring out a first-hand account of life as a student – something you can’t find in a brochure.

 

“What were your first few weeks on campus like?”

Asking questions about the transition to college can often give you a better understanding of the school’s social environment. Ask about the orientation process and how long it took until the person felt like they could “fit in” at a college. Was it easy for him or her to find and make friends? How did he or she find these friends? Were there sufficient events and resources  to help students get acclimated to the college?

These questions can give you a more in-depth look at the overall social dynamic at the college and how people interact with each other — whether it be through Greek life, extracurriculars, classes, research, dormitories, or spontaneous casual conversation.

 

“Do you have a favorite class or professor?”

Academically, college can be sort of a grab-bag; the experience varies widely within the same college across different majors and even different years within the same major. So this question is the most useful when you know that the tour guide is in a similar program  as you — in this case, asking this question can give you a snapshot of what school life and classes will be like for you.

If your tour guide is pursuing a different major, however, we recommend asking just about their favorite professor or instructor and why they’re their favorite. Sure, most colleges speak very highly of their own faculty and their accomplishments, but success in academia doesn’t always correlate with teaching skills. Hearing about the character of a professor from an actual student can be a helpful reference to better evaluate the teaching staff at a school.

 

“Have you had to get a recommendation letter yet? If so, who did you go to?”

If you thought the admissions cycle was the last you’ll see of recommendation letters, think again. Recommendation letters are a vital part of any college career — they’re a required item for internships, for jobs, for research opportunities, and for special program applications. Your recommenders will look pretty similar to the ones you sought out in high school — your teachers, your employers, your extracurricular coordinators, and the like.

Asking this question is valuable because you’ll not only see if there’s a formal process for obtaining a recommendation letter (some colleges have such a system in place if you want to ask your advising deans or certain faculty members), but you’ll also learn about the faculty-student dynamic at the college. Did your tour guide get his or her letters from professors or teaching aides, or did they mostly come from employers?

Faculty members and teaching staff usually will not write letters for students unless they’re sure that they know a student well enough; if a student has gotten most of their letters from faculty members, this could indicate a campus where professors and students have strong mentor-mentee relationships.

 

“What’s your favorite and least favorite part about being a student at ______________?”

It’s often good to ask about a college’s negative and positive qualities together; it increases your odds of getting a more candid answer from a tour guide, who’s typically trained to make a college look good.

The rationale behind this question is pretty straightforward — you’ll be able to get a human perspective on a college’s subjective qualities, both good and bad. Since most of the information you hear from the tour guide and the college is going to be positive, the answer that the tour guide gives for the negative portion can point to some of the college’s more prominent shortcomings, because it’s highly likely that the negative portion of this question is unscripted and will actually come from the tour guide’s own experience.

 

“What’s your favorite place to be that’s not on-campus?”

As the name implies, most of a campus tour is going to be about a college campus. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t learn more about the college’s surroundings during the tour either. This question serves a double purpose: it tells you about landmarks in the local area, and also gives you some perspective into what students at this college do in their free time, away from their academic commitments.

 

Most tour guides are very open and friendly, and are very willing to share their experiences with prospective students and visitors. It’ll also make tours a lot more entertaining — experiential questions often can draw out many funny anecdotes, which are a nice break from the constant stream of facts that the guide’s been trained to give.

Either way, having another person’s perspective on the college experience is often a powerful tool in deciding if a college is right for you, and tour guides are generally more than happy to give you the tools you need to make that decision.

 

 

Jeanette Si

Jeanette Si

Jeanette is a junior at Cornell University double majoring in Information Science and China and Asia-Pacific Studies. As someone who’s received a lot of help from mentors during her personal admissions process, she’s looking to give back now that her own admissions season is behind her. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found singing show tunes (terribly), playing MOBAs (passably), or quoting Jane Austen (expertly).
Jeanette Si