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Beyond the Website: Making Campus Tours Truly Resonate

A Call for Authenticity, Inclusion, and Personal Connection in Campus Visits

The marketing got us in the door, then the campus tour happened.

Recently, I took my precocious 9-year-old, Theresa, on a college tour. No, I’m not an overzealous parent who is trying to get ahead of other parents in the college process. I was simply responding to a repeated ask from Theresa to visit a particular university that she discovered at a college fair while accompanying my older daughter, who was in the midst of her own college search. My daughter must have picked up at least 20 brochures, but one school really stood out to her. She liked the look of the brochure, and it was an added bonus that they highlighted many of her hobbies and interests as majors in their brochure. Even though college is a long way down the road for her, my wife and I decided to satisfy Theresa’s wish to visit the campus since it was just under an hour from where we live.

Lacking Definition

I didn’t go on the trip intending to scrutinize the experience in the way that I did, but I was struck almost immediately by the very generic nature of the tour. Our tour guide was very well-spoken and had many facts to share about the university, but it seemed as though she was not instructed to tell her story, or to personalize the tour at all. Campus diversity and inclusion efforts weren’t on the docket either.  She told us her name, major, and that she was in the university’s honor’s program before transitioning into her script for the tour, which was shockingly bland.

One of the things I know about this university is that it has a large population of first-generation students. If she identified as such, she didn’t offer that to us. First-generation student support was never mentioned even though I walked by a TRIO office which is a national program that serves first-generation students.

While we made our way to the Admissions office, I also learned that the university is a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). I noted that on one of the many flyers posted in the University Center promoting events for Hispanic Latin American Heritage month. Surprisingly, and much to our chagrin, neither those events, nor the university’s status as an HSI, came up on the tour. It was so egregious that I wondered if they were intentional omissions. There were no mentions about how the school celebrates difference, or provides support to different under-represented populations. She simply offered the usual talking points about small lecture halls and many academic offerings that reduced it to just another university. It felt very generic.

The tour lacked character.

Make It Relatable

As expected, within 20 minutes, Theresa was feeling like she was in over her head. This wasn’t simply a function of a kid wanting a more interactive experience. I found that the language of the tour assumed that everybody was either college-educated, or understood common terms that are bandied about on campuses like GPA (grade point average) and RA (Residential Advisor). The terms were never explained. As we walked around, I saw different academic buildings. Having attended college, I know that a campus is composed of different buildings that house a variety of programs and services. That was not explained either. 

I wondered if any parents were barely familiar with the lexicon, or campuses in general, and felt like my daughter did on the tour—wanting to understand what they were hearing and seeing, but gradually feeling disconnected and intimidated in a largely unfamiliar setting.

Tell Your Story. State Your Values. Personalize the Experience

It is important to reiterate that I thought the tour guide was a good presenter. I even told her that at some point. I think she did what was asked of her. What would have made the tour better was if she had told us more about herself at the outset, or even during our walk across campus. Stories connect people. The tour would not have felt generic if she had juxtaposed her personal experience alongside other notable information about the school.

I thought it would have been a great touch for her to learn even a little bit about her audience, like asking how many first-generation students were in the group, or if anybody needed to be closer to the front of the tour that may be hearing impaired. If the tour is personalized in those ways, and the messaging about personalization is intentional, it suggests to students and their caregivers that individuals matter on campus, and that they won’t get lost in a sea of faces.

Tangible Takeaways

Have your tour guides tell their story and how they were empowered as individuals on campus. Ask them to definitively state your values around diversity, equity, and inclusion. And to the best of your ability, make sure students and their caregivers feel seen during their visit.

Creative marketing may get students and their families in the door, but that effort is rendered moot if the campus experience feels generic.

Please note: While the tour guide is frequently mentioned, my observations are directed toward the common script she was given, which often reflects the norm. This represents a broader opportunity for campuses and tour guides to foster a deeper connection with visitors, prospective students and their families.

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