There are a million and one things I could (and will, in an upcoming series) say about college tours. Let me start with this simple truth:
What you see on your college tour is likely as good as it gets.
Let me say first –no, I don’t think that most colleges are deliberately and routinely pulling a bait-and-switch scheme. (Though I will mention later some red flag signals.)
As you visit schools, keep in mind that there is a certain customer – salesperson dynamic at play. Your job is to find the best possible school that meets all of your needs. The college admissions job is to convince you that their school is that school.
You will be shown the nicest, most appealing parts of the campus — the newest, most recently remodeled dorms — the most energy efficient and tech-equipped classrooms. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re a future chemistry major and your tour guide is waxing eloquent about the library, the theatre space, and the art studios — you may need to politely insist that you be shown the spaces where you would be studying your major. If the chemistry lab is outdated and ill-equipped on your tour, it’s unlikely to have improved by the start of the next school year.
If the dorm rooms are dim, dingy, and dusty when being shown on a tour, imagine (if you dare) how they will look at the end of the semester, filled with student zombies. That goes double for the bathrooms. Remember, if you are there on an official tour date, you’re being shown spaces that have been cleaned and prepared especially for your viewing pleasure.
Most students will confirm that the meals offered in the dining hall on tour days and parent weekends are not reflective of actual day-to-day options during the school year. If you’re put off by the food during your visit, you may be in for a long, hungry year.
The financial aid office, business office, and admissions office personnel are, in most cases, overworked and underappreciated. Your interaction with them at this point in the game, as a prospective student, is key. If they are not eager to help you and willing to answer your questions at this point, it is unlikely that they will suddenly be proficient and personable once you’ve committed to attend.
So, should a drab dorm room or an outdated chemistry lab automatically eliminate a school from your list of considerations? Of course not. Ultimately, you’re going to college for the education, not the accommodations. A colorful quilt and a couple of posters go a long way. If you’re an English major, the outdated chemistry lab is hardly a concern if there is fantastic library.
But if you’re in general underwhelmed by what you see when the college is putting its best foot forward, make note (I advise actual notes, if you’re seeing multiple schools — you think you’ll remember, but you might not).
A school that doesn’t meet your needs on its best day might not be the right choice.