Ah, tour season! High school juniors and seniors are off spending days gallivanting around campuses asking questions and shaking their heads in embarrassment whenever their parents ask one of their own.
These ubiquitous tours have been wandering our campus, blocking traffic in Baxter, randomly obstructing runs to make 1:10 political science courses on time, staring at the beautiful architecture of the freshman quad – but never daring to comment on the numerous bottle-like shapes in the windows (“It’s Pepsi, I swear!”) – and listening to the tour guide as though s/he were a messenger from God, raptly devouring every word that comes booming out of this articulate and intelligent college student. I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of the college tour. One or two hours somehow have the power to make or break a prospective student’s decision to attend Williams.
And yet, this all-important hour is filled with bizarre facts. Rutgers tour guides talk about the cannon they stole from their former rivals Princeton (which has tour guides that point out that the cannon is actually in front of a building back in Princeton). Amherst tours…let’s not go there. The list of “fun” (read: worthless) facts continues for each and every college around the country. I applied to be a tour guide. As far as I know, the application is still being considered, and this column will probably kill any remote chance I ever had at becoming a guide.
The last of five short questions on the application asked the applicant to name a fun fact about Williams. I could not think of any (many other applicants were smarter than I and found facts on the web). The “fun” facts included: Chapin was once a pipe organ, Bernhard was once voted most creative use of cement, and the classic about Stetson’s architects and a spelling mistake worse than Dan Quayle’s.
These little snippets are expected of tour guides. Why? Can we point to many people who choose Williams because of the fun facts the tour guide knew? No. Theoretically, it may help differentiate between colleges, but when every college tour includes five or six of these facts, it no longer accomplishes that goal. The question remains; why spend so much time on these pointless trivialities? There appear to be two main answers. Sadly, both are pessimistic. One would say that for some sick reason, high school students consciously or subconsciously choose schools by these facts. If so, why would I want to go to school with them? I want to be stuck in Williamstown for four years with other people just as excited to be living here with the cows and the New England weather.
The other answer is that there is not enough positive information about Williams for the tour guides to fill an hour with. Few possibilities strike me as more ridiculous than that one. Tours leave out huge amounts of information about academic, social (especially social) and other aspects of the school. Some of this information might be frowned upon (the party policy is a good example), but the possibility of students deciding to come here with a warped view of the school is more dangerous.
I still want to be a tour guide. I want to accurately paint a picture of the Williams experience that includes both the wonderful parts and the few negatives. The admissions office should not bypass the full truth in its search for the highest yield, best applicants, statistically superior student body. The best-fit class for Williams will naturally carve itself out only if high school students can honestly judge our overall experience versus that of other schools.
Williams could easily scare off many prospective students by telling the truth about the school. Williams can just as easily excite even more (and arguably better) prospective students by telling that same truth about the school. Are we scared that our close-knit, academically superior, socially supportive and mature yet fun-loving atmosphere will not attract applications? We should not be.
Ironically, in other actions, the admissions office understands the power of the “average” Williams experience. It and its compatriots across the country claim that staying over a night with a freshman is the best way to choose between colleges. Prospectives are encouraged to go to classes, interact with freshman not pre-screened by the admissions office, ask about the social life, and discover as much as they can about the school. Yet, we still expect much less from tour takers. This dichotomy should be abolished.
If this article has not caused the admissions office to burn my application as heresy, then maybe next year, many a tour will be led to Stetson – not to see the architecture, but rather the classrooms, offices and a taste of the real Williams.