Walking backwards, looking forward

Many of us still remember the whirlwind of college tours that our parents dragged us on during high school. Our moms would ask questions about care packages and dorm hygiene while we tried to act cool and nonchalant because the guide was kind of cute. But is checking out girls and walking backward really what a tour is all about? Maybe. Jacques Steinberg wrote an article for the New York Times over the summer (“Colleges Seek to Remake the Campus Tour,” Aug. 18, 2009) discussing a recent trend in college tours to move away from fact-based, encyclopedia-like experiences to more personal, anecdotal tours.

Now, is it just me, or does Williams already have this covered? I recently completed tour guide training and have since led a few tours aimed less at Mom and more at Sam both this year and last. Tour guide training does not consist of rote memorization of dates, statistics and figures. Those numbers all have their part, but they play a very subsidiary role. We don’t just state the student to faculty ratio; we tell a story about a small anthropology class we once had or a one-on-one meeting with a professor over coffee at the Eco Cafe. We don’t just mention the number of tutorial programs; we discuss ones we’ve taken or ones our friends have taken. It would be foolish and boring to just list whatever numbers and statistics we can remember from our manual that day.

If a Williams tour covers anything, it covers the things that make Williams unique – the JA and entry systems, tutorials, need-blind admission, undergraduate research, Winter Study, etc. A few schools may have some of these things, but only Williams has all of them. It doesn’t take any statistics or dates to understand these topics, only some anecdotes and a knack for explaining ideas that can at times be difficult to put into words (try explaining the JA and entry system to someone from outside the College).

According to Steinberg’s article, some colleges have turned to consulting firms that charge in excess of $10,000 to help colleges revamp their tours. One advancement in the art and technology of the tour is simply that many tours have spun the guide around to facilitate discussion, provide a more relaxed atmosphere and cut down on mid-tour mishaps. In addition, personal stories are stressed and guides are encouraged to make the tour very informal. I believe that Williams may not need to spend that kind of money to get that kind of advice. Aside from still walking backward, Williams guides are told from the word go to make sure tours are personal, engaging and grounded in the day-to-day over our more ancient history.

It seems obvious that to make your tour memorable it has to stand out and focus on what makes your school different. When I lead a tour into Sawyer I try and be honest with my group, “Here on the tour is where you hear a lot of guides talk about the total number of books they have, how many you can get through inter-library loan or what types of consortia they might be in. Listen, the truth is, every college has a lot of books in its library. What sets our library apart? We are one of the few schools with libraries that have an open food and drink policy. You could even order a pizza. . .”

The truth is that most colleges don’t need to revamp their whole system or hire an outside firm. Just observe, as Williams does, what works and what doesn’t. Constantly tweak your tour, see which stories work, which ones don’t. Don’t walk backwards when you only have one family with you, but if on the other hand you have a twenty-person tour, make sure you are heard and go for it: Walk backwards.

Sam Jonynas ’12 is from Chester, V.T. He lives in Carter.