The Psychology of College Tours

Psychology College Admissions, College Tours, Campus Tours

Highly selective college admissions is all about psychology (photo credit: Daderot).

Regular readers of our college admissions blog know that the science of psychology quite frequently works itself into our posts. After all, highly selective college admissions is — in our view — a psychological science. It’s about persuading admissions officers to want to root for you. It’s about doing all you can do in your applications to not play into stereotype. It’s about convincing colleges you love them above all other colleges. It’s about showcasing how you’re going to change the world. Highly selective college admissions is not physics. It’s not algebra. It’s psychology.

So we read with great interest a piece today in “The New York Times” by Erica Reischer entitled “Skipping the College Tour” — a piece that highlights some of the psychology behind how and why students choose to matriculate to certain schools over others. The central argument is that going on college tours can cause more harm than good. And why? Because people don’t know what they want. Nobody does. They may think they know what they want. In fact, they do think they know what they want. But what they want in the present is not all that predictive of what they’ll want in the future. And to hear about meal plans and college traditions, well, it doesn’t help students predict what they’ll want in a college next week…or next year. Or thirty years from now.

We think this is hogwash. Absolute hogwash. One of the central arguments against college tours is that you don’t get to interact with students. As we’ve long championed on the pages of this blog — wander a bit away from that tour sometimes (or you can just do it in front of your tour guide). Talk to students. Do the smile test. Smile at students. See if they smile back. It’s a good indicator if students are happy at the school. Students at Dartmouth tend to smile back. At Carnegie Mellon? Maybe not as many. If you’re a parent, pretend you don’t know your child and ask anyone and everyone questions — not just your tour guide. And the argument that what we want now isn’t necessarily predictive of what we will want in the future…duh! As Reischer writes, “As Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia have argued, our present selves believe we are good at making decisions for our future selves, but in fact we all do a relatively poor job of predicting what our future selves will actually value and enjoy.”

We are all about the influences of psychological science in college admissions. But the premise of this piece criticizing college tours in “The New York Times” — one based on psychological science — is, in a word, silly.

But how is that fixable? How on earth does not attending a college tour fix this age-old problem? Obviously not everyone knows exactly what they want in life. Of course opinions and perspectives change. Such is life. But, as they say, the best predictor of future success is past success. What better way do we have at our disposal to predict what we want in the future than to make a gut instinct based on what we want in the here and now?

Oh, and what the piece in “The New York Times” fails to mention is that if you don’t attend a college tour prior to your decision being rendered — you’re hurting your case for admission! Colleges want students who love them. They want students who visit. Is the college tour perfect? No. Is it one student’s opinions about a school infused with propaganda from the admissions office? You bet. But the more exposure you have to a college (be it a tour, information session, talking to students, talking to professors, visiting classes, eating in dining halls, using the bathroom facilities — we kid!), the more a student will be able to make an informed decision. And, at the end of the day, that’s all anyone can do.


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