Lies My Tour Guide Told Me

(Craig Campbell)– Most of them will apply, a few will get in, and only a small fraction will actually enroll.

I’m not sure if they’ve been around more in the past couple months – decisions are emailed out in just a couple weeks! – or if I’ve just noticed them more in the spring semester, but I feel like lately I can’t escape the parade of tour groups on campus.

After jumping on the circuitous ride, safety bar and all, that is the admissions tour, future applicants and their parents are led around by well-trained guides ecstatically announcing half-truths like “this is the most recently renovated freshman dorm, but all the others are just as nice!” “These are the social dormitories, where most parties at Amherst take place.” “This is the site of the future science center, which will probably be completed by the time you graduate.” “The first time each year that it snows, everyone grabs trays from Val and runs to Memorial Hill for a winter sledding extravaganza!”

Parent and applicant alike, tour groups usually uniformly view current students with a certain degree of spectacle. We’re part of the scenery; we’re here to be observed and considered the same as any library, museum, or athletic field. I think that for all of those who have gawked at me, only one cute old man has actually acknowledged me as more than an interesting piece of shrubbery. He said “hi.” Every time I encounter a tour group, I have to adjust my route as the retinue passes along on their proscribed track – “remember, keep your hands and feet in the vehicle until the ride has stopped.” Oh sure, I’ll wait outside until all 60 are done filing out of Chuck Pratt; of course I’ll walk in the muddy grass so that you can occupy the entirety of the sidewalk.

Let me quickly qualify these feelings. All my college tours were in the summer so I was never actually on the other side of the divide. I’m also not trying to deride tour guides – my Amherst guide was phenomenal and I attribute a large part of the reason I came here to him. I just think that it’s fascinating to see how the families of Amherst-hopefuls behave when visiting the campus.

Kids seldom ask any questions – the conversation is usually dominated by parents inquiring about an academic statistic that is easily accessible in any and all admissions literature. When I’m erging and see a coach sit down with a recruit and his parents in the sitting area adjacent to the gym, the future student almost always twiddles his thumbs quietly as mom conducts business with the coach.

But, to be fair, his reticence is to be expected. The applying-to-college saga was the most stressful 4 months of my short life, and I think a lot of readers feel similarly. In that moment of visiting a campus for the first time, no longer safely behind a computer hacking away at admissions essays, the flurry of emotions aroused by a potential future home can be a lot to handle. In the couple hours of sampling college life, high school kids have to compare and compromise the promise of an athletic career with an incontrovertible need for the resources for success, with a (sometimes) latent urge to run away from mom and dad into a world of fun and freedom. When they pass by on tours, of course they’re not going to say hello. They’re too busy thinking, “Am I going to hate you or date you? Will we party together? Am I going to be you?”

It seems like tours are targeted to appeal to the typical, median Amherst student, which I guess is a fair gesture on the part of Admissions. But I keep realizing more and more that there is no “median” Amherst student, and there is no “typical” Amherst social scene. This past weekend alone, I spent time with my freshman friends in my freshman dorm, discovered a frattastic dungeon beneath Plimpton, walked through the Avicii-bumpin’ halls of Stone, and danced in the sleazy Hamilton basement at Carneval GAP. And I was reminded how many different Amhersts there are – more variety, in fact, than many other, bigger schools. On the most basic level, it’s the variety of architecture, but more importantly, it’s that the divides in student cultures are a lot more apparent when the population of the student body is that much smaller.

So, could tours illustrate this school a little more accurately? Enumerate the variety of life-paths one could pursue at Amherst? Maybe, but I think that, frankly, the admissions staff and the tour guides don’t know all there is to say – I certainly don’t. I guess that the most recurring element of my She-Bomb identity as Pandamonium is trying to figure out what going to this school means to me. Clearly, I’m still not sure, and I kind of like that. Once I figure it out, the majesty of The College on A Hill and the magic of the possibilities that lie ahead will end. Hopefully I’ll never see that day.