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"College Tour Piles on Possibilities
On 29 Campuses in 6 Days, High Schoolers Taste Future"
By Amy Argetsinger -Washington Post Staff Writer
July 08, 2002
|The bus rolled down sticky summer highways, past the hulking shipyards of Philadelphia and the lush lawns of the Main Line suburbs, yet its young passengers barely glanced out, their weary eyes sunk into required reading or the stacks of glossy brochures that chronicled their trip thus far.
But as the bus paused, the teenagers perked up. Outside: a tantalizing glimpse of a bell tower, a swath of greenery, a mottled stone wall -- so familiar, yet new. They rustled through their schedules: If it was Thursday, this must be . . . Swarthmore.
"Is this one a women's school?" someone wondered. "No," came a response. "I think it's supposed to be kind of rural, though."
But was it a good school? A hard school? One that might accept them? One where they could see themselves? For 21 high school students on a breakneck bus tour through the groves of East Coast academe -- six days, seven states, 29 campuses -- such questions would have to remain unanswered for now. They had appointments to keep at Haverford, Villanova, Johns Hopkins. That morning's tight schedule had left them a stark choice: tour the University of Pennsylvania or Swarthmore. More than half had opted for the Ivy League giant over the tiny liberal arts enclave.
Fortunately, they could still get the Cliffs Notes on Swarthmore from Matt Mastrantuono.
"The campus rules!" the bright-eyed 15-year-old from New Jersey announced as he bounded onto the bus after his visit. "But it's really competitive. You have to be in the top 10 percent. It's like a step below the Ivies!"
The Penn crowd murmured, curious. Average SATs? someone asked.
"Oh, I asked them. It's like a Harvard -- they won't tell you because there are like so many 1600s. Out of like 370 applicants who have perfect 1600s, like 100 got in."
"Did you see the dorms?"
"No," said Mastrantuono. "Wait -- yes, we did. Most freshmen have triples."
Intrigued, a few started taking notes.
"But, yo!" he cautioned. "There are only like 1,400 kids! It's like really small."
A generation or two ago, it was not unusual for a college freshman to catch his first glimpse of his alma mater on the same day he unpacked his bags there. But as tuition soared in the 1980s, prospective applicants and their parents craved some taste of what their money would get them. Hence, the college tour -- a sort of window-shopping trip that has become a spring or summer rite of passage for the families of the college-bound, an unofficial first step in the increasingly rigorous admissions process. Colleges cater to this traffic, recruiting their most enthusiastic students to lead tours, showing off their nicest dorms, their sleekest classrooms.
Such trips have taken on a greater urgency in recent years for those aspiring to enroll at the most elite colleges, where the competitive pressure to apply "early action" or "early decision" pushes students to declare or even commit to a first-choice school by the start of their senior year.
Now, a handful of businesses have emerged to offer package tours of campuses for students -- with or without their parents.
Eleven years ago, Robert Rummerfield left his job as an assistant director of admissions at Johns Hopkins.
University to start College Visits Inc. At least 12 weeks out of the year, he is on the road giving other people's children a sampling of campus life, with tours specializing in almost every region of the country and even a jaunt into Canada.
"They have to look at the schools they're applying to," he said. For all the brochures, view books, videotapes and interactive Web tours colleges use to show off their attributes, "there's nothing like being on the campus," he said.
The tour Rummerfield led during the last week of June was one of his most ambitious, starting in Boston and ending in Washington with the chance for students to explore as many as 14 campuses each.
At $1,385 a head, it was also one of his most expensive. Many critics have bemoaned the for-profit industries that have grown up around the admissions process in the form of private counselors, SAT- prep classes and college guidebooks that can cost parents thousands of dollars before they even plunk down the $50 or $60 application fee for each college.
Rummerfield defends his program's cost as an investment: "When you're looking at paying $30,000, $40,000 [a year], the cost of this is slight."
Thursday morning, the University of Pennsylvania: "What do you like most about this place?"
Sarah Walsh answered without hesitation. "The people," said Walsh, a Penn tour guide and rising senior from the District. "I've met so many different types of people here. I have friends in the nursing school, in business, in engineering. . . . You're able to make connections and stay friends with the people you've met."
Wilting but gracious in 94-degree heat, Walsh maintained a constant patter of trivia on the walk through the urban campus -- here, the hall where President Bill Clinton and Maya Angelou spoke; there, the stage where Ben Folds Five performed; here, the Gothic building that, legend has it, inspired the house in "The Addams Family"; there, the spot where, legend has it, a button popped off Benjamin Franklin's coat, prompting him to found the university where it fell. Also, some more pertinent aspects of student life, such as the very adult-sounding 14-meal -a-week dining plan.
"People ask, 'What about breakfast?' You'll find in college people really don't wake up early enough for breakfast. They'll just have cereal or Pop-Tarts in their room."
The College Visits kids remained strangely quiet. Intimidated? Exhausted? Just taking it all in, said Robert Crosby, a 17-year-old student at Woodberry Forest, a boarding school near Orange, Va.
"Everyone's trying to remember as much as they can about the campuses, to figure out if they can see themselves here."
Rummerfield is the first to acknowledge that these whirlwind visits -- typically an hour-long tour and an hour-long question-and- answer session with an admissions officer -- won't provide his clients with enough to make an informed decision. "They should go back" to the schools they like, he said -- sit in the classes, stay in the dorms.
Which wasn't to say they weren't already forming some very firm opinions. "Harvard was too uptight for me," said Mike Karp, 16, from Palo Alto, Calif. "Brown was laid back. Yale was too pristine -- I felt like I was going to break anything I touched. Fordham, it's like in the middle of the Bronx."
Looks mattered. When asked about a particular school, the teenagers would first mention the beauty of the architecture, the trees, the gardens. "You're going to be living there for four years," said Mike McGowan, a lanky blond from Long Island. "If it's an ugly campus, that just brings your mood down."
Comfort, too, was key. "Every room has a fridge like this?" Camille Stabler, 16, of Atlanta, exclaimed in a freshman dorm at George Washington University. "Every room has two fridges!" their tour guide boasted.
But of all college virtues, the greatest was flexibility -- lots of options, not a lot of requirements. At age 16 or 17, with a world of possibilities ahead, nothing is more frightening than having to narrow the field. Most frequently asked question: "Is it hard to change your major?"
Akihiro Kayama, 17, a tour member from Japan, was leaning toward Tufts because it seemed he could continue his work in ceramics there while also studying psychology and maybe criminology and maybe pre- law. "I'm probably strong at one thing," he said. He just didn't know what yet.
Rachael Richman, 17, of Larkspur, Calif., was leery of Sarah Lawrence College, despite her affinity for the arts. "I hate to say it was too artsy -- it just wasn't balanced." Whereas Hopkins, she feared, might not be artsy enough.
"They didn't seem very open to people who don't know what they want to do," Richman said. "I want to go somewhere where I can do anything."
Friday morning, Johns Hopkins: Another poised young guide was showing them around, clopping backward in her flip-flops along the brick sidewalks and marble steps so she could keep talking to the crowd.
"The thing is with arts and sciences and engineering, it's pretty fluid," she said. "You can take classes in either program."
It all sounded awfully familiar to Beth Ramos, one of three parents on the trip. "What do you think," she asked pointedly, "makes this school stand out from the rest?"
Well, the guide responded, unlike most colleges, Hopkins grades freshmen on a pass-fail basis for their first semester. Ramos nodded, impressed. That was different.
"But the other thing about Hopkins," the guide continued, "it's not too big so it's overwhelming, but it's big enough so that you're meeting someone new every year. And the campus is really pretty!"
It was all a blur: the theme dorms, the study-abroad programs, the undergraduate research projects, the sushi bars and veggie options and cybercafes, the many, many great opportunities to get involved.
"We basically know everything they're going to say," said Roberta Vasconcelos, 17, from Rio de Janeiro. "They show us the safety boxes with the blue lights, and we're like, we know what that is." (The box holds a telephone with direct line to the police station.)
Kathryn Reisinger, from San Rafael, Calif., admitted that she and some of the others had fallen asleep during the admissions session at New York University. She was pretty sure they hadn't missed much: "It's just like Columbia but with fewer core requirements."
By Friday afternoon at George Washington, they were asking blunt, personal questions of their tour guide: "What kind of grades did you get in here with?" "Where else did you apply?"
"Well, Rice, but they didn't accept me, so boo to them!" junior Maria Marcovich responded brightly. "And Georgetown. And I got in there, but I chose GW because . . ."
A buzz passed through the group. Many of them had opted to see GWU over Georgetown because they didn't think they had a chance at Georgetown. But if she got into both, what did that say about their chances?
They checked into a Georgetown dorm, cranky and a little overwhelmed on the last night of the tour. It was still summer, but already it seemed the stress of senior year was settling in -- the dread of having to make a big choice, the worries about money, the fear of being rejected. Asked how she liked Georgetown, Richman winced self-consciously. "I liked it. Not that I can get in."
Asked what he thought of the campuses he had just seen, Karp leaned on his wheeled suitcase and sighed. "I'm tired. It's all jumbled in my head."
Yet the trip had also given them a glimpse of that other world on the far side of the admissions process. It had finally hit Joe Mackey a few nights before when the group bunked in a dorm at Brown University in Providence, R.I. The setup was great, said the 17- year-old from Long Island -- four rooms off a shared sitting area, where a bunch of the guys lingered that evening.
They ended up playing cards all night. And no one made them go to bed.
"That's what you can do," he said, "when you're in college."
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