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College tour guides play increasingly key role

Monday, August 9, 2010 | 3:36 p.m. CDT
Josh Heffernan, a tour guide at MU, leads a late July tour of prospective students and parents on campus. There was a time when little thought was put into campus tours for prospective students. Today, tour guides at colleges and universities play important roles in the recruitment process. MU requires a written application and group and one-on-one interviews. And everyone is required to submit a project demonstrating their creativity.

ST. LOUIS — There was a time when little thought was put into campus tours for prospective students. Today, tour guides at colleges and universities play important roles in the recruitment process.

"Five to 10 years ago, they were simply the thing you did if you had time. Now they've become events," Steven Goodman, an admissions consultant with Washington-based Top Colleges, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Some universities even give out tickets, as if you were going to visit the Empire State Building or some historical landmark."

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College students who lead the tours are well-versed in the hot spots on campus, myths and legends, and give a running commentary aimed at luring students — all while walking backward.

At MU, Josh Heffernan of Sunset Hills can tell you about the legend of the shamrock built into the pathway outside the engineering building: Cross it and you are destined to marry an engineer. He can talk about the history of buildings on campus, or provide the inside scoop that the surest way to ace a test is to rub the nose of the statue of former Gov. David Francis outside Jesse Hall.

Heffernan's parents and older sister were educated at Mizzou, so it isn't surprising he has strong feelings for the university. Still, he insists he only says things he believes.

"I'm not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes," he said. "I'm not trying to be a used car salesman."

At Saint Louis University, campus tours are the school's best tool for persuading students to attend.

"It's our No. 1 yield event," said Jean Gilman, dean of undergraduate admissions. "It's really these tour guides that make the university come alive."

Trent Gilbert is a consultant with Atlanta-based TargetX. The company's 4-year-old consulting division has helped 170 schools improve their visit programs. Tours and tour guides are a big part of it, he said.

"It allows these (visiting high school students) to come to campus and see: Can I be friends with these people? Can I live with these people? Can I date these people? Can I see myself here?" Gilbert said.

At MU, Heffernan develops an easy rapport with his visitors. He doesn't just point out a concert venue, he recalls a concert there. And he makes an effort to learn more about the visiting students, like Brandon Hughlett, a high school junior from Springfield who made a recent visit.

Hughlett shook his head "no" when Heffernan asked if he knew what he planned to major in.

No worries, Heffernan assured him, mentioning a friend who claims to have changed majors half a dozen times.

The tour guide jobs pay around minimum wage, and some are volunteer positions, but still they are hard to get. Administrators at St. Louis-area schools say it's not uncommon to get 10 to 15 applicants for each opening.

MU requires a written application, along with group and one-on-one interviews. And everyone is required to submit a project demonstrating their creativity.

"I've received everything from songs to poster boards to Power Point presentations. I've seen a Mizzou Life (board game) game. I've received a quilt. And there was a papier-mache tiger," said LeAnn Stroupe, coordinator of the school's visitor relations program.


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