Former College Tour Guide Reveals All

Let me tell you about meal plans!

Georgetown University
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There's a very interesting piece in the Atlantic by Adam Harris on the college tour guide experience. Or at least I found it interesting, having been a tour guide myself. In fact, Harris spends time with Jaydon Skinner, a Blue and Gray tour guide at Georgetown University—I was one too, albeit 27 years earlier.

"College tours are anxiety-inducing," writes Harris in "The Fine Line Campus Tour Guides Walk—Backwards." He's not kidding. When I visited Georgetown as a high schooler, I worried anything I said or didn't say would affect my chances of getting in. "Ask a question!" my Tiger Mother whispered while elbowing me. But Harris was actually talking about the optics—"For the students, for the parents, and for anyone who has ever watched someone walk backwards for an hour straight up staircases, around corners, and through buildings while spouting facts."

As a result, he explains, "about a decade ago, several institutions moved to remake their campus tours. They told their tour guides to face forward and threw out their scripts. They paid tour consultants exorbitant fees. But here at Georgetown, the student tour guides still embrace the classic model. They stick to the script; they never turn away from the group."

Good for Georgetown. Tour guides should be engaging. These families traveled from across the country—the least you can do is look at them while pointing out the sights. Speaking of which, giving a tour while walking backwards necessitates reversing your sense of direction: "To your right is Copley Hall," I'd say while gesturing with my left hand. The job takes a lot of practice.

Normally you have to work your way up to become a Blue and Gray tour guide. First you put in your time in the information booth, which I likened to the hot box in Bridge on the River Kwai. But due to a summer staff shortage, I was able to start leading groups immediately.

Once I had the basics down—the 19-meal plan is amazing!—I started peppering my routine with jokes, all of which could be recycled (it's a crowd of fresh faces every time). And before long, I was named a Blue and Gray tour guide of the month. Blue and Gray, I explained to the groups, comes from the school's colors—the opposing sides of the Civil War.

"You mean the War Between the States!" a parent once said, interrupting my routine. "There was nothing civil about it!" As Harris notes, there are subjects tour guides want to talk about (how much they love the school) and subjects they don't (like the War Between the States).

"Is this a party school?" a mother asked. "It's what you make it," I told her. "I know kids who spend every night in the library. Others don't." I pretended to forget the time a friend finished an entire plastic jug of vodka and relieved himself in the kitchen sink. With the dishes still in the sink.

Only once was I rattled. A father asked how many rapes occurred on campus the previous year. I told him I didn't know. He persisted. I referred him to the Office of Admissions. Harris says that Jaydon "doesn't like to talk about what he doesn't like about Georgetown. Sometimes on tours people ask him to, and when they do, he likes to talk about the things the university is doing to address its issues." And just hope no one asks about suicide rates or rumors of a meth lab.

The job is fairly straightforward. "The guides put a glossy sheen on the university," writes Harris, "highlighting its best aspects and, at times, obscuring its flaws, pulling those who join them on their journey across campus into an expertly woven tapestry of fact, figure, and fun—with just the right amount of spin."

At tour's end (always in front of the school store so parents can purchase all the Hoya apparel), I'd thank everyone for their time and wish them the best of luck. Only once did a tour end in disaster: Several families were crammed inside a broken-down elevator for a good 20 minutes. In a panic, someone tried to remove a ceiling panel—this only works in the movies—and covered everyone in dust and debris. I lost more than half my group that day. But the four people who remained on the tour gave me a smattering of applause. Maybe they thought that'd boost their chances of getting in.