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Come on, Tour Guides, Tell Me a Story

Arlington, Va. — Ken Kesey once gave us this thought: “To hell with facts! We need stories!”

He wasn’t talking about college admissions, but his message applies. When I go on campus tours, I often marvel at all the facts that flow from the mouths of student tour guides—names, numbers, statistics, and obligatory tallies of the library’s books. The personal stories I hear from students are often more memorable than all of that data, however. In other words, a good story can help those facts go down easier.

On Monday morning, I spoke on a panel here at a joint conference of the Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admission Counseling and the Southern Association for College Admission Counseling. I was joined by two admissions officers who’ve thought a lot about the importance of storytelling during the admissions process. Our message: Telling good stories can help colleges communicate more effectively with students and parents.

Laura Martin, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission at Agnes Scott College, said she warns her guides not to become “tourbots” who could be easily replaced by machines. Instead of just talking about a particular building, she might tell a guide, take visitors to the classroom in which you had a great class that persuaded you to become a sociology major.

Authenticity matters, Ms. Martin insisted. “We often think in admissions that everything has to be beautiful,” she said. “The millennials, they see about 5,000 marketing messages a day. They’re pretty good at figuring out what’s not authentic.”

To that end, challenges students have overcome, even if they reveal the college’s imperfections, can present opportunities for telling personal stories. She suggested, for instance, that a tour guide might say: “I did struggle with getting my classes my first year, but here’s how I got around it.”

Students may need help developing ideas for stories. At Agnes Scott, Ms. Martin’s staff gets the guides thinking by asking them questions. Who’s your favorite professor? What’s your favorite place to study? Which restaurant do you always ask your parents to take you to?

“The goal is you want people to remember something when they leave your campus,” she said. “It’s gonna be the stories.”

Mary Tipton Woolley, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech, encouraged her colleagues to consider ways of helping visitors experience the campus. By giving them a pass to the dining hall and the recreation center, for instance. Or by granting them the same access to technology that students have.

“You’re trying to put on a show, and I don’t meant that in a razzle-dazzle, wow, kind of way,” Ms. Woolley said. “But you are trying to help people have experiences while they’re on your campus.”

My own two cents: Good stories must contain conflicts and resolutions. So why not tell the one about resolving your differences with that roommate from hell? Or the one about overcoming some kind of academic struggle? Or the one about how and why you chose a major, only to switch it a year later after that memorable epiphany?

These days, applicants and their parents have many questions about post-college outcomes. Alumni, it seems, can tell effective stories about their professional experiences. What was their first job, and what enabled them to get that second one? What circumstances later persuaded them to switch careers? And how did their alma mater—or something they learned there—help them succeed after they encountered a specific obstacle?

The caveat, of course, is that all of these stories must be true.

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