College tours can be bores

(U-WIRE) PITTSBURGH — As the product of a college-happy suburban town, I’ve been on an embarrassing number of college tours, enough to make me an expert. And if there is one thing I noticed throughout my travels, from Boston College to Oberlin, from cable-knit-wearing preps to barefoot bohemians, it’s this: All college tours are the same.

The reason, perhaps, is that college tours are what they sound like: tours of college. Not just Boston College, not just Oberlin, but college — any college. College tours are more like guides to the college experience, the freedom, the flexibility, and — sometimes — the stupidity.

To this end, college tours are almost always filled with FAT – facilities, activities, and traditions.

Concerning facilities, some tidbits are more valuable than others. At Carnegie Mellon, for example, prospective students might want to know that we have a 9000-square-foot space for art (Regina Gouger Miller Gallery), a 97-99 percent particle- and dust-free room (the basement of Hamerschlag Hall), and a two-to-one student-to-computer ratio (more than 20 clusters).

The above information is all in our tour, but so is a lot of other stuff, most of which has little to do with Carnegie Mellon. The same goes for pretty much any school; college tours rarely restrict themselves to school-specific facts.

“We have a library!” the tour guide will say, rattling off numbers of volumes, collections, and books that go in and out prospective students’ ears. The guide will continue, explaining how students at college X can even borrow books from the nearby college Y. This is not something to be proud of — this is standard.

Aside from libraries, tour guides are known to dwell on other such run-of-the-mill facilities, including swimming pools, gym equipment, and shuttle services.

College tours also emphasize campus activities — student organizations and sports — even though most of these are standard at any school.

“Any student can start a club,” the guide will say. “All they need are four friends and an adviser. We even have a Simpsons-watching club!”

Instead of focusing on the activities truly unique to their schools, tour guides choose ones that most embody the college experience: the zany Simpsons-watching club, the fun-loving Ultimate Frisbee team, and the diversity-filled cultural organizations.

There are several clubs and activities on campus unique to Carnegie Mellon, including Sweepstakes (i.e., Buggy), the Kiltie Band, and the Society for Creative Anachronism. But these are by far outnumbered by the clubs that only seem unique, like the juggling club, which probably exists at dozens of other schools.

Unfortunately, when it comes to tours, guides mention at least one juggling club for every Society for Creative Anachronism.

Finally, college tour guides love to talk about traditions and legends, perhaps the tour’s most frivolous endeavor. Every school has its folklore — some of it interesting and some of it not — and college tours do not discriminate.

“Legend has it that anyone who steps on this part of the sidewalk will fail their exams,” the tour guide will say.

Is this true? Do students actually avoid that spot on a daily basis? Or, did the tour guide just pick a random square of sidewalk? We don’t know.

Carnegie Mellon has a couple of interesting traditions, primarily the Fence and our celebration of our Scottish heritage. Our tour guides do mention these, but not without some other less pertinent anecdotes.

Perhaps the most striking example is the legend about the sloped floors in Baker Hall — that Andrew Carnegie requested them so that, if his trade school didn’t catch on, he could turn the building into a factory with a gravity-assisted assembly line.

First of all, this “legend” is 100-percent false; campus architect Henry Hornbostel created the sloping halls to deal with our location’s hilly terrain.

On top of that, the sloped floor legend is not even worth upholding, since it paints our founder in a less-than-flattering light. If it were true, it would mean that Mr. My-Heart-Is-In-The-Work’s heart was actually somewhere else — probably closer to the steel plant.

The point is, if we can’t trust campus traditions or legends to be true, they’re not worth mentioning.

With all that in mind, it is clear that FAT-filled tours are annoying, but they’re also frustrating, since college tours — in theory — are a necessary part of the school selection process.

Prospective college students benefit from actually seeing the campuses of their top-choice schools. Aspects of campus architecture, from buildings to landscaping, can make or break a college experience; for example, MIT’s “infinite corridor,” an 825-foot hallway that looks like the inside of a giant high school, has likely deterred many a prospective applicant.

It’s also helpful for interested students to go through the process of traveling to their top-choice colleges, to see if they’re far from home, isolated from local shopping, or adjacent to creepy motels channeling the Bates.

All of this is important — Baker Hall’s sloped floors, however, are not. For students just interested in learning about the universal allure of college, rather than the unique aspects of a given school, a campus tour isn’t necessary — just watch Animal House.

Sarah Mogin The Tartan Carnegie Mellon University U-Wire