Having done tours for a few years, I’ve found the same questions come up again and again; regardless of where you are from. Some of them are useful, some aren’t. Here are the questions I wish I asked when I was visiting schools. In turn, I hope you ask me them on tour or on the tumblr. More broadly, I hope it helps on any tour and helps you make this tough decision.
1. “Do the students here love to learn?”
This is crucial, to me anyway. Are you going to a college where people geek out about their studies 100% of the time, or, on the other side of the spectrum, it is an afterthought to partying. You could frame this in terms of workload or free time, but I think it kind of sidesteps the issue. What you really want to know is if students place their work first in their lives, and if they do so willingly or because the environment demands it.
2. “How is mental wellness facilitated on campus?”
College is intense. The transition from home life to campus life can be stressful, as can starting college level courses. But mental wellness can be an issue beyond one year. You want to know how the campus thinks about these issues. The answer might be therapy, or study breaks or even a thoughtfully designed housing model (feng shui?) that prevents it from being an issue. But you want to know this, because it will impact your well-being for four years. If you wanted to go a step further, ask how emotional wellness is taught, learned and encouraged — that, too (not just a paycheck) is part of a fulfilling life.
3. “What structures bring the student’s perspective into administrative decision making?”
Policy choices by the administration will affect you. Sometimes, you actually aren’t considered in them as a student. Be cynical, especially if the school in question seems more like a business than a college. How are students considered?
4. “What does your work consist of? How are you evaluated?”
Do most classes have exams or use projects? You probably don’t want to take a sculpture class that culminates with an exam. Not all colleges use letter grades, some use narrative evaluations. But also, what is the quality of feedback on individual assignments?
5. “What is your favorite and least favorite class?”
It might feel a bit awkward to ask this in a large group tour, but I think that’s exactly why you should. Asking the tour guide something that is totally subjective can give insight into their perspective, as well as a candid description of what courses are like.
6. “Are the faculty passionate about teaching?”
The school may have exceptional faculty, they may be accessible, but if they don’t love to teach it won’t make much of a difference. In my opinion, that’s because you need faculty that will bend over backwards for you and go out of their way to think of things you’d never think of and address concerns you didn’t even know you had.
An article on the subject of admissions college touring, and its role in decision-making for prospective students recently came out in the Washington Post…and let’s just say…it’s been raising a lot of heat and attention here in the Admissions Office. Here at Bennington, we are committed to giving applicants a transparent and full view of what it is like to be a student here — so, I felt in order to further demonstrate that to you, I would open up the question of this article to you all and give you an inside look at what we’re thinking about here.
The article is entitled “College tour de farce: 5 ways not to sell your school.” Here’s the link to it, if you’d like to take a look:
I find this title particularly intriguing, in that it highlights the concept that the colleges are trying to “sell themselves” to students. I can’t speak for anyplace else, but I can tell you that here, we aren’t under any impression that Bennington is for everyone. In fact, we know the opposite to be true — I promise you that we truly, deeply, from the bottom of our collective hive-mind-heart (what does that even mean? going with it) are not trying to sell this school to you. We get excited about Bennington, we get nerdy about it, we want to share the campus and the students and the ideology, we want you to see what it could like to be here, we want to open you up to the ideas that circulate this place every day, but we aren’t trying to sell you anything. If we did try, we would most likely be awful at it, so we don’t bother. If Bennington is the right fit for you, you’ll feel it intuitively…and that sense of “this is just right” is not something that can be bought or sold — you have to find it on your own, and we want to help.
I’ll let you in on a little secret, and I hope it’ll get you thinking about all of your admissions experiences as you travel the country looking for the right fit: Bennington admissions interns (just like Bennington students) are gifted with a lot of trust. And part of that trust revolves around the tour — we aren’t given a script, aren’t indoctrinated on what we’re supposed to say. We get in groups and talk about the college, discuss what is important to us, what key facts we should hit (probably bringing up the Plan and the FWT would be a good idea, huh?), but most importantly grapple with our own way of bringing our personal experience of Bennington to life. We want to translate Bennington to you — honestly, from the heart, and as accurately as possible. This doesn’t just extend to tours, however…this trust touches everything we do here in the office, and it’s part of why it’s so amazing to work here. I mean, it’s pretty crazy that I was given the license to respond to this article in a public way through the blog — that no one is rapping my wrist, or telling me what to say, or trying to cover up the bad publicity by burying it or ignoring it. We, as students, are encouraged and empowered to be open about these sorts of things here — parse them, discuss them, throw up ideas, and learn how to progress and get better at what we do.
So. Here’s the thing. Sometimes we mess up. Yep. (Once I directed a parent towards what I thought was a bathroom but was actually a janitor’s closet. Er…sorry…Dad…) We are students at various points in the process of learning how to be the best admissions officers we can be. There are points on tour when each and every one of us thinks, “ooof…I probably shouldn’t have put it that way” or “did I describe that well enough?” or “does this family hate me? Is there something in my teeth?” Trust me, we are often just as nervous and self-conscious as you might be, because we want to connect…and connecting can be scary.
I was sad to see in the article that Henneberger didn’t bring up the fact that Bennington is committed to giving one-on-one tours. Despite her negative experience, I feel this does set us apart from other institutions. You only get a few hours to be here when you visit, and in those hours, we want to give you the most Bennington-ian experience possible, which means we have got to approach you on a personal level. Each and every tour, a student makes it their mission to really get to know the student they are spending the next hour and a half with — to engage in their interests, to open them up to self-reflection (namely, to maybe plant the seed that would start the sprout of their Bennington education).
We are honored and thrilled that we are your first stop. At least, I know I am. And I can tell you that, even if you right from the get-go decide that Bennington is in fact just a cold, deserted, middle-of-nowhere, ideologically homogenous, condom-cabinet toting liberal arts college with a ticket price that knocks your socks off, I STILL want to get to know you, I still want to share the merits as well as the disadvantages of this place with you, because maybe I can help to give you a real enough sense of this college that it will help you make your decision when it comes to the others. I understand we are, for some, an extreme choice. But we’re also a real choice, and a possible choice, and I just wanna talk to you because I love you! Ok, a bit much? But honestly, we love you here. We want to be real, and open, and in dialogue, which are all the attributes of Bennington that exist when it functions at its best level.
So here are some questions we ask ourselves every day in the office, and I’d be happy to share them with you:
1. How can we utilize the trust we are given by the office in order to both have a learning experience as interns, come to understand our own version of Bennington and relay it in a useful and engaging way, while still ensuring that we wont fall off the mark too far? How much should be “scripted,” or “unscripted?”
2. How do we tailor our tours to the individuals who come and visit without making it seem like we’re trying to “cater” to them?
3. Without a script, how does one tour when one is disillusioned with Bennington? In a bad mood? How much of “ourselves” do we show without it being too much or over the top?
4. How do we balance relaying the fundamental, philosophical principles of Bennington with the more practical side of college life (buildings, meal plan, hours, transportation) in order to give a well-rounded view of this place?
5. How do we dispel generalizations and prejudices about Bennington that are just plain wrong without seeming rude or defensive? How do we meet these preconceived notions with compassion and interest, as opposed to simply taking offense?
6. How do we create metaphors that help link the spaces and experiences on campus to the greater ideas that drive this college? How do we engage students that are totally lost and confused and freaked out with a college that (at many times) asks you to be lost and confused in order to get at a greater truth within yourself?
We grapple and grapple here because we care. Working in the Admissions Office is a transformative experience for the students here, and we want your visits to be transformative as well. I’m very sorry to see that this was not the case for Ms. Henneberger and her daughter. At our best, we aspire to inspire, but it doesn’t always happen. But we want to keep moving forward, not come at criticism from a place of defense. How do you think the college admissions process could be better improved? What do you wish you could see at a college?
— Parke ‘15