It’s late September at University X. Among a certain segment of the on-campus population, the anxiety is palpable, the lack of sleep noticeable, and the competitive drive on the rampage. No, I’m not referring to the freshmen; I’m talking about the groups of parents and teenagers scurrying nervously after the smiling student guide walking backwards in front of them.

The lessons I learned over three years and hundreds of tours as a Stanford University tour guide could fill a book. Here are the Cliff’s Notes:

Before You Go
  • Talk with your child about your role in these visits. Some teenagers appreciate their parents’ involvement at every step; most do not. Draw up a game plan for the campus tour, the overnight visit, the class sit-in, etc. If your teen is hard to read, it’s a good idea to look to other parents for cues; most attend the tour but don't ask questions, and, short of chauffeuring, very few are involved in the overnight. Use this time to explore the campus on your own (and feel free to take a second tour by yourself, if only to ask all of the questions you held back the first time around).
  • Do as much research as possible beforehand. Although most tours leave time for questions at the end, there are often far more questions than can be answered. School websites are much better than large (and usually biased) guidebooks. A few good places to start: departmental sites provide a good sense of class offerings and professors, student events sites list extracurricular opportunities, and the admissions office usually has links to general statistics and financial information.
On Campus
  • Most tours are meant as a broad overview of undergraduate life on campus. Some will take you through a residence hall, others will only point in the general direction of the library. If you want to see or learn about something not on the tour, wait until the end, then ask for a recommendation as to how to do so.
  • Remember that everyone’s experience is unique and entirely subjective. This includes you and your child (bad weather and/or a bad car ride can make even the best of schools seem miserable), but it also includes the tour guide. Try not to attach too much weight to any single sentiment or student. Instead, encourage your child to talk to at least one other student on campus. Students will be everywhere – in the Quad, at the Bookstore, in the Student Union – and most will be happy to chat. Keep in mind there are a lot of questions (about statistics, classes, requirements, fees) that can be answered by a book – take the opportunity to ask a living, breathing student questions which only a living, breathing student can answer. A few starters: What is your favorite thing about your school? What is your least? What has been your favorite class, and why? If you could go back to the beginning of your freshman year, what would you tell yourself about your school?
  • Finally, relax. To the best of my knowledge, there is not a single college in the country where your behavior/performance/attire is monitored and recorded by the Office of Undergraduate Admission. Tour guides don't usually have direct connections to the admissions office, and even if they do, everyone involved in this process knows how stressful it is. After all, we have all been through it – and lived to tell the tale.