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Touring the Gothic Wonderland

Early one Saturday morning about eight years ago, after Christoph Guttentag gave his usual spiel to a crowd of prospective students and their families, one student approached the director of undergraduate admissions: "Because of my grandfather, I have had a lot of opportunities to travel and do things that other students might not have had a chance to do." The boy said he wanted to write an essay about his experiences but feared sounding elitist.

Guttentag told him not to worry, but couldn't resist asking a question himself: "Who is your grandfather?"

In one of the most memorable moments of Guttentag's career, the boy replied: "Jimmy Carter."

"We talked for a while after that," said Guttentag, laughing. "He ended up coming to Duke. But he wrote his essay about his other grandfather."

Everyone who has worked for the office of undergraduate admissions has at least one such story about the legions of nervous students and overeager parents who descend upon Duke each year.

Six days a week, the office fills with newcomers eager to make an impression on anyone who will pay attention. Some talk loudly about their recent visits to Princeton, while others sit silently on the upholstered couches.

All heads turn when a few students enter the room, distinguishable by their confident strides and well-worn Duke apparel. It's clear to all that these are the select ones: the few, the proud, the tour guides.

For many visitors, the tour guide provides the most personal and often the most interesting account of the school; many times, it's the only student perspective they get. Which is why, said Sebastian Hindman, a high school junior from Bethel, Conn., having good tour guides is so important.

"You can tell a lot about the school based on the tour guide," Hindman said. "The really good schools select the most enthusiastic, articulate students to be their tour guides. My guide at Harvard was really energetic, and loved telling us all about why we should go to Harvard. My guide at UNC... totally turned me off to the school."

Allison Bevan, an admissions officer who oversees Duke's tour guides, said she recognizes the impact the guides have. "Tour guides make probably the strongest and longest-lasting impression [on visitors]," she said. "People on the tour have high expectations for their tour guides. They put a large burden of responsibility on them to reveal the institution."

The tours are not explicitly scripted, but guides are trained in the sort of information they are expected to relay, Guttentag said. The 75 to 80 guides are all volunteers who have gone through an extensive interview process and proven that they have honest, positive and interesting things to say about the University they love.

"I hope that people would feel like they know Duke after a tour-not just about the academics, but what it's like to eat in the Marketplace, to go to a basketball game, live on East Campus, stay up late talking to your roommate or stand and watch a bonfire," said Ryan Mohling, a Trinity sophomore who has given tours since the beginning of the year.

Tour guides field questions on everything from drinking to residential life to rumors prospective students have heard about the school. "I had someone ask me about a rumor that a shipload of rock coming to Duke during construction accidentally got mixed up with one going to Vanderbilt which was being built at the same time, and so there is supposedly one building at Duke that looks like it should be at Vanderbilt and vice versa," recalled Mohling. "I told her I didn't know."

Mohling's response was unusual, said Bevan. She said that most tour guides try to provide answers to questions, even if they don't really know. "Sometimes people ask inappropriate, ludicrous questions of their tour guides," Bevan said. "I encourage the tour guides not to respond to questions about their SAT scores and how they're paying for their education."

Mohling acknowledged that the pressure from visitors can be trying. "I've had people think that I was an intricate part of the selection committee-like somehow I should know the emphasis that Duke puts on AP classes...," he said. "I just got a letter from a girl who I think was kissing up to me, as if I had a say in the selection, saying what a great tour it was, how great Duke was, etc. Maybe she just thought I was devilishly handsome."

Because the University is just one of many schools on the elite college tour circuit, Guttentag said it's important that Duke doesn't get lost in the crowd. He said he encourages his staff to visit other colleges when they travel in the fall and spring to give information sessions, in order to see how Duke's presentations differ.

"Your tour guides, I think, are very good," said Chris Leesment, a visiting parent from New York, N.Y. "Take the DukeCard, for instance. All the other schools have similar systems, but no one else described it as appealingly or comprehensively," she said.

But sometimes, Duke fails to separate itself from its competitors. "Each campus is distinct and appealing for different reasons," said Viive Felmly, Leesment's daughter. "You arrive with nothing in your head and you leave full of information. I'm not sure if I'll be able to remember which school was which."

Not all responses are positive, Guttentag acknowledges. "Duke is not for everybody," he said. "I think it's better to have 95 percent of people very excited and 5 percent of people unhappy than it is to have 100 percent of the people leave with a vaguely positive impression."

Guttentag said visitors' main complaints arise from infrastructure problems relative to the physical inconvenience of having to trek from remote parking lots to the information session. But for the most part, he said, the feedback is quite positive.

Other prospective students say they are looking past tour guides' personalities for their decisions. "I think it's shallow to pick a school based on the tour guide and the weather," said Ian Cronin, a visiting junior from Chicago, Ill.

Admissions officers don't have a set agenda for what impression they want the school to have. "I hope people remember this as a place that offers great academic opportunities, and in general a wonderful experience," said Guttentag. "Then, when they think more deeply, I hope they remember the excitement and the spirit of the place."


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