At the beginning of this month I went on one of the very best campus tours that I have ever taken at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. Interestingly, I did not need to sign up in advance, just show up at the reception desk where the tour guides were working. That usually does not leave much of an impression with me, so I was not expecting much when I showed up. However, the tour guides, one junior, one senior made me forget all about that.
What did they do right that I wish other colleges, or even schools within larger schools would do on their campus tours?
They gave me an overview–and had answers to all of my questions.
Before we started to tour the engineering campus, which is a set of connected buildings, we sat in a classroom where the tour guides explained the academic programs as well as cooperative education (aka “co-op”), an option chosen by nearly half of Pitt’s undergraduate engineering students. Both tour guides had chosen to be co-op students and throughly explained how they were matched with employers, how they were evaluated on the job and the work that they were asked to do. They also told me about the Pittsburgh area in terms of co-op employment opportunities as well as summer employment. Most relevant, they also told me their stories as to why they chose Pitt. One of the more interesting points that they made was that Pitt did not “cap” engineering majors. As long as you maintained good academic standing in the freshman year, you could choose any one of the undergraduate programs. The personal stories were important, since neither of my tour guides was from Pennsylvania and they had enviable choices among schools in other cities.
They knew the facilities and had stories to tell
This was one of the few campus tours where I truly learned how hard it was to study engineering, especially at a fairly large (around 18,000 undergraduates) university. I was told how labs were actually used. One, for example, funded by the Eaton Corporation, simulates operations at a public utility power station. I was told that students, as one project, simulated how a power outage happened after Beyonce’ performed center stage at Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, then simulated how to bring the lights back on. I was also told how engineering students had designed their own cubby spaces to sleep in the building during finals and projects and saw the Autosport Club’s “garage” and race car. I could write a full post on various classrooms and projects, but I think you get the idea.
They had appreciation for the school
I was fortunate that the guides for my campus tour were excellent students who had built good relationships with the faculty in their major (both had chosen Mechanical Engineering). While I would not expect them to fawn over the school and their professors, and they did not, they told me where faculty had mattered in their choice of the major and successes in the classroom. I was left with a sense that good things would happen to a Pitt engineering student as long as s/he did the work that was asked of them.
They asked me to write an evaluation
This was the first school where a tour guide handed me an evaluation form to complete along with more literature about a college of engineering than I have ever received before. Both tour guides gave me business cards so that I could write their names on the evaluation form. Since they had done an excellent job, I mainly used the form to describe what they had done well. I could not see how they could have improved upon the tour. The major point: the admissions office actually wanted to know my opinion. I am seldom asked to give much detail about the tour guide’s performances on campus tours.
I do realize that the tour guides at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering might have had an advantage over other tour guides. They were engineers who were only asked to show prospective students, among others, around the schools where they were enrolled. They were not the student ambassadors who took me on a tour of the academic center of the Pitt campus who have to speak to prospective students who might be interested in any major the university offers. I happened to have an engineering student as the tour guide on my campus tour of Pitt though he did not take our group inside Swanson. We only walked by it. While our student ambassador did not know, for example, about pre-law at Pitt, he did know the university’s history as well as all of the landmarks on campus. He also had his own stories to share about living in Litchfield Towers, a tall and (I believe) ugly monstrosity of a residence hall complex that houses more than a third of the freshmen. He also gave our group an honest picture about why he chose Pitt.
I came to Pitt knowing very little about the university other than pictures and statistics. I had believed the university to be a “very good” school given numbers such as the freshman retention rate and the four-year graduation rate. I live near the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border, so I frequently hear that Penn State is the “elite” school in Pennsylvania. However, a freshman class at Pitt typically has higher high school grades and test scores–a 1450 (out of 1600) SAT is probably the minimum to get into the Honors College as well as a merit scholarship. Pitt’s founding pre-dates Penn State’s by 83 years. Its endowment is about the same ($3.6 billion) although Penn State has over twice as many undergraduates on its main campus (around 38,000 vs. just under 18,000). Pitt has also won or claimed nine national championships in football versus Penn State’s two. Finally, Pitt is located in one of the nicer neighborhoods of a city that has transitioned from an economy based on oil and steel to one based on financial services, health care and technology. Penn State is at least an hour and a half of anyplace that can be called a city. I have spent time at Penn State. The tour guides–I had two then as well–were also very good, and I talked with several others. I generally have a positive impression of the university for those who want a very large school. But I have to admit that Pitt left me with a larger number of positive impressions, even though their football program is not as strong as it was during the late 70’s and early 80’s when I was in college and graduate school.
You cannot rely too much on numbers and virtual tours when you consider a college. You have to visit a school to get the best impressions, and you must take the campus tours. Pitt pleasantly surprised the tour guides who showed me the Swanson School when they took their campus tours. I have to say that it pleasantly surprised me.
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