Secrets of Ivy League Tour Guides

At universities across the nation this spring, chirpy tour guides will paint an idyllic, PG-rated picture of collegiate life. Here’s the unedited version.

Secrets of Ivy League Tour Guides

In McCosh Courtyard on a sunny October afternoon, Princeton students mill about between classes while my friend Sybil, a junior, stands facing her Orange Key tour group. We smile and wave at each other over the heads of the thirty or so prospective students and their parents eagerly listening to Sybil. As I walk by, I catch a snippet of her presentation: “In general,” she says, “Princeton students aren’t really concerned with GPA.”

I laugh to myself at the absurdity of her comment. In a rigorous Ivy League atmosphere where students are divided into quintiles based on GPA cutoffs, how could this be true? I texted Sybil immediately after I heard her comment: “Stop lying to your tours!!” To which she responded: “They tell us to say that!”

Over lunch a few days later, Sybil—who, like all the other tour guides quoted in this article, agreed to be included on the condition that her real name not be used—lists several more pieces of exaggerated information she shares during her tours. She once begrudgingly told a tour group, “There’s no such thing as a typical or a bad dorm room” just one day after an incident that scarred her deeply. She had killed a large insect in her fourth-floor room, and when she returned to clean it up moments later, found a three-inch cockroach eating it. With a hint of bitterness, Sybil recalls a parent from another tour who asked her what the dating scene was like. “I said, ‘You can make it what you want it to be.’ Lie!” We both laugh. Some Princeton students do date, but Sybil is hinting at her frustration—shared by many of her peers—with ephemeral relationships that mostly blossom on “the Street,” the stretch of campus where most Princeton parties occur.

When they are accepted into the Orange Key program, tour guides receive a ninety-five-page Guide for Guides, detailing the program’s philosophy, tour protocol, routes and content, with the expectation that they not deviate from these standards. Tour guides are tasked with the important undertaking of providing their visitors with a personalized, comprehensive and accurate picture of Princeton. For many prospective families, an Orange Key tour is their first impression of the school, so guides certainly feel the pressure to gain visitors’ admiration and respect.

The standard tour route begins on the white marble steps of Clio Hall, the admissions building, then proceeds to the constantly bustling student center, which tour guides proudly boast as the building featured in the opening credits of the television show House. Tours then continue to the third-largest university chapel in the world; Nassau Hall, the oldest building on campus; Holder, a Gothic-style residence hall; and Blair Arch, one of the most famous campus landmarks, before finally looping back to Clio.

According to the detailed Guide, tour leaders should discuss academics, Princeton history and student life. Both Sybil and Jeremiah, a sophomore who worked as an Orange Key guide this past summer, say they are allowed to modify the route to their liking, but are discouraged from taking tour groups south of the Frist Campus Center to the more recently constructed parts of campus. While some of these buildings are attractive in their own right, they lack the famous Gothic architecture characteristic of the older, northern parts of campus. Jeremiah does sometimes rebel. “I like to screw with my tours and point to Wilson and say, ‘This is one of the nicest colleges on campus,’” Jeremiah says, deadpanning. (Wilson College, which was constructed in the 1960s, has a reputation across campus for being the least aesthetically pleasing and least comfortable of the six residential colleges.)

“I guess there are things I’m just saying because I’m regurgitating, because it’s in the Guide for Guides,” reveals Appa, a sophomore Orange Key guide. She offers an example of her sometimes-exaggerated statements: “We do say classes are taught by faculty.” (Faculty members do technically teach almost all courses, but graduate students often lead precepts and assist with labs and grading.) “Every student does independent research their junior or sophomore year,” Appa continues. “I didn’t realize this was not true until someone said this was not true.” (While most, not all, juniors take on independent research projects, very few sophomores do.)

Orange Key tour guides get paid $15 for each forty-five-minute tour, including the informal question-and-answer session afterwards. Although she never toured Princeton when she was applying to the school, Appa wanted to become a guide because she enjoyed the tours she went on at other colleges. The factual exaggerations in the Guide for Guides only became apparent to her as she experienced more of Princeton. “I didn’t realize how much we commodify Princeton and sell Princeton,” she says of her work as a guide. She is quick to defend the program though, adding, “They don’t outright say stretch the truth and bend it, but we definitely are manipulating the material of Princeton to sell the product of Princeton.”

The intention of having tour guides “sell Princeton” is not something that Orange Key denies. The Guide for Guides humorously refers to “selling the best university in the world” as “the easiest job ever.” In the “Philosophy” section of the Guide, Orange Key identifies its overarching goal: “To build a guide corps that makes fellow Princetonians proud each time they walk by a tour.” The manual adds: “We are also committed to having guides present factually informative yet personalized tours that allow visitors to come away from the University with a general knowledge base as well as an understanding of the individual nature of the Princeton experience.”

Jeremiah shares Appa’s view of the experience. “They never tell you not to mention certain things,” he says over breakfast in Mathey dining hall, where long wooden tables and vaulted ceilings have earned the building a reputation as one of the most “Harry Potter-esque” spots on campus. “They just say don’t get into certain things.”

When asked what topics are taboo, Jeremiah quickly comes up with a list. “‘The Street’ is supposed to be one of those things where you talk about it without ever mentioning going out, ever.” “The Street” refers to Prospect Avenue, where Princeton’s famed upper-class eating clubs regularly host parties (or “go on tap”) with beer, music and dancing. Indeed, the Guide for Guides warns: “Use discretion if you discuss anything that could be perceived as controversial (alcohol is a prime example) and attempt whenever possible to turn negative questions into positive answers.”

“We don’t ever mention grade deflation,” Jeremiah says, referring to the University’s grading policy, which will come under review next year after an unsuccessful attempt to lead other universities to adopt similar policies. Grade deflation, which the University only formally refers to as “the grading policy,” began in 2004 as an effort to “provide fair and consistent standards across the University,” according to the website of the Office of the Dean of the College. Under this policy, faculty members must limit A grades (A+, A, A-) to fewer than thirty-five percent of the grades given in a course. The percentage expands to fifty-five percent for grades given in junior and senior independent work. “You never mention it on a tour,” says Jeremiah. “If someone ever brings it up, you’re supposed to correct them and say, ‘The grading policy at Princeton hasn’t really affected anyone at Princeton.’ But, like, I just got out of my orgo [organic chemistry] class and my professor said, ‘Some of you are going to get pushed up, and some of you are going to get pushed down.’”

Social competition is mentioned as another off-limits topic. “Exclusivity at the [eating] clubs is always one of the things you don’t talk about,” Jeremiah says. Of the eleven eating clubs, six (Ivy, Cap and Gown, Tiger Inn, Cottage, Cannon, and Tower) select their membership through an application process known as “bicker.” Bicker occurs over two to three days in the first week of the second semester, and most potential members, commonly referred to as “bickerees,” are sophomores. Each club has a different bicker process, but generally, current members evaluate applicants through various games, activities and interviews. Members then discuss and vote on each person and offer membership to select bickerees. Four of the other eating clubs are “sign-in,” meaning that anyone who signs up for the club will receive membership. One club, Charter, used to be sign-in, but new members are now chosen by a system of points accumulated through participation in club activities.

Alumni on tour with their children have been known to call attention to a fibbing tour guide with pointed questions such as, “Do all of the clubs really let everyone in? Don’t some of them have their own reputations?”

“Some alums will very clearly pick a fight with you over some of the things you’re saying,” Jeremiah continues. “You kind of can’t mess things up, because parents have been known to call admissions.”

On one of the tours I have attended, several questions were aimed at the eating clubs. Penny, the senior economics major leading one tour, first mentions the eating clubs as our small tour group of four prospective students and their parents stand under the 1879 Arch, which offers a view of several of the clubs. “[The eating clubs] are all located on this street,” Penny says, gesturing to the intersection of Washington Road and Prospect Avenue. “And there are a lot of them,” she adds before moving on. Later, when asked by a parent which dining option she chose, she responds tersely, “I am in an eating club, and I like it a lot.”

On another tour during a rainy, gray-skied day in November, I speak with a prospective student, whom I’ll call Jason, and his mother, Christina. Jason, who is tall, athletically built and handsome, attends a public high school in nearby Essex County. He is a junior and hopes to play soccer in college. In a forest green Ralph Lauren vest, flannel shirt and corduroys, he looks the part of the archetypal Princeton male. Christina, petite and tan-skinned, wears a gray hoodie under a green canvas jacket to shield herself from the rain.

While Jason stays close to the front of the group, Christina and I hang back and discuss the quality of the tours she and her son have been on at other schools. “It really depends on who’s giving the tour,” she says. When prospective families arrive, two or three tour guides usually introduce themselves with their names, majors, hometowns and activities, so prospective students and parents can choose which one to go with. Today, our tour guide is an outgoing acquaintance of mine named Alex. As Alex stands on the steps of Firestone Plaza and projects to the group of twenty or so umbrella-clutching visitors, Christina sizes her up. “We went with her because we could relate to her,” she says. “You can tell she’s into sports; she’s athletic, smart, competitive.”

I ask Christina and Jason what they know about the eating clubs. With a shake of his head, Jason responds, “I have no idea,” and strides forward to catch up with Alex. Christina, who first calls them “supper clubs,” is also somewhat unclear. “So they’re just, like, a residential breakdown for upperclassmen?” I tell her that they are not residential, but rather a place for upperclassmen to eat and socialize, to which she responds, “Oh! So they’re sort of like fraternities.”

Appa, the sophomore guide, says that she resists going in-depth into the eating club system and other sources of campus competition on her tours. She admits, “One of the things you try to leave out is how intimidating and overwhelming Princeton tends to be in academics, and how competitive you can be if you actively seek it.”

When asked why she glosses over this aspect of Princeton life, she reasons: “If you’re a high schooler, it can be sort of intimidating to seem like you’re being shot down when you’re used to being on top. It might not be something they want to hear; they want to feel like they fit right in.”

Brandon, a junior Orange Key guide from the West Coast, clarifies the tour guides’ relationships with their visitors. “We’re not tricking them,” he says. “We’re kind of protecting them from some of the potential drawbacks, but they don’t have the context to truly understand the drawbacks.” Brandon says guides gloss over some topics because one campus tour is not enough for a potential applicant to truly understand what Princeton is like. “You don’t want grade deflation to become a focus of your tour because [then] you’re giving it more attention than it deserves,” he says. “We don’t want to talk about drinking or partying because that stuff happens on every college campus, but if we put it in our tours it might seem like Princeton is disproportionately alcoholic, which is not true. It’s kind of like you have to get even with the other schools that are also bending the truth.”

Jeremiah described the twenty to thirty admissions officers who work with Orange Key guides as “a really good group of people” who “want to get kids to feel comfortable when they’re here.” Some of these officers are recent Princeton graduates. Jeremiah says that they certainly want to make sure tour guides do not misrepresent the school, but also hope to ease potential applicants’ fears of applying to Princeton, knowing that even getting in is a daunting prospect. For the Class of 2017, Princeton admitted only 1,963 of 26,498 applicants—or 7.4%, the fourth-lowest acceptance rate in the Ivy League.

At the end of the tour, visitors are welcome to ask tour guides questions. “They go nuts,” says Jeremiah. “You basically have to tell them admissions is a crapshoot, and as long as you’re a certain caliber, who knows if you’ll get in.”

Appa points out that the ends of tours are not always so stressful. “I’m always really shocked when people clap at the end of tours,” she says. “I don’t think anything I’ve said really warrants an applause, but I appreciate that.”

Cameron Henneberg, a senior and the Chair of Orange Key, writes in his introductory letter in the Guide for Guides, “As simple as it seems, every word that every Orange Key guide says will be important to our visitors, and it’s an incredible privilege to take on that role as an ambassador for our University.” Upon being contacted for comment, Janet Rapelye, the dean of admission, emphasized the importance of the Orange Key guides’ roles at Princeton. “They are Princeton’s ambassadors to students who are often considering applying,” she wrote in an email. “And they are the face of Princeton to the families of prospective students and others.” Rapelye acknowledged the challenges that come with the job, and noted that the guides require “tact, diplomacy, enthusiasm, and above all, honesty.” She concluded, “Nobody is served well if the information they impart is inaccurate, and we expect them to be forthright when questioned about Princeton’s academic and social life.”

Brandon seconded Henneberg and Rapelye’s positions on the importance of the role. “I like shaping what people’s perception of Princeton is, because, well,”—he paused to laugh—“maybe this is a little arrogant, but I think I know Princeton well, and I’m proud of the institution. So I almost feel a little bit responsible for how well it’s perceived. Being a tour guide makes me feel like I’m at least contributing to a little part of that.”

Henneberg ends his letter by wishing tour guides well as they “embark on [their] journey to show the world that Princeton really is ‘the best old place of all!’” Brandon echoes that sentiment. “At the end of my tours, I always feel very lucky,” he says. “I realize how amazing this place is.”

When asked to reflect upon his own college application experience, Brandon remembers his Orange Key tour guides clearly. “What I remember more is the tour guides’ passion and how they spoke about their school. I cared a lot about the person who was trying to sell the school and whether they seemed like they loved it.”

If families like Jason and Christina are representative, the influence a tour guide can have in selling his or her university, Princeton or another, remains strong. Most of those involved on either side of the Orange Key tours fall into two categories: people who love being a part of Princeton, and people who want to be a part of Princeton. Sometimes the desire to belong to a great institution gives way to the temptation to obscure its less-appealing truths.

By the time we reach the end of Alex’s tour, the rain has lightened, but we still stand in shallow puddles on the slate walkways in front of Nassau Hall. “Princeton people love Princeton and other Princeton people,” Alex says, flanked by two bronze tigers. “People love being a part of something bigger. It’s something I didn’t think about when I came, but now I realize it’s something really fun to be a part of. People really love this place.”

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Hailing from Hobart, Tasmania, Eleri Mai Harris is a journalist and cartoonist currently studying for a Master of Fine Arts at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, USA.