Applicants Should Trust College Student 'Ambassadors' Less, Experts Say

Tour guides and student ambassadors who are paid don’t necessarily advertise that fact.

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Friendly students may greet applicants on campus, but experts question whether they’re trustworthy.

Applicants and parents may find that touring colleges in person or via virtual campus visits makes them better informed school window shoppers. But applicants may not realize how carefully colleges orchestrate and censor many of their interactions with current students both on campus and online, admissions experts say. 

"Most applicants believe that any student they talk to online is giving them honest, unbiased information. They need to understand that this is not TripAdvisor, OpenTable, or Yelp," says Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a professional organization in Fairfax, Va. 

Students—often referred to as ambassadors or admissions associates—that interact with applicants are probably paid through work-study to promote the college's communications agenda, according to Sklarow. "Good information may be provided, but it is not necessarily from an independent voice," he says. 

Inigral, a San Francisco-based technology company, markets its Schools App as a platform that connects prospective and current students in order to improve enrollment, retention, and graduation rates. About 60 colleges use the invite-only platform, which functions roughly like a Facebook group. But only 2 or 3 of the 60 allow prospective students to communicate on the platform with all—rather than a select few—current students, says Inigral's Chief Evangelist Michael Staton. 

"Very few schools are saying, 'Well, we'll just have every current student interact with prospective students, and we will just let it be totally open,'" he says. "There is definitely a trend to be assertive and basically adapt the tour guide team." 

[Read about how grad applicants on social media bypass admissions offices.] 

Applicants may be unaware of students' true motivations, but they can catch on quickly, Staton says. "They're less aware than they could be, but they can also totally see through [bull----]," he says. 

Bev Taylor, founder of the The Ivy Coach, a New York-based consultancy, says high school students aren't typically suspicious of student ambassadors' motives. And it may not help that schools sometimes censor student guides. 

On one tour that Taylor attended, a student guide was so "brutally honest" that a couple of parents told admissions staff how refreshing it was to hear a no-spin narrative. "Next thing we knew, the tour guide was fired," Taylor says. 

Although Tulane University typically advertised that chats with student ambassadors were managed by the admissions office, the New Orleans school didn't publicize that students were paid, says Greg Miller, a former tour guide and 2010 graduate. Tulane encouraged student workers to be honest, Miller says, and he often told visitors about an unpleasant experience he had with the registrar's office. 

If he'd have known as an applicant that tour guides were paid, Miller says it wouldn't have changed his mind about what the person had to say. "Just the fact that I was getting to speak to a current student would have been enough for me to be convinced that it was a worthwhile opinion to hear," he says. 

[Learn how being an on-campus tour guide can boost your résumé.] 

The 17 student bloggers who write for Massachusetts Institute of Technology's admissions website share their opinions with readers by posting the content themselves, according to Matt McGann, associate director of admissions. "Good and bad experiences are shared by the students without worry of administrative censorship," he says. 

MIT makes no secret that the bloggers are paid, McGann says, and a search of the blog yields several references to salaries. "MIT was a bit concerned when they first thought about paying bloggers because it would seem like we work for admissions and are brainwashing you guys with pro-MIT propaganda," wrote then-MIT student blogger Snively in 2008. "I think through various rants and raves we've proven that we don't just spew MIT propaganda." 

MIT aside, the shift from campus-based tours to multi-pronged admissions strategies that include digital outreach—such as blogs, some of which have earned the undesirable name 'flogs,' or fake blogs—can lead to applicant confusion, says John Bramlette, the founder of Bramlette Consulting, an educational consultancy in Washington, D.C.