NYT contributor tells students to skip the campus tour

The college admissions tours may not be as useful for students as colleges hope, a psychologist argues.

Erica Reischer, a clinical psychologist and parent coach, rounds up the logical fallacies and cognitive biases that beset the mind of the prospective student for the New York Times.

To choose a college, prospective students must rely heavily on their powers of imagination and prediction, Reischer notes. But Reischer cites research by Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia showing that people are actually terrible at predicting will make them happy in the future.

Part of the problem, Reischer argues, is that we are forced to imagine what our future options will look like—and, as it turns out, we're also quite bad at that. One of the errors that gets in the way is the saliency bias, which is a "tendency to focus on what is in front of us without considering what is less visible," Reischer writes.

Students experiencing saliency bias observe the circumstances on a campus tour—be it a friendly tour guide, a beautiful day, a group of students laughing—and use those details to shape a vision of their own future at the school.

But the tours are short, Reischer notes. They include only brief glimpses of campus life. Yet, she writes, those glimpses will play a disproportionate role in students' decisions. They might choose the one with a friendlier tour guide, or perhaps rule out a school they visited in the pouring rain.

So what's a college to do?

Reischer suggests the antidote to cognitive bias is to connect prospective students with current students or recent grads. She cites further research from Gilbert showing that experience surrogates—people who seem similar to us and tell us about something they've done—can be a much more valuable source of information (Reischer, New York Times, 4/26).

4 mistakes your prospective students make—and what you can do about them

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