In McCosh courtyard on a sunny October afternoon, Princeton students milled about between classes and my friend J., a junior, stood facing her Orange Key tour group. We smiled and waved at each other over the heads of the 30 or so prospective students and their parents eagerly listening to her speak. As I walked by, I caught a snippet of her presentation: “In general,” she said, “Princeton students aren’t really concerned with GPA.”
I laughed to myself at the absurdity of her comment. In a rigorous, Ivy League, academic atmosphere where students are divided into quintiles based on GPA cut-offs and grade deflation limits As to only 35% of grades in any department, how could this be true? I texted J. immediately: “Stop lying to your tours!!” to which she responded, “They tell us to say that!”
Over lunch a few days later, J. listed off a few more pieces of exaggerated information she tells her tours. She once begrudgingly told a tour group, “There’s no such thing as a typical or a bad dorm room,” the day after an incident that scarred her deeply: she had killed a large insect in her fourth-floor room and returned to clean it up moments later to find a three-inch long cockroach eating it. With a hint of bitterness, J. recalled another time, when a parent asked her what the dating scene was like: “I said, ‘you can make it what you want to be.’ Lie!”
When they are accepted into the Orange Key program, tour guides receive a 95-page “Guide for Guides,” detailing the Orange Key philosophy and 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 Princeton. As with any first impression, the pressure to garner others’ admiration and respect is high.
The standard tour route begins at the white marble steps of Clio Hall and proceeds to Frist, the Chapel, Nassau Hall, Holder, Blair Arch, and loops back to Clio. According to the Guide, tour guides are encouraged to personalize their tour routes but should explain academics, Princeton history, and student life regardless of the route they take. Both J. and another Orange Key guide, Jeremiah, a sophomore, told me that they were discouraged from taking tour groups south of Frist to the more recently constructed parts of campus. “I like to screw with my tours and point to Wilson and say this is one of the nicest colleges on campus,” Jeremiah said, deadpanning.
Appa, a sophomore Orange Key guide, recently realized, “I guess there are things I’m just saying because I’m regurgitating, because it’s in the Guide for Guides.” She admitted, for example, “We do say classes are taught by faculty. Every student does independent research their junior or sophomore year. I didn’t realize this was not true until someone said this was not true.” Faculty members do in fact teach almost all courses, but graduate students often lead precepts and assist with labs and grading. Whereas most juniors take on independent research projects, very few sophomores do.
Being an Orange Key tour guide is a paid job, paying $15 for each 45-minute-long tour and informal question and answer session afterwards. The Orange Key tour guides I met with agreed to speak with me on the condition that their names be changed so as to not jeopardize their jobs.
Although she never toured Princeton, Appa wanted to become a tour 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. Of her experience as an Orange Key guide, she said, “I didn’t realize how much we commodify Princeton and sell Princeton.” She was quick to defend the Orange Key program, saying, “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 intent to “sell” Princeton is not something that Orange Key denies. The Guide for Guides “jokingly refer[s]” to “selling the best university in the world” as “the easiest job ever.” In the “Philosophy” section of its Guide, Orange Key identifies its continuing goal: “To build a guide corps that makes fellow Princetonians proud each time they walk by a tour.” The Guide 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 worked as an Orange Key guide over the summer. He shared Appa’s experience in that he emphasized that he was never explicitly told what to say. “They never tell you not to mention certain things,” he said over breakfast, “they just say don’t get into certain things. You’re supposed to make it sound very approachable.”
When asked what topics were not considered approachable, Jeremiah quickly came up with a list. “The Street’s supposed to be one of those things where you talk about it without ever mentioning going out, ever.” 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 said, referring to the University’s grading policy, which will come under review next year following an unsuccessful attempt to lead other universities to adopt similar policies. “You never mention it on a tour. 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 class and my professor said, ‘Some of you are going to get pushed up, and some of you are going to get pushed down.’”
Competition came up again as another off-limits topic. “Exclusivity at the [eating] clubs is always one of the things you don’t talk about,” Jeremiah said, “because they want the school to be as approachable as possible.” 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 continued. “You kind of can’t mess things up,” he continued, “because parents…have been known to call admissions.”
Jeremiah related an experience with alumni parents that threw him off balance: “I had an alum bet on what club I was going to join with someone else on the tour.” I asked Jeremiah if the alum was right. “Yes and no…he said, ‘I’m going to guess you’re bickering and not signing in.’” The alum was right about Jeremiah’s intention to bicker, but missed the mark on Jeremiah’s prospective clubs. Jeremiah recalled, “I was like, yeah, but I’m between a couple different places. He was like, ‘Ivy and Cap?’ He turned around to another adult and said, ‘See! I was right.’ I was like, this is so awkward.”
On one of the tours I attended, several questions were aimed at the eating clubs. The senior economics major leading the tour, whom I’ll call Penny, first mentioned the eating clubs as our small tour group of four prospective students and their parents stood under 1879 Arch. “[The eating clubs] are all located on this street,” she said, gesturing to the intersection of Washington Road and Prospect Avenue, “and there are a lot of them,” she added, vaguely, before moving on.
On another tour I attended on a rainy, gray-skied day in November, I spoke with a prospective student and his mother, whom I’ll call Jason and Christina. Jason, tall, athletically built, and handsome, attends a public high school in Essex County. He is a junior and a prospective soccer recruit. In a forest green Ralph Lauren vest, flannel shirt, and corduroys, he looked the part of the archetypal Princeton male. Christina, petite and tan-skinned, wore a gray hoodie under a green canvas jacket to shield herself from the rain.
While Jason stayed close to the front of the group, Christina and I hung back. “It really depends on who’s giving the tour,” she said of the quality of college tours in general. That day, our tour guide was an outgoing acquaintance of mine whom I’ll call Alex. As Alex stood on the steps of Firestone Plaza and projected to the group of 20 or so visitors and their umbrellas, Christina sized her up. “We went with her because we could relate to her…You can tell she’s into sports, she’s athletic, smart, competitive.”
Penny, the economics major whose tour I had attended several weeks earlier, returned to the topic of dining options as we neared the end of the tour. After briefing the group on the residential college system, independent living, and co-ops, Penny arrived at the eating clubs, which she described as “the upperclassman equivalent to the residential college system.” The clubs, she said, feed over 70 percent of upperclassmen, have their own personalities, and are often associated with student clubs on campus. When asked by a parent which dining option she chose, she responded tersely, “I am in an eating club, and I like it a lot.”
After hearing Penny’s diplomatic explanation of the eating clubs, I was curious about prospective families’ understandings of them. Back on Alex’s tour, I asked Christina and Jason what they knew about the eating clubs. With a shake of his head, Jason responded, “I have no idea,” and strode forward to catch up with Alex. Christina, who first called them, “supper clubs,” was also somewhat unclear. “So they’re just like a residential breakdown for upperclassmen?” I told her that they were not residential, but rather a place for upperclassmen to eat and socialize, to which she responded, “Oh! So they’re sort of like fraternities.”
Appa, the sophomore guide, said that she resisted going in-depth into the eating club system and other sources of competition on her tours. “I do think one of the things you try to leave out,” she admitted, “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 reasoned, “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, clarified the tour guides’ relationship with their visitors: “We’re not tricking them. We’re kind of protecting them from some of the potential drawbacks, but they don’t have the context to truly understand the drawbacks.” According to Brandon, 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 you’re giving it more attention than it deserves,” he said. “We don’t want to talk about drinking or partying because that stuff happens on every college campus, but if we put it in their 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 20 to 30 admissions officers who work with Orange Key guides as “a really good group of people.” “They want to get kids to feel comfortable when they’re here,” Jeremiah said of the admissions officers, some of whom are recent Princeton graduates. Whereas the admissions officers want to make sure that tour guides do not misrepresent the school, Jeremiah continued, the admissions officers also hope to ease potential applicants’ fears of applying to Princeton.
Prospective students’ worries and admissions officers’ concerns are not unwarranted. For the Class of 2017, Princeton admitted only 1,963 of 26,498 applicants with an admit rate of 7.4%, the fourth lowest acceptance rate of Ivy League schools behind Harvard (5.8%), Yale (6.7%), and Columbia (6.9%). Harvard led the Ivy League in yield, with 81% of its admits matriculating. According to the Harvard Gazette, the class of 2013 marked the university’s highest yield since the class of 1973. Princeton’s yield was third-highest of the Ivys at 65.8%, trailing Yale (68.4%) closely. Princeton re-introduced Early Action to its admissions process for the Class of 2016.
Christina and I shared an umbrella in the courtyard of East Pyne as we listened to Alex describe study abroad opportunities at Princeton. Of Jason’s attitude towards the college process, Christina said, “He’s very calm.” Christina, who had already gone through the college admissions process once with Jason’s older brother, a freshman at Wesleyan, seemed relaxed as well. But when I asked her where Jason went to high school, she grew more anxious. “That was something I was going to ask her,” she said, looking at Alex, “how many kids come from public schools?” She went on to express her concern that many of the athletes she saw on team rosters came from private schools. “Did you find that your friends from public schools had trouble keeping up academically?” she asked. In response, I found myself describing the universality of the freshman experience—of feeling in over one’s head—and explaining the Writing Seminars as a way for freshmen to start off on even ground. We parted ways as Christina and Jason entered Clio to attend the info session that followed their tour.
At the end of the tour, visitors are welcome to ask tour guides individual questions. “They go nuts,” said 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.” The ends of Appa’s tours are sometimes less stressful. “I’m always really shocked when people clap at the end of tours,” she said. “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.” Henneberg declined to comment without approval from Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye. Dean Rapelye could not be reached for comment.
Brandon agreed. “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 does being perceived. Being a tour guide makes me feel like I’m at least contributing to a little part of that, maybe a dozen families.”
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!’” “At the end of my tours,” Brandon said, “I always feel very lucky…I realize how amazing this place is.” If Brandon is able to convey that feeling to his visitors—parents, high school students, alumni, and passersby—Orange Key might consider his tour a success.
When asked to reflect his own college application experience, Brandon remembered his tour guides the most 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 and the alums Jeremiah spoke of are at all representative of Orange Key’s target audience, the influence of a tour guide in selling his or her university, Princeton or other, remains strong. “In the end, Brandon concluded, “I just want the best for Princeton as a university. It’s a way of me giving back to the institution,” he said.
Most of those involved in 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 greater institution gives way to the temptation to obscure its less appealing truths.
By the time we had reached the end of Alex’s tour, the rain had lightened, but we still stood in shallow puddles on the slate walkways in front of Nassau Hall. “Princeton people love Princeton and other Princeton people,” she said, 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.”