College tours on video help students choose the right school.

So you’ve been a video hobbyist for several years now. You’ve kept up with the changing technologies and have even upgraded your equipment a couple of times. The kids are now grown and weekly coverage of the Little League games just doesn’t hold the same magic it used to. You’ve compiled hours upon hours behind a viewfinder and you’re starting to get pretty darned proficient on that editing equipment you got for Christmas a couple of years ago. You’re even starting to think that you could earn a little extra income with your ever-growing knowledge of video production. Maybe you could even use your knowledge as a service to help others. Why not?

Cliff Kramon has been there. As an independent college advisor with Collegiate Choice (in Tenafly, New Jersey), Kramon has made a career of helping high school students make sense of the college conundrum. Many of these students would love to visit distant campuses, but can’t make the trip.

"We’d make a list of 10 to 15 schools we were recommending to the students, and probably two thirds of the schools were several states away," said Kramon. "Sometimes we’re recommending a school that is perfect, but it slips through the cracks because the kids just don’t have the money to visit. And we visit [campuses] all the time as part of our job. We came up with the idea to at least do the minimum; let’s tape our own visits."

Low Glam, High Value

Welcome to Collegiate Choice Walking Tour Videos. For $15 a pop, the student gets a sneak preview, via the miracle of videotape, of any of the 330 colleges and universities CC offers.

Kramon arranges for a tour, whips out a Sony Hi8 camcorder, hits the auto-focus and "steady-shot," and walks around campus chatting with the tour guides. The resulting video presents each college and university candidly, "in the raw," the way you’d see them on the guided tour.

"It’s probably a video you could have done yourself, or could have done better," Kramon admits. "But hopefully it was exactly what we claimed it was going to be. Not beautifully made, not slick, not promotional, just a simple, straight shoot of the tour you would have gotten on the day we went."

CC purposefully avoids high-end gear, and doesn’t worry about sprucing things up with graphics or editing. They aren’t trying to sell the campus–they leave that to the view books, videos and Web sites that the college produces. And CC’s literature (and introduction at the beginning of each tape) emphasizes that these videos are not the first and last word about any of the colleges they visit.

Just the Facts

"If you’re looking at Amherst, and Amherst has a complimentary video, take it," Kramon emphasized. "It shouldn’t replace the view book; it certainly shouldn’t replace the course catalogue. This is just one more input to help you make a decision as to whether Amherst is right for you."

The videos shouldn’t replace genuine visits, either. Kramon doesn’t sit in on lectures or interview the faculty. CC’s videos are meant to explore part of the unique dimension of a school you get when you actually go there and kick around for a few hours; they go for the ambiance, the feel and flavor, of each campus.

Kramon makes a point of asking questions that he knows will interest his viewers: What are the facilities really like? What about the study center: does it have Pentium IIs with Web access or Commodore 64s? What about the dorm arrangements? Is the surrounding community uptown, downtown or small town? Does this college stand alone, or is it part of a consortium? What about intramural sports, clubs, etc.?

The tour guides who answer Kramon’s questions on tape have spent the last few years in an institution the student has only heard about, some guides are more informed than others. For the most part, conversation is spontaneous and the editing is minimal. Kramon has also made multiple visits to the same campuses, and will sometimes combine tapes to make a more interesting presentation.

"We’ll go to a dorm room and we might spend twelve minutes talking about a lot of things. It gets pretty boring after the first three or four minutes, even for us." In such an instance Kramon takes previously shot footage, and covers several minutes of the conversation with video inserts of shots around campus.

Otherwise, CC usually only edits for length, or the usual snafus that plague any video shoot.

"You’ll record yourself running to the next shot because classes are changing and you want to pick something up; or sometimes you’ll pick up a discussion of somebody’s date who is walking behind you which you didn’t realize was going on … that you have to edit."

And every once in a while you run into something extremely interesting which may or may not make it’s way into the video, such as shots of the Museum of Angst in Antioch, or, at one particular school, condom day. "We had to avoid shooting the guys in the booths wearing condoms on their heads, because we didn’t feel that was appropriate for [this particular school]."

Spreading Good News

The first college Kramon visited in 1987 was Princeton simply because it was close (an hour and a half away), and Kramon wanted to see if his students and their parents would like what they saw.

They did. Seventy some-odd videos later, and a mention in U.S. News & World Report‘s "News You Can Use" in 1989, and CC began to get orders from all over the country.

"People we hadn’t expected use it. If you’re handicapped (and every school may say it’s wheelchair accessible) you can watch that video and make your own decision."

"One of the interesting users of these videos, almost as much as the students, is Dad. When it comes to taking a trip across the country, or several states away, it’s usually the student and Mom. Dad can’t take the time off." Since both Mom and Dad are about to shell out $20,000 to $100,000 for their child’s education, it’s only fair that Dad should have a look at the campus, too."

Kramon has made close to 600 of these videos, representing over 330 colleges and universities in over 40 states, the District of Columbia, Canada, Great Britain and Ireland. "Frankly, I’m surprised that we’ve sold a number of copies, not to people who want to spend four years at Oxford or Cambridge, but to people who wish to spend their junior year studying abroad."

Running time averages under 60 minutes, though some run as long as two hours. This is opposed to the hassles and expenses of flying to a distant city, renting a car, finding a place to crash for the night, just to find out that the college just wasn’t what the promo material promised. And sometimes people know instinctively that the campus isn’t right for them, that it’s too urban, suburban or rural, too big or too small for their tastes.

But more often then not, as Kramon points out, the opposite takes place. "Sometimes students will think a school with 2000 people is the equivalent of their high school, which was one building and a field. So usually it’s the opposite situation where their high school guidance counselor might be recommending a smaller school and the students have blown it off. But now they’ve seen it and say, ‘I can see myself there.’"

You can learn more about the Collegiate Choice Walking Video Tours by visiting CC’s Web site at www.collegiatechoice.com. Who knows? These camcorder college tours might just be the most authentic preview to a college visit available to a student (until they start sending free samples of the cafeteria food, that is). Our hope is that maybe, just maybe they will inspire you to find a new use for your camcorder.

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