Applicants at the gates

Walking backwards across Yale's campus, junior Michael Apuzzo shepherds a flock that hangs on his every word.

Mr. Apuzzo is a Yale University campus tour guide, and mixed among his audience of tourists are high school students like Alizeh Gangji who hope to come back here next time as freshmen.

So when Apuzzo says there are laundry facilities in the basement, Ms. Gangji writes down their location in her spiral notebook like a prospective home buyer. When he mentions that Yale students rub the toe of a statue for good luck, Gangji touches it, too.

Applicants like Gangji need all the help they can find - only 1 in 10 are accepted each year. The school could lock the gates, never host another tour, and the torrent of 18,000 applications would hardly slow.

Still, even Yale feels compelled to market itself to potential applicants. Just don't label the school's low-key approach "salesmanship."

Yale admissions dean Richard Shaw prefers to call it "sharing" information about the school - a process in which tour guides play a vital role.

Mr. Shaw says guides may be the only real Yale student that applicants meet during their whirlwind college tours. "They are the most important people we have," Shaw says. "They are the face visitors see. "It's the front face of the university."

Yale deploys a platoon of 45 tour guides during the school year and half that number during the summer. The competition to be a tour guide is fierce: The acceptance rate is as low as getting into Yale. Applicants face a grueling process that includes an audition, written application, interviews, and mock tours.

Apuzzo says his own experience on a Yale tour prompted him to apply. "A student showed me what life was like inside the gates," he says. "Yale jumped out and said, 'Look how much I have to offer.' "

Before each tour, guests watch a video about Yale at the campus visitors' center. The movie shows students teaching at local after-school programs, playing basketball, rowing, and singing. Interspersed are a few lectures and a professor extolling Yale's liberal arts education. Few parents or students need to be convinced about Yale's academic merits.

Afterwards, Apuzzo leads his three dozen guests through Yale's leafy quads, through an ivy-cloaked dorm and into the cathedral-like main library.

The guests see the dormitory doorway Yale had to widen to accommodate one portly student named William Howard Taft. (Taft had similar trouble at the White House.) They hear much about the secrets of Yale architecture: To make buildings that went up in the early 20th century look as old as European universities such Oxford or Cambridge, the architect went as far as to chip window panes and pour acid on bricks.

What Apuzzo doesn't offer - much to many applicants' chagrin - is the secret to getting in. Even if there were such a thing, Apuzzo says, he's not here to give away the "golden key."

What tour guides do is as much performance as it is informational. At one point, Apuzzo climbs onto a statue of Nathan Hale, America's first spy, and swings by his arm as he tells the legend that Hale was executed by the British with his Yale diploma in his pocket. When Apuzzo is not leading tours, he performs in campus dance and singing groups.

Tour guide Courtney Amos, a sophomore, mentions the many products with New Haven origins, ranging from the first manufacture of the cotton gin and American pizza to the lollipop and Silly Putty.

That's not what interested Gangji, who is entering her second to last year of high school in Karachi, Pakistan, and is halfway through a three-week tour of Ivy League schools and other universities.

After seeing so many campuses, her concerns are more practical: Where's the laundry? Her mother, Shopha Ispahali, wants to know the average GPA of entering students. Apuzzo doesn't answer.

Apuzzo says that kind of mother-daughter divide is typical. Usually, parents ask more about the academics, while students are more concerned about the social scene. Tourists tend to focus on Yale's secret societies or where President Bush's daughter, currently a Yale student, lives.

Apuzzo touches on one topic of concern gently: Yale's location. "We are in an urban setting, but I don't know any students who feel threatened living in New Haven," Apuzzo says as he shows off the blue distress boxes found on most campuses.

Not every student on the tour is particularly attentive. Some don't know much more about the school than its reputation or the quality of its lacrosse team.

One teen just wants directions to the gift shop and basketball courts.

Then there are visitors from California, who have brought their 8- and 11-year-old sons on a tour of both Yale and Harvard.

For Gangji, the tour reinforces her desire to attend Yale. It's not too big, too far out in the country, or too urban.

Plus, Gangji says, she likes the intimacy of Yale's residential colleges. And her mother likes the "friendly" and "warm" atmosphere as well as the school's emphasis on letting students "fulfill their dreams."

Then again, Gangji and her mother have yet to visit Brown, Harvard, Wellesley, and Williams.

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