Maybe it was the way she executed the perfect backward walk while talking fast and smiling constantly. Maybe it was her professional style – a dark, long skirt, crisp, white blouse and trendy, furry boots. Or maybe it was her sharp command of the facts with just a hint of funny, observational wit.

Whatever it is, Alexis Presseau – who conducts college tours five days a week for DePaul University – has it.

You might call her The Closer, the college student who has been there and done that and can help crystallize for prospective students all the good feelings that any university can muster. She does it all without tripping backward once in a one-hour informational trek across DePaul's Lincoln Park campus.

“Follow me, follow me,” says 21-year-old Presseau, a DePaul senior, who instructed a group of nearly 20 parents and students on a cold day recently as she weaves her way through academics, student dorm life, college food, the campus quad and what to do if you feel threatened. She also showed off a state-of-the-art gym that left the crowd wide-eyed with approval.

One doesn't need a marketing survey to realize what a great campus tour by a great campus tour guide can mean.

“It can make or break a student's decision about which school to attend,” says Todd Olson, assistant dean of admissions and outreach program director at Carleton College.

“We actually have some tour guides at Carleton who are real superstars, and we depend on them in the admissions process,” Olson says. “I think the real keys are personality, honesty and connecting with prospective students and their parents on the tour.”

This time of year, many students like Presseau become the official face of their campuses, supplementing school-sampling activities such as talking with admissions officials, sitting in on classes or meeting professors.

Some prospective students and their families try to get the flavor of a campus by viewing a video tour online or getting hold of the many commercially produced college tour DVDs. Marquette University in Milwaukee is one of the first schools in the nation to offer free video tours that can be viewed on an iPod.

But taking an actual rather than a virtual whirl around campus and hearing the facts from a current student are still a vital part of the college-courting process.

DePaul guides like Presseau get $10 per one-hour tour. Manuel French, associate director of admission admissions, says he looks for student guides who are upperclassmen and have that “Rah, Rah, DePaul” approach enthusiasm.

Fernando Planas, associate director of admissions at the University of Illinois at Chicago, echoes that sentiment.

“What we want is someone who can obviously reflect a positive image of the university and someone who is open to meeting a diverse group of people,” Planas says. “But we don't expect them to be admissions people. We want them to talk about what it is like to be a student.”

Presseau's has got that part down pat. She has received more “excellent” ratings from visitors than any other DePaul guide, according to Ashley McKnight-Phillips, a junior who serves as tour guide coordinator.

DePaul gives tour guides a one-day training session that covers the tour route and important facts about the university.

They also attend an admissions presentation and must shadow several tours before they start working.

Still, it isn't an easy job.

One of Presseau's biggest challenges, she said, can be her fellow students who think it's funny to try to disrupt her smooth delivery.

“Students can kind of bother the tour and say, ‘We hate DePaul.' Or they will be like, ‘DePaul sucks.' I know it is just a prank, but it can be awkward,” she says. “But I try to keep smiling and make a joke. I'll say, ‘Well at least you know our students have a sense of humor.'”

College tour guides also can get blamed for the oddest things. “I can't control the weather,” Presseau says. “I can't control if they are late by a half-hour and missed half the tour.”

Taking parents and prospective students around campus together also can call for considerable tact. Guides have been put on the spot, for example, by mothers and fathers, determined to gauge find out how much partying and drinking might be occurring on campus.

McKnight-Phillips recalls an inexperienced student guide who once “talked about one of DePaul's biggest festivals and referred to students as being ‘wasted' and'`stoned.' She actually said the word ‘stoned.'

“We gave her another chance,” McKnight-Phillips says. “She was a little nervous and realized she should never do that again.”

© 2006, Chicago Tribune.

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