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The Guide Gig

An expert on all things Northwestern, sophomore Jeffrey Smith conquered the “Cup O’ Death” to represent the University as a tour guide.


by Jeffrey Smith

“Why not me?” I thought as I read the Daily article over lunch last spring.

The article, headlined “Worse Odds for Guide Gig than Admission,” explained how more than 250 students apply for 25 available tour guide positions, a paltry 10 percent expected acceptance rate.

“I’d make a great tour guide,” I kept telling myself between bites of pasta stir-fry. “I’m knowledgeable about Northwestern. I’m funny and affable. People like to hear me talk. At least my parents do. Sometimes.”

So on a Friday afternoon in early May, I sat with seven hopefuls around a table in the Office of Undergraduate Admission. Former senior assistant director Kevin Byrne sat facing us, armed only with a blue plastic cup and a disarming smile. The cup, known affectionately as the “Cup O’ Death,” contained about a dozen common questions about Northwestern life. One question asked what we liked least about the University — a cruelly simple and straightforward question. While everyone else talked about the weather or the quarter system, I critiqued our cellar-dwelling basketball team.

Much to my surprise, I received an e-mail within a week saying I had been chosen as a new tour guide. After the mandatory training I received my prized laminated nametag.

I’ve given dozens of tours since, and there are plenty of useful tips I’ve learned along the way. For instance, I always tell my friends to say “Hi” or pat me on the back when I’m leading a tour. Sometimes it’s distracting, but it always makes the group feel like they’ve chosen the “good” guide — the one who is social and popular.

If someone screams out a car window on Sheridan Road, “Northwestern stinks!” (or worse), a common defense is to smile and say something like, “He’s just upset he didn’t get into Medill.”

Another important trick is to integrate personal stories with the rote facts. When I pass by Annie May Swift Hall, home of the student-run radio station, WNUR-FM, I talk about my own radio talk show that I hosted during my freshman year. I also like to address internship opportunities such as Teaching Media in the Medill School of Journalism. I tell my group that since my ultimate ambition is to be the next David Letterman, I want to go to a small-market TV station for my TM in order to get plenty of on-air experience.

The majority of questions I get on tours come from parents, not prospective students. Many of the questions require an answer filled with personal stories and opinions. How often do students go to Chicago as opposed to staying on campus? How intense is the quarter system? What’s there to eat?

I take particular interest in the last question. By my own estimation, I have eaten at more than 50 local eateries. Want a quick bite for lunch? I say Clarke’s or Potbelly’s. Looking for a great dinner place? I recommend Pete Miller’s or the Davis Street Fishmarket.

These local-interest questions are music to a tour guide’s ears. The simple fact is that you become a tour guide because you love to talk about yourself and the University that you love. Dozens of people — up to 80 on a busy Saturday morning — hang on our every word. It’s a huge ego trip.

Each year, the Northwestern tour guides host more than 19,000 visitors. Not all are attentive and inquisitive. Some prospective students talk on their cell phones the entire tour. Sometimes the parents themselves, oblivious to the fact they are on a tour, engage in loud and persistent conversations about when the in-laws should arrive for the holidays.

But the bad tours are few and far between. And while doing the same shtick next to the same building can get monotonous, there is always something to keep you engaged.

After a tour, many parents shower me with compliments, and prospective students sometimes ask for my e-mail address.

These are all perfectly legitimate reasons why every tour is a unique and rewarding experience. We get paid, but at $15 and change per tour, no one’s in the gig for the money. It’s just a lot of fun, plain and simple. We love what we do. Any questions?


Jeffrey Smith, of East Brunswick, N.J., is a Medill sophomore. He was named Tour Guide of the Month in November 2005. Visit for more information on campus tours.
Jeffrey Smith as Northwestern tour guide
Jeffrey Smith Photo by Jerry Lai (WCAS04)