Diary Of A Third Year: 'Even the grumpiest professors have to smile on open days'

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The Independent Online

With the student elections over, the only buzz on campus comes from the whirring blades of helicopter parents, mums and dads who hover over their offspring, interfering at every opportunity. It's open day season and like every other university Sheffield is stuffed with bright-eyed parents dragging their less enthused offspring around the campuses.

Open days are often the deciding factor for those applying to university. The friendliness of staff and students makes a big difference. Universities go to great lengths to ensure that open days are hitch-free. Even the grumpiest professors are expected to smile. Students who give campus tours are well paid, lest a poorly-paid malcontent do or say something to besmirch their university's good name. In exchange, high standards are expected. Tour guides have to be intelligent and personable, and definitely sober.

That last demand is sometimes too much for some. Wannabe maths students at a Chester University open day were treated to a slurred and burp-ridden presentation about life at Chester, after the presenter had had a liquid lunch. As well as sobriety, a good sense of direction is essential. A tour of St Andrews' halls of residence took a turn for the worst when a guide led his group into the wrong dormitory that contained two students in bed.

Guides must also deal with the potential minefield of questions from their audience. Liberal parents ask whether free condoms are handed out during Freshers Week while their children turn a vibrant shade of crimson. Sometimes the answers are more awkward than the questions. On a tour of Sheffield, my former flatmate asked his guide whether there was broadband in university residences. "Of course there is," came the reply, "how else would you get your porn?" The teenage boys smirked and parents looked appalled. It was at that moment he knew Sheffield was for him.

Tours have to last 45 minutes, and some guides struggle to fill three-quarters-of-an-hour. In desperation, they reach for any useless fact they can think of. Did you know that Sheffield has the tallest university tower in the UK? If you come to Sheffield on an open day, you certainly will. There's also a shower in the library that is more talked about than used.

The most important part of being a tour guide is to show off your university's glorious past, present and future, while making sure everyone has picked up enough propaganda. The latter consists of pictures of happy students, beaming at the joy they get out of studying assiduously, or posing awkwardly with a book.

A medic at the University of East Anglia was surprised to find pictures of her on an open day plastered all over Leeds University School of Medicine's promotional literature, despite Leeds having rejected her three years before. Leeds obviously preferred her face to her brain. So, don't believe everything you read on an open day. And think twice before you agree to be photographed.