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Getting the Most from the College Fair

March, 2018
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College Fairs are much more than an opportunity to collect colourful brochures about colleges and universities. They serve as a vital part of a student’s college research process. If done thoughtfully, students can discover unknown colleges, expand their college lists, get insider perspectives on everything from must take classes to quirky college traditions and begin the important process of differentiating one college from another.

college-fairYet, after years of attending college fairs, I observe that many students and their parents miss out on some of the key opportunities to learn at college fairs. This is likely because first time visitors often do not know what to expect. A college fair is a fairly straightforward event. College admissions officers, alumni and sometimes current students host tables draped in school colors and stacked high with colourful brochures and lookbooks. Tables hosted by admissions officers offer a special opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge about admissions specific issues in addition to college specific information.

When possible, colleges send the admissions representative for the region in which the fair is held. This means the officer at the table may also be one of the people who read student applications! While college fairs are NOT opportunities to interview (think about it – leaving dozens of other people standing around waiting for their chance to engage while you take up inordinate amounts of time talking about yourself is unlikely to leave a positive impression), students may have a chance to impress by demonstrating genuine interest, asking relevant questions and showing themselves to be articulate and engaging. Should a student find him or herself engaged with an admissions officer who is surrounded by others, it is advised that he or she show consideration by asking for a business card and following up the conversation via email.

Everyone at a college fair has valuable input. I have seen students just walk away after they find out the person speaking to them is not from admissions. This is ill advised… the alumni or student discounted at the fair could be the college interviewer! Additionally, college tables hosted by alumni or current students also offer wonderful opportunities to better understand the college experience from the student perspective. While asking about their personal admissions experiences can be helpful, better questions focus on their experience with professors, advisors, snagging space in popular classes and the accessibility of needed resources like tutors, writing centers, and financial aid. You can also gain great insight into what it feels like to live on campus, what students do in their free time and safety issues.

So, what can students do to prepare for and get all there is to offer from a college fair?

Think! Spend some time thinking about college. What are your hopes? Where have you dreamed of studying? What might you like to study? What locations appeal most to you? What size college appeals? Write out some type of criteria for yourself and identify some must have factors and start doing some research. At which colleges can you most likely find what you are looking for? We recommend that you check out https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org as this is a great site to use to get an initial idea of what features you might like in a college. Write down the names of all the colleges that have what you are looking for…don’t be afraid to write down names of colleges you don’t know. Going to college fairs is all about learning…make it your goal to learn all you can about colleges. 

Make a list. Take your list and cross check it with the names of the colleges that will attend a college fair near you. Again, don’t be afraid to go beyond the names of the colleges that you know, or you may miss out on some potential great fit schools! You have nothing to lose – college fairs are a cost effective and time efficient way of learning about dozens of colleges.

Consider dividing your colleges by categories that you care about: “Dream college”, “Heard of it,” Never heard of it, but has lots of things I want in a college”. Also consider visiting a range of schools. Visiting the tables of 8 Ivy League colleges is not very useful, while the schools themselves are each highly unique, there is little diversity in what they look for in their students. Be sure to visit colleges that accept students with a wide range of academic results. Refer to your list of criteria…look to see whether or not the colleges you are planning to see even offer the major/courses that you are thinking about. Every college and university does not offer ever major. Students should look for colleges that offer what they are interested in, even if they did not know about the college before.

Finally, print the college fair map, identify targets and write a list of questions you need to be answered. The point is to move the student to the next step in her college research.

Find a theme. It should be obvious by now that the real value of college fairs lies in the people hosting the tables. If a student only collects brochures to be flipped through in the privacy of home, he has missed the point. Students, however, are often intimidated by the idea of asking the questions they need answers to. Admittedly, it can be challenging to come up with good questions, especially when surround by peers who are listening and asking questions too. Students are encouraged to consider what is most important to them. I suggest finding a theme and asking each college visited the same (or similar) questions. While students may not learn everything about the college, he or she will learn about an area of interest in a way that lets her compare colleges in that area and make decisions about what is liked or concerning.

Ask good questions. A good question is one that provides insightful information. Students and parents read brochues and websites all the time and still have no real idea of what the college is really about. Don’t ask if a college’s Economics program is a good one, no one representing a school is going to say no. Moreover, unless the person took classes in that department, they would not be able to answer your question in sufficient detail. Instead, ask questions that will help you see into life at the college: What is the most significant campus tradition? What distinguishes this university from similar institutions? What is the most popular course on campus? Answers to questions like these allow the student to build a tangible image of the college.

Listen! Students simply don’t have enough time to ask every question they might have, but college fairs provide the opportunity not only to ask, but also to listen to others. Tune up your ears; you may hear a great answer to a question you may not have thought of on your own.

Bring Paper! It’s important to take notes, write down names of contacts (admissions people often run out of cards, or other representatives may not have “official” college cards) and make note of email addresses. This will allow you to continue learning about the college and demonstrates real interest at the same time. Also, it does not take long to forget the details about colleges and why you liked them. Be sure to write notes for yourself about each college either while you are standing at the table or as soon as you leave! These notes are central to the next step in the process; figuring out which colleges to pursue for local visits and application.

College fairs are a great way to begin your college search; there is simply no better way to gather information about so many potential schools so easily. A little preparation can go a long way to making the time spent at a college fair efficient and enjoyable!


By Tess Robinson


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