April Tip: Getting the Most Out of a College Fair

College fairs can be exciting, and even a bit intimidating. It's a thrill to consider all of the possibilities when you're in a room filled with representatives from hundreds of colleges and universities, but it can be hard to know where to begin with so many choices. You might enter the room with a positive attitude, but then the sheer volume of options leads you to window shop rather than take a proactive role.

Here are a few tips to help you maximize the experience and develop your first list of potential schools to research or visit:

Before the Fair

Make a list. Find out ahead of time which colleges and universities will be represented. Highlight 5-8 schools you consider to be definite stops, 5-8 schools that intrigue you, and 2-4 outside your comfort zone. By narrowing your initial options, you can stay focused when the choices threaten to overwhelm you.

Write down your questions. This will help you focus your discussion when you visit a table. Think about specific majors, athletics programs, specialized student clubs, research and internships opportunities, and types of campus environments. This list will help you gain the insight you need to decide whether a college is worthy of further consideration.

Make labels with your contact information. If you don't bring labels, get ready to do a ton of writing on tiny little information cards. With labels, you affix your contact information to an inquiry card and you're done. And that gives you more time to speak with college representatives.

Information to include on your labels:

  • Name (Be sure to use the name you will use when applying)
  • Home Address
  • Email, Phone
  • High School Attending
  • Year of HS Graduation
  • A list of 2-3 majors that interest you

Establish rules for parents/guardians. If you attend a fair with a parent or guardian, make sure you set ground rules for them. You should be asking most of the questions. It's OK for a parent to ask the occasional question, but you should take the lead at the college fair and in your college search.

Bring a bag. You'll collect a lot of brochures and other items, and you'll need a way to carry them.

Be calm. College fairs are largely informational. While you want to present yourself in a professional and articulate manner, no one is judging you. Just focus on getting the information you need and asking questions that are important to you. Remember: college representatives want to talk to you, so don't miss out on the opportunity.

During the Fair

Execute your plan. Seek out the schools on your list and ask your questions. If a college's table is particularly busy, just circle around and wait for the crowd to thin.

Leave a footprint. Fill out an information card at the table for every college that intrigues you (better yet, use those labels). Many colleges use demonstrated interest as a factor in the admission process. Plus, when you fill out the card you'll be placed on the school's mailing list and will receive additional information in the coming months.

Ask similar questions at each table. The answers will help you draw comparisons and gauge if there is a proper fit.

Be professional and courteous. Introduce yourself, shake hands with the college representative, and thank him or her for addressing your questions. Take his or her business card for a possible follow-up email. You'll likely interact with many admission professionals in the coming months, so this is an opportunity to make a good first impression.

Take a risk or two. Once you've executed your plan and visited the schools on your list, check out some colleges that might not be familiar to you. You could learn something new or find a wild card that fits your search criteria.

After the Fair

Debrief. Talk over the experience with parents, siblings and friends while it is still fresh in your mind. Peruse the brochures that day and explore the strengths and weaknesses of each institution.

Create an action item list. You have the information, now it's time to do something with it. Create a list of schools you want to research online. Plan visits or set up interviews at colleges that you found the most intriguing. Contact the college representative with follow-up questions. Schedule a meeting with your guidance or college counselor to discuss your college list.

Stay involved. You have started the hard work of becoming a more informed and engaged college applicant, but your work doesn't stop when the college fair is over. Continue your research and you'll feel more focused when those application deadlines come around.

  • college fair Image Credit: Melissa Hess
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