Expert Advice for Successfully Navigating a College Fair

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Without a solid game plan, a college fair can easily devolve into a blur of smiles, handshakes and the accumulation of enough glossy pamphlets to wallpaper your bedroom 20 times over. However, with proper planning, a college fair can be an illuminating experience that will provide you with newfound insight into prospective colleges as well as flesh-and-blood contacts you simply cannot get from paging through a Princeton Review guidebook.  

Adopting the Right Mindset

We encourage students to first think about the big picture of college admissions. The college selection process is not merely about “getting in” — it is about becoming a discerning and thoughtful consumer ultimately capable of selecting an undergraduate institution that aligns with your long-term academic, career and financial goals. Can you afford the full tuition price of your potential destinations or will you rely on scholarships, merit aid or loans? Does the school you are considering fit in with your post-undergraduate plans?

Tools of the Trade

On an extremely practical level, make sure you bring a backpack to store materials, a notebook containing potential questions for reps and a pencil or pen (although free pens with school insignias will be available by the ton). Be prepared for the fact that all schools with whom you speak will request that you complete an information card. You’ll give details such as your name, address, contact info, intended major and extracurricular interests. Make sure that if you include an email address that it is appropriate and professional.

Dress and Hygiene

Inevitably, you will see some of your peers dressed to the nines in clothes so stiff and unfamiliar they are moving from booth to booth with a Herman Munster-like gait. This simply isn’t necessary. There is absolutely no need to show up to a college fair in a three-piece suit. Just don’t show up in a humorous, alcohol-themed T-shirt and dirty sweatpants. Dress for a college fair as you would for a dinner with your grandmother — a “business casual” look will more than suffice.

Study Up for a Productive Q&A

When you have the ear of an admissions representative at a prospective college, take advantage of the opportunity by asking penetrating questions. Find out whether a typical freshman class at the school is a classroom of 20 students intimately engaged in discourse with the professor or involves 300 anonymous faces in a lecture hall. Ask about graduation rates, career services, internships, study abroad opportunities and employment statistics in your field of interest.

It can also be beneficial to ask specific questions about life on campus. What are the options for freshman housing? How does the college select roommates? What is the neighborhood surrounding the campus like? This information can be challenging to find online or in guidebooks but can be easily answered by a college representative.

Of course, any conversation is a two-way street so it’s wise to come prepared to talk about yourself as well. Remember, even if you are not engaging in a formal interview, it’s still a face-to-face opportunity to make a strong first impression.

Your Endgame

Since admissions officers typically attend college fairs within their assigned regions, there is a very strong chance the representative you meet will be one of the people reading your application down the road. Aim to make at least one or two “human connections” at the fair and stay in contact with this individual in the coming months.

Send your new contacts an email thanking them for their time. Ask follow-up questions as they arrive. Hopefully, when all is said and done, a college fair will have provided you with several contacts and a plethora of useful information that will help you, the college consumer, better determine which schools should jump to the top of your list and which can be eliminated.

Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. He is also a co-author of “The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.” Learn more at