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 twenty 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, or our own The Enlightened College Applicant (shameless plug).
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?
The tools of the trade
On an extremely practical level, make sure that on the day of the fair you bring with you a backpack or other carrying apparatus (perfect occasion to dust off your dad’s neon fanny pack!) with which to store materials, a notebook containing potential questions for reps, and a writing implement (although free pens with school insignias will be available by the ton). Be prepared for the fact that all schools with whom you speak at the fair will request that you fill out an information card. Students wishing to streamline this process and avoid developing carpal tunnel syndrome may wish to preprint self-stick address labels containing their name, contact info, intended major and extracurricular interests. Make sure that if you include an email address that it is appropriate and not like our example here. Additionally, if a given school asks for info that doesn’t happen to be on your pre-made label, be sure to add it in by hand.
Dress and hygiene
Inevitably, you will see some of your peers dressed to the nines in clothes so stiff and unfamiliar that they are moving from booth to booth with a Herman Muster-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 sweats (trust us, some will). 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 rep at a prospective college, take advantage of the opportunity by asking penetrating questions. Find out whether a typical freshman class at their school is a classroom of 20 students intimately engaged in discourse with the professor or whether it involves 300 anonymous faces in a lecture hall. Ask about graduation rates, career services, internships and 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 are the meal plan options? 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 rep.
Of course, any conversation is a two-way street so it is wise to come prepared to talk about yourself as well. Our tips for acing the college interview will help you brainstorm your answers to common questions that reps may ask you. 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.
Since admissions officers typically attend college fairs within their assigned regions, there is a very strong chance the rep that 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 them an email thanking them for their time and ask follow-up questions as they arrive. Believe it or not, demonstrating interest in your school is actually a factor in the admissions process.
Hopefully, when all is said and done, a college fair will have provided you with several useful 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.