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The Best Way to Start Your College Search? Attend a College Fair

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

Before you book that expensive ticket to visit campuses, start your tour of colleges with a first stop at a college fair. It’s a practical way to learn about a lot of schools at a small investment of time, money and mileage.

College fairs can be intimate gatherings in high school gyms or humongous events in convention centers and exhibit halls. In the age of COVID-19, many college fairs have gone virtual. While they’re likely to return to in-person soon enough, online fairs are here to stay. 

Whether you’re meeting someone face-to-face or over a video call, know all the ins and outs of college fairs and how to make the most of them by following our tops tips from admissions experts.

Come prepared and do a little research.

“Sometimes college fairs can feel intimidating,” says independent college counselor Susan Solomon, who also works with students at a small private school in the San Francisco Bay area. 

“But they don’t need to be. Just look at this as a chance to learn more about college admissions in general, about majors, and about specific colleges. This is a great way to get a feel for a school and the different opportunities it offers.” 

You’ll get more out of the fair, if you do a little pre-planning.

First, register to attend. This puts you in the queue to receive updated information on which colleges will be present, where their booths will be located, and even who the representatives will be.

It also alerts the fair organizers to who you are. They’ll welcome you with a pre-printed name badge and maybe even a swag bag. 

That name badge is pretty important. College reps will scan your badge and collect all kinds of relevant information about you based on your registration form.

Now, double down on your online research as Solomon recommends: “Do your research before you go to learn more about the schools who are going to be at the fair. This way rather than just walk in and go window-shopping, you can have a more direct path. It’s nice to be a little bit deliberate, even if you don’t know what school you ultimately want to go to or what you want to study.”

Boston-based college counselor Cicily Shaw, who works with first-gen college applicants as the founder of College Possible LLC, recommends students map out their route through the fair.

I try to give students the lay of the land—a visual of what they’re actually going to see once they walk in,” says Shaw. 

Shaw suggests that you go through the list of represented schools ahead of time and highlight the ones that interest you the most.

“Have a game plan instead of just trying to figure it out once you get there. Are there reps you want to talk to? Schools whose information you want to grab? Make sure those are the ones you visit first.”

Make your first contact.

A fair may be your first chance for direct contact with a college representative and that will make the admissions process feel real.

“Students see that the admissions person is not someone scary who sits behind a big table evaluating them,” explains Solomon, who before counseling high school students worked in college admissions at three different schools. 

But the encounter can still feel overwhelming, especially if the rep is from a top-choice school.

So, Shaw tells her students to calm down first.

Take a moment before you approach the table. Look at the display. Read through the literature, and then ask your question.”

Don’t waste this opportunity by asking questions that are easily answered by scanning the school’s website. Instead clarify information to get more details.

And because college isn’t only about the classes you’ll take, ask about campus culture, clubs, and activities. Find out what’s unique about the region where the college is located and what students do on weekends.

“If you don’t know what to ask, eavesdrop. It’s always good to listen to what other people are asking,” says Solomon.

Understand that it’s a two-way conversation.

While you’re evaluating colleges, they’re looking at you. College reps track the students who express a demonstrated interest in their school. They’ll take notes about you based on your interactions at the fair that could have an impact on the admissions decision.

“Give this event the respect that it deserves. Even though it isn’t formal, you still want to put your best foot forward because you’re making an impression,” says Solomon. 

How to act at a college fair:

    • Dress nicely.
    • Make eye contact. 
    • Speak slowly and clearly.
    • Make sure that you’re listening as well as speaking.
    • Keep your interaction brief and don’t monopolize the rep’s time. 
    • Ask for a business card.
    • Always end with a thank you and when COVID-appropriate, a handshake.

“I always encourage students to ask the admissions rep if they can reach back out with more questions. That way the door stays open and the college sees that you’re truly interested,” says Shaw. “They keep this information so when you decide to apply, they’ll know you’ve reached out to them X number of times in X different ways.”

Know when to step out on your own.

Yes, admissions counselors love parents. But the college fair is really for you.

Ask mom, dad or whomever you have as your support to take a step back and let you take the lead in conversations with colleges. Assign them the task of wandering around and picking up brochures and information you can look at together later.

“Parents should empower their kids to take control of the college search process,” urges Shaw. “But if you have a parent-related question, go ahead and ask the rep—just not in front of your child.”

Bigger fairs often include workshops and seminars that can be really helpful in the college application process. Many are especially for parents.

The National Association for College Admissions Counseling, the organization that sponsors NACAC National College fairs around the country, offers workshops that address a broad spectrum of topics from financial aid to making the high school-to-college transition to finding the right fit. Attending a workshop should not impede meeting college reps, but plan to attend one if you’ve got the time.

Process the process.

Once the fair is over, take some time to process what you’ve learned, but don’t wait too long.

In an effort to save trees and consolidate information, colleges may have reduced the amount of paper they pass out at fairs, but the brochures you’ve collected are likely to list dates and events you should be aware of. If you wait too long, you may miss some important deadlines.

Create keep and throw-away piles with the materials you’ve collected.

“Having attended a fair may make the weeding out process of college choices easier,” says Shaw. “You may say, ‘I thought this was a top choice school until I actually spoke to the rep and realized they don’t have my major.’ Or, ‘I thought I would like this school, but it’s a little too far away.’”

Now put the brochures you’re holding on in order of interest: top, middle, and sort-of.

In a matter of moments, you’ve narrowed your search and you can start to focus on the handful of schools that make your short list.

College fairs are helpful in starting the college search process.

“Any way to learn more about the process and about specific schools is great. And you’ll feel good about making connections with admissions counselors. You’ll learn a lot,” says Solomon.

Create a new email address.

Hot tip: Instead of using a personal or school email addresses, students should create one address just for the college process, says Shaw.

The college fair is a feeder event where colleges get all their information about you. It will be easier to catalog the messages coming in and sort them without interfering with your personal and school emails.

Then when the process is over, you can delete the account. 


Making the Most of a College Fair

One of the best ways to lay a solid foundation for your college search is to attend a college fair.

If you prepare for the fair, do your homework on the school representatives you plan to chat with and present yourself in a favorable light, you’re already well on your way to find your best fit school and making a positive impression (and demonstrated interest)—all in one afternoon.

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