See you at the fair!

I’ve written in past entries on this blog about college fairs – most specifically, about National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) college fairs, which are held year-round – and also about college fairs that feature schools right out of the book Colleges that Change Lives.   But what I haven’t covered are the thousands of other (“regular”) college fairs that will crisscross the country in the next three months.  If NACAC fairs are the “A circuit” horse shows of college fairs and CTCL fairs are the “breed shows,” then your local high school college fair or college night program is the local schooling show – and it’s just as educational as its fancy counterparts.

Want to see a lot of schools in one place?  Attend a college fair!
Want to see a lot of schools in one place? Attend a college fair!

What is a college fair?

Quite simply, a college fair (or college night program) is a singular event held on a high school or college campus that brings multiple colleges in for one evening to introduce their programs and offerings to the families in attendance.  The event is set up in the style of an expo, with each college/university at its own table and the tables lined up in a school’s cafeteria, gymnasium, or at a campus conference center.  Often there are also separate sessions about the application process and financial aid that are held in classrooms or corners of the gym so that families can get a lot of information in one location.

The majority of college fairs have no cost for admission.

What are the benefits of attending a college fair?

Information, information, and more information!  There is no other time of the year when fifty to 100 colleges come to your hometown or the next town over and set up shop with the sole purpose of sharing their educational programs with you – for free.  You can meet with representatives from the schools that are already on your list and learn about colleges and universities that you’ve never heard of before to see if there are schools that can be added to your list.  You can comparison shop to see which school will offer you the best opportunities within the area of study you plan to pursue after high school and learn how financial aid is packaged at each of the schools that holds your interest.  And for the school at the top of your list, you can put in valuable face time with the representative who can make note of your demonstrated interest when it comes time to evaluate your application.

What should you know before you attend?

Preparation is key if you want to use your time efficiently and get answers to all of your questions while you’re at the fair.  First, each school will want to track their contact with you, which the representatives will do by having you fill out information cards with your name, address, phone number(s), high school name, year of graduation, and interests.  You’ll save yourself a lot of time (and a bout of writer’s cramp!) if you prepare a sheet or two of labels with your personal information already on them so that you can stick it directly to the card and get right to asking your questions.  You should also take the time to preview which colleges are signed up to attend – usually your high school counseling office will have a list or you can find one on the college or school’s web site.  Make a list of the schools that it’s imperative you speak with (the ones already on your list and the ones you really want to learn more about), the schools that intrigue you (schools that you’ve heard of by reputation but know nothing about), and the schools whose table you’ll visit only if time allows.  Plan what questions you’ll ask and determine what information will be most helpful to you to obtain – fairs can get hectic and you’ll want to use your face time with the representatives to the best advantage possible.

What should you do when you get to the fair?

Arrive early if you can – most fairs run from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. in the evenings so that families have time to eat dinner, parents can get out of work, and students can finish with athletic practices and club meetings.  Some annual fairs are very popular and the opening of the doors can seem a lot like Macy’s on Black Friday; others are slower-paced without the mad dash.  Either way, the best-known schools (usually your state’s flagship university or the biggest-name football or basketball school) will accumulate a long line of students before any of the smaller schools.  If you have a popular school on your list, go to their table first thing so that you can get your information and move on to the less crowded tables once the fair really gets busy.  (Alternatively, if you’re a college fair diehard, you can wait until the very last part of the night – but then you risk speaking with a representative who’s already exhausted from a long day and a long fair.)

What should you do after the fair?

When you get home from the college fair, pull out all of the brochures, pamphlets, and flyers you’ve accumulated and sort them according to the pieces that you will keep to refer back to later (financial aid brochures, campus visit schedules, scholarship applications) and the pieces you’ll read once and discard.  (It’s kind of like Halloween when you used to come home and sort your candy – only this is for the big kids.)  You should also take out the business cards of the representatives with whom you spoke face to face and send them a quick email to thank them again for their time.  (It’s another great way to demonstrate to a school that you’re interested in them!)  If you haven’t already begun a filing system for your college information, following the college fair is a great time to do that as well.

Is there anything you shouldn’t do at a college fair?

Some things go without saying, but as a general rule, you should never pick up information from a table without taking the time to talk to the representative about his or her school.  (As I used to tell students that stopped at my table, the brochures can be sent by mail but I (the college representative) don’t fit in an envelope.  The representative is a living, breathing source of information and the brochure is static – when in doubt, start a conversation with the rep!  (And be sure to introduce yourself with a firm handshake and eye contact – it makes a great first impression!)  Also, parents, please make sure that you step back and let your students ask the majority of the questions.  It’s okay to step in at the end of the conversation to ask anything your student may have forgotten or to ask about financial aid, but the college fair should be your student’s show, an opportunity for your son or daughter to impress the reps who might well be the ones who go on to read the applications your student will soon work so hard on.

Are you ready to go?

Check with your high school counseling office to find out what college fairs will be held in your county or community this fall and mark the dates on your calendar.  (And if you need more advising on the college search process, contact me or pick up a copy of my book today!)

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