Spring is the season for college fairs. High school sophomores and juniors, I’m talking to you. But freshmen should listen up too—because the timing for the whole college search process has speeded up, so the sooner you begin, the smoother things will go.
Attending a college fair—or two, or even three—might make your life easier. Or it might not. Let’s look at your options.
Fairs can be a great way to get information about colleges you’re interested in and to make connections with them directly. But they can also be a waste of time. It all depends on the fair and your objectives.
If you want to make contact with a college that’s very far from your home, or you want to test out the waters at a school before scheduling an actual visit, attending a college fair may be the way to go. And there can be other benefits. Here’s what you need to know to decide whether college fairs might work for you.
Three different kinds of fairs
There are several kinds of college fairs, each with its own purpose. First, there are the large public fairs, often held in convention centers, like the NACAC (National Association of College Admission Counseling) events. These attract thousands of students and parents. You may wait in line just to get into the building, then stand in other lines to speak to representatives from each college. Such events can be frustrating, but sometimes they offer a way to check out a large number of schools quickly.
Next are the somewhat smaller public fairs, organized by groups of colleges that share something in common. The CTCL (Colleges that Change Lives) fairs are a well-known example. Their roster of more than two dozen institutions includes such small, solid liberal arts schools as Beloit, Reed, Knox, Goucher and Hampshire. If you’re interested in this sort of school, these fairs can let you get the lay of the land and establish some valuable contacts.
Third are the private fairs staged by high schools or groups of high schools especially for their students. Your school may participate in such a fair. If so, you should certainly attend. If not, it’s worth finding out if there is a good one in your community.
The Manhattan Independent School Consortium College Fair is one such event in New York City; similar gatherings are staged by organizations across the country. Although technically these fairs are private, it’s sometimes possible for students who are not enrolled in the sponsoring high schools to gain admission.
Colleges that go on road trips
Last, and possibly most productive, are events that don’t call themselves “fairs” at all, but essentially serve the same purpose. Many of the most selective colleges in the United States sponsor events they call “road trips.” These enable students living far away to establish contact with the colleges. Representatives from Brown, MIT and Yale, for example, coordinate a series of road trips to a number of states, to meet with prospective students. So do Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Penn and Stanford. Even if you don’t live very far from such a college, events like these give you the chance to meet representatives from each school and ask questions.
How to make college fairs work for you
Talk to the college counselor at your high school to find out about fairs that are coming to your area. You can also search the Internet for this information.
Before you decide whether to attend a particular fair, find out the names of the participating colleges. Research them on the Internet. If there isn’t at least one college on the list that strongly attracts you, don’t waste your time. If even one or two sound appealing, it’s probably worth your effort.
If you already have some colleges you’re thinking of applying to, you’re ahead of the game. You can then home in on the fairs or road trip events that include these colleges.
Try Googling the names of those schools you are interested in, combined with the phrases “college fair,” “road trip,” or “your area.” You can also browse the admissions pages of the websites of the schools you like and look for links to events they may be holding near your home.
Get organized before you go
Before you attend a fair, get organized. The more carefully you plan ahead, the more efficient you’ll be once you arrive.
1. First register: Most college fairs require pre-registration, and some get booked up well ahead of time. You can register or RSVP online for most of them.
2. Print labels to bring with you: Include your name, address, email, phone number, birth date, name of your high school and expected graduation date. If you have these to hand out to the college representatives, it will save you from having to fill out their forms.
3. Make a list: List the schools that will be at the fair, and number them according to your level of interest.
4. Consider how to present yourself: If you have a special interest you’d like to share with a college, now is the time to think about that. In addition, you’ll probably have questions about each college that you’ll want to ask the reps.
5. Plan to get there early: There’s a good chance you’ll have to wait in line—but it’s better to wait in the front, than the back!
6. First things first: Go straight to the table of your favorite school first. After you’ve finished with that table, move on to your second favorite.
7. Introduce yourself: Always be polite to the college reps. Introduce yourself with your full name, your grade and the name of your school. Make sure to get the name of the person you’re speaking with.
8. Set up files: Later, when you get home, take notes on what you learned, and set up files for the colleges that interest you.
9. Follow up: Send notes or emails to the reps you met. Let them know you’re interested in their school and that you’d like to keep in touch. Never underestimate the power of a personal contact!