In all the hysteria around the college admissions process, from cross-country college tours to high-pressure interviews with alumni, there is still an old stand-by that is free, low-pressure, requires little travel, and will provide lots of exposure to students: the college fair.
The intention of the college fair is to provide students with an opportunity to see and interact with a variety of schools in a relaxed, informal setting. Students are able to meander from table to table, increasing the chance that they might stumble upon a school they have never heard of. For both students and colleges, this is the best kind of happy accident.
I remember the first college fair I attended. I was nine and my oldest brother was 16 and a junior in high school. This college fair was held in our awesome mall, to my nine-year-old self, there was nothing more exciting! With so many schools present, I could get my hands on their glossy pamphlets and, if I was lucky, I might find something as cool as a pencil–the ultimate get for an elementary school student at a college fair.
As an admissions officer, my reasons for attending fairs—and my goals when I’m there—were slightly different. I represented Brandeis at fairs across the country. At some fairs, I was the busiest table in the joint, and at others, I could’ve gotten a really good start on my version of the next great American novel. Fairs can be effective or ineffective for college admissions officers depending on who they talk to, what they talk about, and how many students and families leave with a better or more informed impression of the school. Similarly, fairs can be effective or ineffective for students depending on their approach to the event. With that in mind, I’d love to share a few tips for the prospective student as we move into the spring college fair season.
- Find out what schools will be at the fair beforehand, and make a note of your must-see colleges. You’ll be able to maximize the time you have with schools in attendance while saving yourself from hunting for one of your favorites that wasn’t able to make it.
- Be prepared to write by bringing along a pen or pencil; many schools will allow you to fill out interest cards to get on their mailing list. (For the extremely well-prepared, you can even pre-print labels with your contact information and affix them to interest cards. Include your name, school, town, grad year, address, and email address at the very least.)
- Think of this as practice for the formal interview. You’ll likely need to shake a few hands, make eye contact, and engage in a bit of small talk with an admission officer. You can learn general tips for interacting with admissions professionals and even gather some specific ideas that are of particular importance to a college or institution—great content to bring up in a future interview or essay supplement!
- Please note that a college fair is not the time to pledge your undying love for your favorite school, or to show off the tattoo you have of their mascot on your shoulder blade. Keep the conversation short and casual to be respectful of the admissions rep and the other students waiting at the table. Do not try your elevator speech out during this time—simply be polite, engaged, and efficient.
- Practice awareness in general. Keep an eye on the other students around you, whether they are waiting in line to talk to the same school or trying to get around you to talk to the rep next door.
- Prepare a list of questions to help keep things on track, but be prepared to ask new questions if the conversation goes elsewhere. For example, if your plan is to ask about business but you find the school doesn’t have a business major, see what else you can learn! You might be surprised by the opportunities available.
College fairs can be both the best and worst way to get to know a school, depending on how ready you are to take ownership and be a part of the process. If you come prepared, with an open mind and a positive attitude, you can pick up tidbits for 15 to 20 schools at once. Once in hand, that information will prove useful for the duration of your research and application process. Good luck with your spring fairs!