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College Fair 101

Getting the Most Out of a College Fair


Headed for a college fair? These college info fests, designed for high school sophomores and juniors and prospective college transfers, are typically hosted by high schools, junior colleges or the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, which runs massive college fairs across the U.S. every fall and spring.

The fairs can be treasure troves of free information, but they can be tough to navigate. Imagine a gymnasium crammed with tables for a hundred or more college reps, and snaking lines of overwhelmed teens and parents trying to figure out where to go. Basically, you need a game plan:

Before You Go:

  • First, go online and download the list of participating colleges and any information sessions. Have your child decide which sessions he wants to hear, and which schools interest him most.

  • Print out a stack of mailing labels with his name, address, anticipated graduation date, intended major (if he knows it), and e-mail address. If he’s still using an e-mail address such as hotstuff9 or luvsbrewskis@whatever.com, this would be an excellent time to pick a new one. Printing labels will save him from writing the exact same information over and over on 50 clipboards at the fair.

  • Lines tend to be long at college fairs, particularly at tables manned by reps from very popular colleges, so prioritize your time and your list of questions. Admission requirements and majors are listed online, so ask the questions that are not: “Will professors or grad students teach my classes?” “How many freshmen return the next year?” and “How will I sign up for classes - with assistance from the same faculty advisor for all four years, or on my own, via computer screen?”

At the Fair:

  • Wear comfortable shoes, and bring a notebook and pen. Vendors usually provide bags so you can tote all those brochures and free pencils, but it’s a good idea to bring your own, just in case.

  • Plan your route by picking up a map when you first enter. Some fairs group state schools in one section, or put all the military academies together, but there’s always some alphabetical arrangement, so organize your “must see” list alphabetically, then compare it to the map.

  • If you’re planning to attend a session on financial aid or another aspect of college admissions, double check the schedule when you first arrive and keep an eye on the time.

  • Start making the rounds, spending the most time at colleges on your child’s list, but making sure you at least glance at other possibilities. There may be other schools here that would be a good fit too. Keep an open mind.

  • Encourage your child to move to the front of the lines - he may have to be assertive to get past all the helicopter parents - and add his contact information to the “yes, I’m interested” clipboard. Have him pick up any materials and ask his own questions. College reps want to talk to him, not you.

  • One caveat: college reps are there to pitch their schools and woo new applicants. Do not mistake a rep’s cheery optimism about your child’s less-than-stellar GPA and test scores for actual admissions savvy. Check out the school’s incoming freshman class profile before going to the trouble of applying.


  • Discuss what you saw. Make notes. Were there schools to add to your child's list or research further? Did new questions arise? Now it’s time to go online, take a closer look at those university web sites, and arrange a campus visit.
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