Making the Most of Your College Fair

So you have a college fair coming up. Dozens of colleges and universities are coming to your school (or somewhere nearby), trying to woo you into submitting an application. And you only have a couple of hours to make the most of the opportunity. So the question is: how do you make the most of the college fair?

Understand the opportunity

The college fair is really a pretty remarkable opportunity for you; a wide variety of schools are coming to you, and their goal is to get you to submit an application. Let me say that again: they are there to impress you. I think this is something central you should keep in mind; you may be going to the fair thinking it's your job to impress the representatives of the various schools you want to go to. And you're not entirely wrong. But it's also their job--their goal--to impress you, to convince you that their program is a good fit for you. So while some nerves are certainly understandable, don't forget that colleges want students at least as much as students want colleges. There will be programs there that want you; it's just a question of finding the programs that are the best fit.

And that's really what the college fair represents: a chance to see how well you fit with various programs. This means that, ultimately, the better you prepare beforehand, the more likely you are to find a good fit.

So how do you prepare?

First of all, take some time to think about what you want in a school. And I don't mean the kinds of (frankly lame) questions you'll sometimes see like "do you want to go to a big school or a small school." Which isn't to say those questions don't matter, but they don't really get to the heart of what constitutes a good fit.

Ask yourself: what kinds of people do you want to be around? What activities are you really passionate about? Are there any groups you want to have a big presence on campus?

Do you want a campus with good selections of kosher food? Halal food? Vegan selections? With politically active students? With a strong Asian student group? Significant ethnic diversity? One that's particularly LGBT-friendly?

Do you want a school that's strong in particular sports? Has a great school newspaper? Is known for dance or theatre or music?

Do you want a school with top study abroad programs? Or one with a lot of international students? A school with a more traditional set of liberal arts requirements? A school where a lot of students design their own course of study?

After reflection, make a list of 3-5 questions you plan to ask each college representative. Make sure that the questions get to the heart of what you've decided matters to you in a school. Try our College Wizard now to get started finding the schools that fit your preferences.

For example, if I were to look back at my sixteen year old self and formulate the questions I'd have asked, they would look something like this:

  1. Do you have strong programs in a wide variety of foreign languages?

  2. Where do you have study abroad programs, and about what percentage of your students participate in them?

  3. What are the most popular academic courses of study at your school, and what undergraduate colleges do you have?

  4. How does the university facilitate non-Greek social life?

  5. What kind of financial aid/grants/merit scholarships are available? What percentage of students receives need-based and merit-based aid?

Do NOT be afraid to ask that last question! Schools want students who come from a wide range of backgrounds; those private schools that cost $50,000 a year don't want a homogenous student body, which means that they don't just want students from families that don't require financial aid.

Have a plan, but don't stick to it

How's that for odd advice? Definitely do go in with a plan of some schools you absolutely want to talk to. But remember: you don't know all the schools out there. You don't know all the possibilities. It's no exaggeration to say that there are dozens and dozens of outstanding colleges and universities; if you limit yourself just to a few, you may miss out on the school that's the best fit for you.

So go in with an open mind, and set aside a portion of your time to genuinely explore. Don't just follow your friends, or go with the crowd. Go where you want to go.

Make a good impression

I don't want to put too much pressure on you, but making a good impression at the college fair could actually help you get into a school. The people who staff the booths at college fairs are often the same people who will read all the applications sent from your region. So if you stand out in a positive way, they will likely remember you when they get your application a few months later.

So how do you make a good impression?

  • _Smile! _And look the representative in the eye when you're talking to him or her.

  • _Ask good questions. _This is where your preparation comes into play; ask about the programs and activities you're interested in; this allows you to learn about the school and allows the school to learn about you. And if your interests match the school's strengths, it will make you all the more memorable. Also, don't just ask dopey questions that could easily be answered by a quick look at the brochure or website. And pay attention--don't ask the exact same questions as the person ahead of you in line.

  • Ask about interviews and visits. First of all, this will make it clear that you're really interested in the school (try to ask your match-making questions first to make sure you are really interested!). Secondly, this is something you need to know about. A lot of schools have overnight visit programs; some will even help pay to bring prospective students there!

  • Ask them to tell you about the school. When you're trying to get to know someone, it's a good idea to listen to them, and not just talk about yourself. The same goes when you're trying to learn about a school. Ask them what their strongest programs are. Ask them to talk about their student body. Listen. Respond. Follow up.

"Can I have your card?" Ask the representative for a card. Send him or her a hand-written thank you note (not an e-mail!).

Take good notes and collect information

This could almost be the last bullet point on "make a good impression," but it's worth emphasizing as its own point. Don't just ask good questions: write down the answers. Take brochures from the schools that really interest you. You'll want to be able to look back a few days later and remember everything you learned; you'll want to be able to keep straight what you learned about which schools.

All of this will prove useful both so you can reference something specific in your thank you note (e.g. "I wanted to particularly thank you for all the great information you gave me on study abroad!"), and so you can debrief your parents, guidance counselor, and/or tutor on everything you learned.

Most of all, remember to have fun. A college fair is about finding schools that you're really excited about going to; follow the advice above, and you should come out of the college fair with a great start on your list of schools!