College fairs can be a great tool in your college search. It's like window shopping: at a college fair, you can preview as many schools as you want with no strings attached and easily compare institutions within minutes, gaining invaluable insight along the way. You can find in-person or virtual events with help from your high school counselor's office or online through websites like nacacfairs.org. Unfortunately, many students never realize the full benefits of college fairs because they make rookie mistakes. Don’t let that be you! Learn from these four don'ts to be more successful at your next college fair.
1. Don't go to a college fair with all your friends
It may seem obvious that college admission programs aren’t Snapchat-worthy events, but when high schools host college fairs during school hours, most students find their friends before filling their arms with swag. No matter how serious they are about their college applications, your friends will still be distracting. Joking with your friends is tempting, but many colleges may think you’re not eager to learn about their school and/or you’re simply being immature. Your friends are bound to have different interests than you too, and they may unintentionally steer you away from potential schools because of their opinions. The power of the herd is almost always stronger than the individual, so break free and walk up to a booth because you want to, not because your friend loves their mascot.
2. Don't form a final opinion about a school
When you’re first starting your search, college fairs are most useful as an alternative or in addition to doing research online. They are by no means a substitute for a campus visit, because it’s impossible to get a true vibe for a campus without actually walking on it. The same goes for the culture of a school: you can’t get an idea of student life without meeting a single student.
Similarly, one admission representative shouldn’t speak for an entire institution. They may not have attended the college in question, or they may have only worked for the university for a short time. Plus, admission reps may struggle to answer overly specific questions, especially about majors. You shouldn’t hold this against them. Instead, try to get contact information for professors and current students or dates of future campus visits.
3. Don't expect to see every college in the country
Some college fairs require guests to register online before attending. They may give a list of schools out beforehand or mention the region that the fair is concentrated on. (For example, some fairs may only pertain to Christian schools in Indiana, or private schools in Delaware, etc.) If you’re certain you want to leave your home state for school, you might have a harder time finding prospective colleges at a local fair and may want to spend time researching elsewhere.
Similarly, when you're at a college fair, don't just concentrate on "brand-name" schools whose names you already know. If you don't recognize any of the colleges represented, that's okay! It's good to learn about all your different options, even the ones you've never heard of before.
4. Don't get overwhelmed
College fairs can be overwhelming because of the sheer mass of people packed into one area. If you’re just starting your college search and have no idea what kind of school you’re looking for, these events can be downright intimidating. Before you go, develop a simple elevator pitch to introduce yourself. Think: your name, where you’re from, your interests/prospective major, and some criteria for your prospective college. A few simple words can save you the embarrassment of being asked to introduce yourself and suddenly forgetting your first name and where you live. (I’ve seen this on campus visits dozens of times.)
The college admission process is like shopping on Black Friday—schools advertise their brightest qualities to capture students’ attention, with interested students desperately trying to snag a spot at their dream school like that last sweater on sale. A college fair is a boiled-down version of this, minus the applications. Schools will bring their most persuasive pitches. Will you?
Learn more about college fairs and other helpful ways to research schools in our College Admission section.