While they can't replace campus visits, college fairs are a great way to get a sense of what various schools have to offer and get some face time with college representatives. Here are some tips to help you prepare for and get the most out of these events. We’ll also discuss the importance of making (and following up with) connections at college fairs and how the information you gather can help guide your college application process. Let’s get started!
Prepare in advance
Have you ever heard of the saying, “Failing to plan is planning to fail”? Though I’m sure no one sets out anticipating failure, the same idea holds true for your college search. Be on the lookout for when your school, another local high school, or a separate venue plans to host a college fair nearby. You don’t want to put unnecessary pressure on yourself, but it’s never too early to attend an informational event, even if college feels like a long way away for you. Giving yourself a glimpse into the environment and what different schools have to offer could be helpful for you down the line in ways you don’t realize right now.
If you know which schools you want to learn more about
If you’re a junior or a senior in high school and in the thick of your search, a college fair presents a unique opportunity to learn more than you could from any website, brochure, or mailing list. Depending on your timeline and future goals, you may know exactly which schools you want to visit. But do your research first. Find out which schools will be in attendance at the fair and look into what they have to offer—do you know which schools you’re aiming to apply to already? Are there schools that have the best programs for your major of interest? Do you see schools on the list you’ve thought about but need more information on? Research the schools where you see yourself someday, and write down key points as to why you’d want to go there and important questions that you need answered before you can actually go. Keep an open mind, however, and know that it’s still okay to change your mind and visit a few schools you would not have previously considered.
If you’re unsure about the whole college search process
On the flip side, you may feel overwhelmed, unsure, and have no pull toward one school over another. Either feeling is okay—college fairs are designed to help both types of students. If this entire process makes you feel anxious (and even more undecided), know that you are not alone. Many representatives who will be in attendance at the fair have worked with countless students who were in the exact same position you find yourself in today. You’ll want to research schools based upon what you think you might be interested in—seek the advice of a parent, guardian, teacher, or someone you trust, and plan to go to the fair together. Write your questions down and be sure to bring them with you. Meeting people and getting some answers will help you navigate this search more easily. Remember to include all different types of questions—life for freshmen, academic programs, internship options, campus life, and financial aid are a few key areas you will want to review. If you have specific concerns, include them in your questions.
Map out a plan
When you arrive at the fair, make sure to ask the organizers for a layout of where the schools are situated. Most college fairs should have a map or some sort of handout for you to see (easily and quickly) where the schools you’re most interested in are located. Study your map, plan your route, and understand what you’re working with and how much time you have. Then take a deep breath and dive right in. Remember, you’re here to meet people and to gather the personal, meaningful information about colleges that you can’t find online.
If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, realize that there’s no need for you to visit every table. If you know you’re not interested in certain schools, that’s okay. You know yourself—even if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes. To that point, however, don’t discount yourself. If you have your heart set on a school but think you won’t be able to afford it or think you won’t be admitted, talk to the representatives anyway. Offer your concerns professionally but honestly and ask for advice. Don’t limit yourself based on geography unless you know for sure you want to stay close to home or want to be in a particular place. There are so many great “non-name-brand” schools you’ve probably never even considered or heard of before. The question isn’t why should you step out of your comfort zone—the question is why shouldn’t you?
Dive in, meet people, and ask questions
Visit your schools in order of priority and give yourself adequate time to have conversations. Introduce yourself, shake hands with the representatives, smile, and allow your enthusiasm to seep through your questions. For many students, this is the next adventurous step on your life’s journey and, perhaps, the first adventurous step toward a dream career you’ve thought about for years. Take advantage of this opportunity—you are on your way!
If there are current or former student representatives present, take advantage of talking to them as well. Their point of view is invaluable for you in your decision-making process. Ask what they wish they would’ve known before they made their college choice. Are they happy where they are? What has been their best experience thus far? Is there something they would change? What if they had to go through the process all over again? Ask for contact information for students or college admission counselors so you can follow up with any questions that come to you later.
Also ask about academic programs you’re interested in—from your research, you should know if the schools you visit have what you’re looking for, but now is the time to ask specific questions. Does the school offer specialties? Internship opportunities for the work you want to do? Study abroad experiences with a focus in your field of study? Organizations and clubs that align with your passions? Many colleges today offer an array of all of the above—but there are still nuances that may best fit your personality, interests, and goals. Ask the right questions so you can factor the answers into your decisions to make you happier and more fulfilled in the future.
Regroup, say "thank you," and re-evaluate
At the end of the college fair, take a few minutes to step to the side and gather all your brochures, notes, answers, and business cards. Review your original list of questions and goals for the fair and make sure you got everything you came for. If you attended with a parent or advisor, take a few minutes to talk with them about your separate experiences, opinions, and outlying concerns. If you find you have follow-up questions or missed out on a school you wanted to learn more about, make your rounds again as needed. But if you find you have everything you came for (and then some), you have successfully completed your first college fair—congratulations!
Your work, however, is far from complete. Once you’re home, re-evaluate your list of potential schools. Edit it if you find there are new schools to be added or if, after learning more, you’ve lost interest in those from your original list. If it’s within your means, choose your top few schools and plan in-person campus visits with your parents, guardians, or loved ones who can help guide you on your way. There is so much to be learned and understood from simply stepping foot on a college campus; you’ll know more than you could from any picture, conversation, or fair whether or not you see yourself there.
Also, don’t forget to say “thank you.” When was the last time you received a handwritten thank-you note? In today’s overly digitized society, handwritten anything has become somewhat of a lost art. Take the time to write genuine thank-you messages to the schools and people who spent time answering your questions during the fair. It will set you apart and be appreciated more than you know.
Continue to talk things over with someone you trust—a parent, an advisor, a teacher—whoever can offer you the wisdom of their years and the guidance you’ll need during this exciting time. Finally, don’t overanalyze to the point where you feel paralyzed and unable to make a decision. This is a big decision for you, yes, and should thus be given the time it deserves, but I firmly believe students can have extremely positive experiences at many schools and that there isn’t only one right school for a person.
Use these experiences to make your final college decision
After all your research, college fairs, campus visits, and conversations, now it's time to make the best decision for you. Remember that there’s no one right path—there is just your path. As Ellen DeGeneres said, we would do well to believe in and follow our own path…most of the time. “Follow your passion. Stay true to yourself,” she advised. “Never follow someone else’s path unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and see a path. By all means, you should follow that.”
Start researching schools before you hit your next college fair with the help of our College Search tool!