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Navigating the Spring College Fair

Cheryl Gottlieb Boxer

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As winter turns to spring, college-bound high school seniors are nearing the end of their admissions journey. They attend admitted student events, weigh their options and make those final, long-awaited decisions.

Now all eyes turn to our high school juniors (and sophomores) as college admissions offices continue their efforts to recruit future students.

One of the most well established of these recruitment efforts is the spring college fair. These free, local and informative events typically take place in towns and cities across the country in April. They are a perfect way for high school juniors and sophomores to begin building relationships with the colleges and universities they may decide to apply to.

What is your role as a parent? This is up to your student. Some students want to go on their own, or with friends. If your student wants your company, you should plan to tour the fair on your own and have your own conversations. It's important for students to make these contacts on their own behalf, and start getting comfortable speaking for themselves (if this isn't already one of their strong suits).

I have attended many college fairs, as both a parent and as a representative for my alma mater, and can attest that these fairs can feel a bit chaotic and overwhelming.

Here are tips to share with your student that should mitigate their stress and maximize their results at the spring college fair.

Before You Go

  • Find out which colleges and universities plan to attend the fair. Often the fair organizers will publish this list, and it can be accessed via their website. Go through the list and do some initial research using Naviance or the internet. Narrow the list down to 10–12 schools that meet your criteria (size, location, academic programs, etc.). Highlight those schools, jot down some notes about them and be sure to visit the representatives from these schools while at the fair.
  • Plan a few questions you’d like to ask these college reps. You may have specific questions for a particular school, such as about a major or extracurricular activity you’re interested in — highlight these. You can also ask general questions like, “What qualities would you say are unique to this school?” or “What kind of student do you believe will thrive on your campus?” If you find out that a representative is also an alum, you can ask what they loved most about their college experience.
  • Print out adhesive labels (like mailing labels) that can be peeled off and stuck onto the inquiry cards you will find at each booth. The information on these cards is important — many colleges will record this “demonstrated interest” in their school. Include the following on each label:
    1. Name
    2. High school name
    3. Current grade/graduating year
    4. Home address
    5. Phone number
    6. Email address (You want to provide a professional sounding email, so this might be a good time to open a new email account that you’ll use exclusively for college admissions information.)
  • Plan to bring a backpack, or something larger than a drawstring pack or a purse. You’ll be collecting stacks of brochures, and will want to keep your hands free. Put in the bag the highlighted list of colleges you want to check out, notes you jotted down, your preprinted labels, pen or pencil, notepad and a bottle of water (you’ll be doing a lot of talking).

Some college fairs now use a system where students who register for the fair in advance receive a bar code that can be scanned at the booths, rather than needing to fill out inquiry cards. Find out ahead of time if this is an option.

At the Fair

  • Refer to the map of attendees and plan your route. Often booths are arranged in alphabetical order. Bypass the crowds and start at the end of the alphabet. The college I represent begins with “W” and I’m usually waiting quite a while for students to make their way to my booth; meanwhile throngs of students line up at “A” and “B” schools.
  • Call on your preliminary research. Approach the representative at your booth of choice, smile, shake hands and introduce yourself. Ask one or two of your prepared questions and listen carefully to the answers. You might find yourself having a fun conversation! Fill out the inquiry card with your pre-printed label, collect some brochures and ask the representative for a business card. Once you step away from the booth you may want to take a moment to write down anything interesting you learned about the school.
  • If you still have time, check out a few schools that weren’t on your list. You may be in for an unexpected and pleasant surprise!

Back Home

  • Organize all your material by matching your notes on a school with their brochures and other handouts. Hold on to this material, as it may be a handy resource later in the application process.
  • Save those business cards you collected. (My son stapled each business card to the corresponding brochure.) The college fair representative may visit your high school next fall, and/or be the person who reads your application if you decide to apply. You never know if you may need to reach out to them at some point.
  • Do any schools really stand out? Do a little more research, and maybe consider planning a trip to visit these campuses in the coming weeks and months.

The spring college fair, while often jam-packed and noisy, does provide an excellent opportunity for students and colleges to connect. My son said it definitely helped that he had done some prep before attending the fair. And while he felt slightly uncomfortable speaking to so many people in one evening, he learned a lot about some of the schools already on his radar, as well as others he’d never even considered.

With a minimal amount of planning and forethought, the college fair can serve as a useful resource in the college admissions process, and a good first step in narrowing down the list to some “best fit” college options.

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Cheryl Gottlieb Boxer resides in New Jersey, where she micromanages her very tolerant husband, one geriatric cockapoo and her two mostly grown children. Her writing has appeared in TODAY Parents, Your Teen for Parents, Scary Mommy, The Mighty, Grown & Flown and Her View From Home as well as in other online and print publications. Her essay on parenting while chronically ill is featured in the anthology, The Unofficial Guidebook to Surviving Life with Teenagers. You can follow Cheryl on Facebook at Cheryl also proudly serves as an Alumnae Admission Representative for her alma mater, and represents the College in the admissions process by attending college fairs, interviewing applicants and participating in various recruitment and yield efforts that occur throughout the year.
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