Previously, we looked at college campus visits, which implies an existing level of commitment to a school. But should your student still be in the “gathering information” stage, a college fair may be a great way to initiate your search and talk to a number of college representatives in one place without the travel and time commitment.
College fairs most often take place in the early fall and early spring of each year. Check out the following organizations and sites to register for fairs and view fair events near you:
- National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) College Fairs
- College Fair Registry
- North American Coalition for Christian Admissions Professionals (NACCAP) College Fairs
- Colleges That Change Lives
Many college fairs are hosted by state and regional admissions counseling organizations, along with college and high school consortiums and other groups. The list of potential hosts is far too long to provide here. Search online for additional options. Opportunities abound!
Our marketing director, Dan Edelen, and his son, Ethan, share their experience after attending a NACAC National College Fair in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Attending the College Fair
ETHAN: My college search didn’t end with my visits to Miami University, Kenyon College, and Case Western Reserve. No, no, it had only begun. Since my visits to the aforementioned colleges, I have made a lot more progress toward applying to college, such as filling out my college application and narrowing down what career path I want to pursue.
However, there is one step towards college that I need to talk about: college fairs. They might not seem like an essential step on your college journey, but there must be a reason that colleges spend their time and money on something that doesn’t immediately seem helpful. When I initially arrived at the college fair, I was skeptical, but afterward, I felt like there was more merit to the fair than I initially thought.
DAN: Who is a college fair for? Anyone in college search mode. Or any student who is beginning to think about college but has yet to collect details about schools or majors. Late sophomore year to early senior year in high school is probably best. Fall fairs can be a real help for seniors who are ready to apply and looking to finalize their choices.
We were fortunate to have a high-quality, NACAC-hosted college fair come to our local area. And upon further exploration, we found that these fairs and expos abound in the fall and spring. They are hosted at local high schools, colleges, convention halls, and community centers. The chances of a college fair happening within one-hour's driving distance of you is high.
Almost all fairs have pre-registration online. Do it. Your information will be stored digitally, and you may receive a card in the mail or at check-in that can be scanned by the reps from colleges you're considering. This is a quick way to ensure follow-up from the schools that interest you.
ETHAN: When I arrived at the convention center, I already knew what to expect. The college fair consisted of hundreds of small, individual booths, each belonging to a specific college, each occupied by one or two college admissions representatives. A few colleges had multiple booths, each featuring a different program within the college, with the most notable example being University of Cincinnati.
Fortunately, we had already outlined a series of college booths to visit using a complimentary fair map. It was a good thing we knew where we were going; there had to be at least 500 college representatives and 1,500 attendees. It didn’t take us long to talk to each representative from a college we were considering, so the crowd wasn’t a bother. All in all, the fair wasn’t impressive in presentation, but I never expected it to be. It was meant to be practical, not flashy, and it did the trick.
DAN: What makes a college fair so worthwhile? As Ethan noted, NACAC had more than 100 colleges attending. Think of this as a trip to 100 college admissions offices to talk to their staff face-to-face. For narrowing options and for connecting with those schools already on a consideration list, this can’t be beat. Email is fine, but a face-to-face conversation with admissions professionals gives you more opportunities to get questions answered as they arise or to clarify facts that had been unclear in previous correspondence.
ETHAN: The meat and potatoes of the college fair were the interactions with the college representatives. Overall, I feel they answered my questions well and helped me get a feel for what their respective colleges are all about. Most were happy to answer my questions, and I could tell from their responses that they were taking time to think about what I asked.
At that time, I wasn’t sure what academic field I should pursue, but the college presenters took special care to showcase the different paths you could take at their college. In fact, some of the presenters took me by surprise by how prepared and interested they were. The Hillsdale College representative was especially engaged, and some of the later representatives ran me out of questions. This is a good sign, as the more engaged someone is about their college the more likely the college will be able to engage you. It may be cliché, but you really can get a feel for the college by talking to someone who has worked or gone there.
DAN: Another way a college fair can be beneficial is to connect in-person with the admissions people with whom you may have already communicated by phone or email. We had a planned campus visit later that week to Hillsdale College, so it was good to speak with the school’s admissions rep and get his take on how we should best spend our time there. This included staff with whom we should talk, places we should visit in the area, and other insider info that could maximize the effectiveness of our time on campus.
Admissions personnel travel a lot. You may never have a face-to-face with that person again, so the college fair gives you another chance to make an impression on someone who may later put in a good word for your student. Any little advantage in getting into a desired school may help. Make the most of it!
How to Get the Most Out of Attending a College Fair
DAN: Here’s a possible game plan for attending a college fair:
- Pre-register online
- Get a list of colleges attending online and, if possible, a map of their booth locations (which may show up online as the fair date nears), then plot out which schools you want to hit
- Bring a list of questions you can ask each school admissions rep, but be mindful that others want to talk with them too, so keep the questions on point and most pertinent to your needs
- Look sharp—students, you only have one chance to make a first impression, so wear nice “business casual” clothes and, since you may be on your feet for some time, comfortable shoes
- If you have a fair card with your digital info on it, make sure to get it scanned by the admissions reps at the booths you visit
- Keep your ears open, because you may overhear conversations between attendees and reps that may take you in a different direction or lead you to ask deeper questions
- Take school brochures and informational pamphlets in every area that matters to you, especially if the school has major listings and you are undecided about a major
- Find out about costs, because costs are often buried online but more accessible in college brochures and from reps
- Learn about special programs, such as school-based scholarships, honors programs, overseas study, internships, accelerated study programs, online study options, unusual extracurriculars, and accommodations for special needs a student might have
- Look for admissions reps who look happy to be there and engage them, since their positive attitude may reflect a positive environment at the school, especially if it’s a school you have not considered
- Take time to wander after you’ve met with all the schools on your list, because you may see or hear something worth investigating
- Allow yourself to be surprised, because you may end up meeting with a rep from a school not on your list, and that school may suddenly become your top choice
Other Features of a College Fair
DAN: Beyond meeting college admissions reps, you may also attend a college fair that offers workshops covering multiple topics, such as financial aid, filling out the FAFSA form, loan options, and work-study programs. These may be run by representatives of a particular college, trained personnel from the fair hosting organization, or third-party experts in the field. You may need to pre-register for workshops. Or they may offer open attendance and simply occur at scheduled times during the fair. Check out the fair schedule online as the date nears and see what workshops, if any, are provided. Work these informative experiences into your game plan.
For additional tips on preparing for your college experience, check out these valuable resources from TheBestSchools advisory board member and past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), Patrick O Connor. An associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Kingswood School in metropolitan Detroit and a college admissions expert, Patrick offers expert-level insight on preparing for, paying for, and apply to the college of your choice:
Final Thoughts on College Fairs
ETHAN: Afterward, I realized that the college fair had been well worth my time. Beforehand, I didn’t think much of the fair because I was already going to visit another college shortly thereafter. At the fair though, I came to understand just how different each college was, and just how many of them there were. No two colleges are alike, and the college fair proved that. Each college had a different selection of majors, academic standards, attitudes, programs, financial information, and so on.
The college fair may not be an in-depth look at a specific college, but it is a great way to compare a wide range of colleges against each other. It would be especially helpful when you’re just starting out your college search, because it lets you test the waters. Still, I wouldn’t neglect this step even if your search is already underway. You might just be surprised at how helpful a fair is at providing a quick look at the higher education landscape.