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Making the most of a college fair

A guide to college fairs for parents and students

Making the most of a college fair

Most college-bound high school students have at least one college fair in their futures. It’s a chance to talk to many different schools — often from a wide geographic area — in one location.

While the opportunity is great, you want to leave a college fair with more than a fistful of brochures and a headache. Knowing what to expect can help you use a college fair to your best advantage.

Julie - A mom’s point of view:

Have you ever attended a flea market? Usually there are different booths or tables set up, and each vendor offers its own particular type of wares.

A college fair is not unlike a flea market, only the vendors are selling something much different. Each one offers a different version of a college education and the college experience. And — just like at a noisy flea market — it’s easy to get overwhelmed at a college fair. Here are some tips to help you get the most value out of the experience.

Have a plan.
A successful shopping trip often starts with a list, and shopping for colleges is no exception. Start by researching which colleges will be represented. With your child, make a list of the schools that he or she wants to visit.

It’s also a good idea for both you and your child to have a list of questions to ask each school’s representatives. Your list will probably include things like costs, campus safety and career services. Your child may be more interested in majors, dorm accommodations and class size.

But don’t be afraid to deviate from it.
A smart shopper knows that when just the right item appears, it’s time to deviate from the shopping list. It’s the same with a college fair. Your child may stumble across a school that wasn’t on his or her radar and want to find out more. After all, you’re still in the comparison stage of your shopping trip.

Gently guide your child, but don’t lead the way.
Researching and choosing a college can be an exciting time, not just for the students, but for the parents. After all, you know all of the exciting opportunities that lie ahead for your child, and you probably have some strong ideas about the kind of school that would be a great fit.

While your child will need you to be a partner and help guide them in this process, remember that it is your child’s journey and not your own.

Know what you’re looking for.
As my mom said, college fairs can be a lot like a noisy flea market, and with every flea market comes at least one very persuasive vendor trying to sell you something you don’t want or need.

The same can be true with college fairs. The key is to recognize one of your deal-breakers when speaking with a school’s representative and be able to walk away.

Everyone wants to be polite, but make sure to spend the majority of your time on schools that match your interests, not just humoring a friendly admissions rep.

Lindsey - A student’s point of view:

For me, college fairs were one of the most exciting parts of the college selection process. It is an opportunity for universities from all across the country to gather in one location near to your home, and every school wants one thing — you!

It’s an exciting event, but it’s also important to get the most out of your time at a college fair. There’s a lot to see, so here are my tips for how to leave the event with your focus still intact.

Be engaged and make contacts.
It’s tempting to casually wander through a college fair to see what is out there, but what many students don’t realize is that this can be a great opportunity for networking. Pay attention to who you’re talking to at each booth and ask for their contact information at the end of your conversation.

Chances are this person is the designated representative for your hometown, and can be a great resource for you if you have questions down the road. A friend of mine who became very close with her admissions representative even ended up with more scholarship money because her contact went to bat for her.

Decide on each school’s prospects sooner, rather than later.
During my junior and senior years of high school, even one college visit contained more information than I could process, so you can imagine how much information a college fair offers. Take the handouts and pamphlets of each school you talk to, but be sure to narrow down those options as soon as you get home.

Take diligent notes and try to come out of a college fair with two or three strong candidates on your radar. Each school offers its own enticing presentation, but really limit yourself to those that match your interests best.

The most important thing to remember about a college fait is to do your homework on each school that will be in attendance. Using that information and what you learn at the fair will assist you in making the big decisions afterward.

And finally, try to have fun! Expand your horizons beyond what you’ve found so far on college search engines and by word of mouth. Don’t be afraid to explore something new, but in the end make sure you’re able to separate the schools with good sales pitches from those that should be strong contenders.

Julie and Lindsey Mayfield are a mother/daughter writing team who blog regularly. Lindsey is a student at the University of Kansas ( studying journalism and political science.


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