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Navigating a College Fair

College Fair Table

As admission counselors, we attend quite a few college fairs, especially during the fall months. And while setting up a table, answering questions, and telling the PC story becomes second nature to us, I know that many high school students have a different take on the college fair experience. In fact, when I ask families that approach my table how their fair experience is going, the most common response I receive is “overwhelming.” I can see why, especially at the larger events that we attend: hundreds of colleges, thousands of people walking around, a lot of background noise, and often very little guidance when students and parents arrive beyond being handed a list of the schools in attendance at the door and being told, “Have fun!”

To that end, I think what makes a college fair so overwhelming for many students is that they walk into the event without any kind of plan, or any real sense of what they want to accomplish at the fair. (“My guidance counselor told me I should be here, so here I am. Now what?”). So, let’s start there, and try to answer the following question: “What is the point of a college fair?”

[Quick sidebar - we're going to answer the question from your perspective as a prospective student or parent, not from the college perspective. For us, a college fair is an opportunity to get our name in front of students and families, and have the chance to introduce our school to a college-bound audience. But this post is about your experience at a college fair...]

Depending on where you are in your college search process, your goals at a college fair will vary. A high school sophomore will obviously go into a college fair with a different mindset than a senior who has application deadlines approaching in a few short weeks.

For a senior headed to a college fair this fall, hopefully you have at least some sense at this point about what you’re looking for in a college experience. You don’t need to stop at every table – only the ones that are appropriate for you based on your own college search parameters. Simply put, it helps to have thought about what type of college environment you see yourself in. A small school or large university? In a city or on a sprawling rural or suburban campus? At a liberal arts school or in a specialized art/design/engineering institution? What types of academic programs are you interested in? Doing some research before the fair, either on your own by visiting college search websites or by chatting with your high school counselor about your interests can help you come up with a list of schools that appear to be a fit for you, and that you can visit at the college fair to gain more insight into them.

College Fair Banner - Nassau Counselors Association, New York

When you arrive at the fair, you can start off by heading to the tables of the schools on your list, and not having to feel overwhelmed by how many total colleges are represented in the room. Every college is the right fit for some students, but not every school will be the right fit for you! Please don’t be intimidated to talk to the admission counselors standing behind the tables. I know some students feel this way, but I can assure you that all of us are there because we want to talk to you. In the ten years that I’ve been in this profession, I can tell you that the overwhelming majority of college admission counselors I’ve met are friendly, approachable, and willing to help (that’s why we’re in this field in the first place!). So, don’t be shy, come on up to the table, say hello, and feel free to ask any questions you have about our college.

What kinds of questions should you ask? Honestly, we hear anything and everything standing behind those tables, but the fact is you can ask about anything that is important to you as you try to find your best fit college. Look at the conversation with the admission counselor as an opportunity – a chance to speak with someone from the college in your own city/town/high school, and get a perspective that goes beyond what you can read on the school’s website. For me, I think the best questions to ask are the type you can’t easily find the answers to on the college’s website. For example, rather than asking, “So, do you have a Biology major?” – a question you could have easily found the answer to on your own if you had looked into the college a little bit before the fair – consider something like, “What research opportunities are available to Biology majors at your school who want to go on to medical school?” That type of questioning can help you get a more in-depth picture of the college or university than the more basic, “Do you have…” line of questioning. That being said, you may decide to visit some tables of schools that you haven’t done any research on yet, and asking about the availability of the academic program you’re interested in might be a very appropriate question in that instance. Again, it all comes back to what you are trying to get out of the college fair, and, more specifically, what you’re hoping to learn at each individual college table you visit.

If you’re not a senior yet, but you’re headed to a college fair as a junior or sophomore just beginning the search process, you have the advantage of approaching the fair without the added stress that you need to start working on your application in the coming weeks or months. Try to go into the fair with an open mind – don’t just stop at the tables of the “well-known” schools or just visit the colleges that your friends are looking at. While you may not have your college search parameters as well developed as the seniors, you can at least start thinking about what you want in a college, and you can also take the opportunity to talk with admission counselors to learn more about the college application process in general. A conversation about high school course requirements, for example, can help a sophomore or junior make appropriate choices in their future high school class schedules that will make them stronger candidates for admission.

Wow, this has turned into quite the lengthy post… I hope that I haven’t now overwhelmed you. Here’s the short version:

  • Be prepared going into the fair!
  • Talk to the counselors, don’t just grab info off the table!
  • Ask questions, ask questions, ask questions!
  • Remember to stay focused on what you want in a college, not what everyone else at the fair is doing
  • And, of course, as they’ll tell you at the entrance to the fair – have fun!

On the road again…

As you move forward with your college search, you’ll continue to hear people tell you that nothing is more important than the campus visit. And they’re right – setting foot on the campuses of all of the schools you’re considering is a critical part of finding the college that’s the right fit for you. (So, when you have time in your schedule, come visit PC and go see the other institutions that you’re considering submitting an application to).

But, over the course of the next two months, PC is coming to visit you.

High School Wayfinding Signage

September and October make up the bulk of what we in the admission profession fondly refer to as “travel season,” and it is upon us once again. Each fall, our admission counselors – along with the help of our dedicated alumni volunteers – venture out to high schools and college fairs across the country and around the world to share the Providence College story with prospective students and their families.

This fall, our travels will put us in about 40 U.S. states and 20 countries. While we’re out on the road, we hope to do a few things. One, we want to introduce Providence College to students, parents, and high school counselors, to help them determine if they see a fit to the PC experience. Secondly, we love having the opportunity to meet students in person; many of the students we speak to at college fairs or in high school counseling offices this fall will submit an application to PC in the coming months, and it’s always nice to be able to put a face with an application! Third, it’s important for us to help students fully understand our application process, and our admission review is a hot topic during our travel presentations. Finally, we know that many of you who are considering applying to PC have questions about the College or the aforementioned application process, but might not be able to make it to campus easily. Hopefully, we’re able to meet you when we’re in your area, and while I can’t say we’ll replace the campus visit experience, our goal is to help you gain a better understanding of your fit and match to PC.

Where are we headed? Well, the 15 members of the admission staff each have a geographic responsibility, and we will spend time in many of these areas throughout the fall. Most of us have the opportunity to travel locally here in New England, regionally on the East Coast, and nationally or internationally. The variety of geographic locations that we visit helps each of us to develop a broader perspective on our applicant pool than we would have if we were only traveling in one county or state.

I encourage you to check with your high school counseling office to see if a PC representative will be visiting your school this fall. If your school uses Naviance, your counselors have likely compiled a list of college visitors that you can easily search through in your Naviance account. If not, you can keep an eye out for our visit poster on your guidance office bulletin board!

Providence College High School Visit Announcement Poster

If we aren’t visiting your high school – and, admittedly, we can’t get everywhere – I hope that you will still take the opportunity to connect by e-mail or phone with the admission counselor for your region. We’re happy to answer any questions you have and to help you through the process, whether it’s in person or through some other form of communication.

I look forward to meeting many of you over the coming two months!

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