How parents and students can make the most out of college fairs

College fairs are a great place for you and your student to start your search. Here's what to know before you go.

When your teen is getting ready to apply to college, the options may seem endless. In state or out of state, community college or four-year university, big school or small school; what is right for your kid? College fairs are a great way to explore the options and talk directly to admissions officers. A college fair is an event for prospective students where college admissions representatives come present and meet one-on-one with students.

Professional School Counselor Dr. Shari Sevier says college fairs can be overwhelming at first. “It’s a buffet of options and majors—it’s a buffet that’s overflowing. How do you make sense of all that? It’s confusing for the parents too. It’s overwhelming, especially with your first kid,” Sevier says. Here are a few ways to sort through the “buffet” and make sure you and your student can get the most out of what college fairs have to offer.

Find the best college fair for your family

College fairs differ in size and location, but some of the best-known college fairs are sponsored by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and are usually held in the fall or spring all over the United States. There are also regional and local fairs that differ state by state, and are often put together by school counselors at a local high school or convention center. If you are unsure where to find a college fair, start with your student’s school counselor. School counselors are the best resources for learning about college fairs and opportunities in your area, and preparing for the college fair itself.

Go early

It’s never too early to go to a college fair. Some families will attend as early as middle school, but generally starting in ninth or 10th grade is a good option for students. Wendy Rock, assistant professor of counseling at Southeastern Louisiana University and former high school counselor, says early exposure is better. “You’re going to start applying in the fall of your senior year to whatever school you want to go to. Your research really needs to start in ninth and tenth grade,” Rock says. And really, that’s what college fairs are: research. It is a place to learn more about opportunities and also explore options your student is interested in. And the earlier students go, the earlier you can start sorting through the many possibilities.

Research before you go

Preparation for college fairs is key. With sometimes hundreds of colleges presenting at these fairs, it’s easy to get overwhelmed attending one. You and your student should research the schools in advance. Get a sense of which colleges you will want to make sure to hit, and what information you are hoping to get while at the college fair.

Prepare questions and make them count

Beyond researching the schools, you’ll want to make sure you and your student are prepared to ask questions and talk with the admissions officers. “At the college fairs, you get that kind of personalized action by talking face-to-face with people in the admissions offices,” Rock says. To take advantage of this opportunity, but also be respectful of their time, make sure your questions are specific and relevant to the information you are still seeking out. “There are some questions admissions officers really want you to ask, and some they don’t,” says Stephen Handel, associate vice president of undergraduate admissions at the University of California system. Don’t waste time on questions you can easily find online and avoid questions like, “Is your engineering program good?” or “Do students like the campus?” because admissions officers will always answer yes.

Handel suggests asking questions like these;

  • What is the average amount of financial aid?
  • Is there out-of-state funding?
  • What’s your employment placement rate for graduates?
  • What do the retention and graduation rates look like for first year and transfer students?
  • What types of opportunities do you have to provide for students beyond degree programs?
  • How many transfer students do you have?
  • What sets your ____ program apart from other colleges?
  • Is there a program in particular that your college is strong or known for?
  • What is it about your school that students love?

Step back

While parents may have many questions at college fairs, it’s important to step back and let your kid take the lead. “I think it’s important for there to be a good balance. Decide, as a family, what are the questions that we need to find answers to,” Sevier says. “If your child forgets to ask about something, then I think it’s okay for parents to say, ‘And what’s the tuition? Do you anticipate it rising next year?’ You just don’t want the parent to take over. But I do think there are questions that the parent needs to have so they can make a good decision.”

Steve Schneider, school counselor at Sheboygan South High School, points out that the kinds of questions parents might ask will often be more pointed than what a student might ask. “Parents have a right to be involved, but to the degree that they are asking questions about their own involvement, and not asking questions about their kids’ involvement,” Schneider said. For example, you may want to avoid asking about specifics on campus life or activities, as those are things that solely involve your student. However, asking about financial aid, funding, and employment placement rates are topics that you may be more involved in. “It’s ultimately going to be the child’s decision where they’re going to feel comfortable going to school,” Rock says. “A parent can’t make that decision.”

Take notes

Both students and parents should take notes at the college fair. This doesn’t have to be information about the school, as you can find most of that in the brochures or flyers they give out. Pay attention to the details and any interesting comments from the admissions officer. “They’ll tell you things you wouldn’t otherwise think about,” Rock says. This can be anything from what about the college attracts students, to unique tidbits about student housing. Observe how your student interacts with the admissions officers and write down anything you notice about how they appear to feel about certain schools. This can tell you a lot about their interest in any given institution.

Explore

Explore beyond the well-known schools and places you know your student is interested in. College fairs can be overwhelming, but they offer a unique opportunity to explore a wide variety of options. Even if your student is pretty certain about the schools they want to apply to, it’s helpful to get out of your comfort zone a bit and see what is out there. “It’s a great opportunity for kids and parents to really get a look at schools and see what’s available. So many times in this area, our kids think of maybe four or five universities,” Sevier says. “We want to expose kids to many, many opportunities to find a place that speaks to their needs and their interests.”

Encourage your student to follow up

After college fairs, students should follow up with the admissions officers they connected with. Students should get a business card or contact information while talking to the admissions representative, and give them theirs, too, if possible. Parents, do not be the one to follow up! Encourage your student to follow up after the fair, but this is really a time for you to step back and play a supportive role. Plus, some colleges take notice when students show interest and take initiative in making connections with the school. “Some colleges use ‘demonstrated interest’ in making college admissions decisions. They track these things: if you’ve talked to college representative, maybe you’ve liked their Facebook page, they see how interested students are in the college,” Rock says. “This can play a role in the admissions at some colleges. It may give your student an added bonus.”