College fairs give students the chance to interact with admissions representatives or alumni from dozens of colleges all at one time and in one place. Held biannually at locations around the country, National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) college fairs are free and open to students of all ages who want to learn more about their postsecondary options. While NACAC is the most well known of college fair hosts, your school or other local high schools may also host college fairs, so be on the lookout! Instead of visiting every school on your list, start at the college fair and narrow down your options based on what you learn about each institution. Then, you can spend your time (and money) exploring colleges that are the right fit for you.
Learn why it’s important to attend college fairs.
Admissions counselors and alumni from institutions around the country attend college fairs to recruit students. Some high schools host these events, but often they occur at conference or community centers. The National Association for College Admissions Counseling hosts college fairs across the U.S. in both the spring and fall each year. There are separate fairs for students interested in performing and visual arts schools; science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) schools; and international universities. Through the NACAC website, you can find a college fair close to your home and register to attend. These fairs are free and open to the public, but you’ll save time by registering in advance. Need more reasons to go?
- You’ll be introduced to colleges. College fairs are a great way for freshmen and sophomores to determine their initial college preferences and for students of all ages to discover colleges that might not have made their short list. While it may seem like college is a far way off, knowing what types of schools and programs you are interested in will help you choose courses and extracurricular activities that will strengthen your applications. As a junior or senior, attending a college fair and visiting the booths of colleges to which you applied or are planning to apply can provide you with answers to last-minute questions.
- You’ll learn about college-specific opportunities. Some colleges have summer camps or pre-college learning opportunities for high school students. If you’re interested in a particular school, there’s no better place to learn about everything that it has to offer (before and during college) than at a college fair. You may find that taking a two-week summer class at Harvard is a great way to determine whether Harvard is going to be the right place for you after you graduate high school. Maybe another college has a Habitat for Humanity team that is willing to accept prospective students during the summer. Talking to an actual person is a better way to learn about these opportunities than surfing the web.
- You’ll receive plenty of networking opportunities. Juniors and seniors (and precocious underclassmen) can network with admissions representatives who can answer any questions about the college and its application process now or in the future. Questions about setting up a college interview? Wondering whether AP Biology or AP Chemistry would look better on an application? These fairs are set up so that you get as much free advice as you want. Admissions officers may be able to put you in touch with current students or recent graduates who live in your area so you can get the scoop about a school straight from a student.
- You’ll gain a feel for campus life. There’s only so much information you can gather by researching online or with a guidebook. At a college fair, you can ask admissions officers the questions that Google can’t answer for you. College fair representatives will help paint a picture of campus life. They can also speak to what types of students are drawn to their school. You can begin to assess how comfortable you think you would feel on campus and whether it’s a place worth visiting in the future. Ask if they offer pre-college summer programs or events, a great way to experience campus life firsthand.
- You’ll learn about admissions requirements. If you ask, representatives will give you honest advice about selecting courses and after-school activities to strengthen your application. They will also help you determine if your GPA and standardized test scores meet their standards for incoming freshmen. This can help you decide if you should categorize a school as a safety, match, or reach, and it will highlight areas in which you can improve if you have the time.
- You’ll save money on college visits. If you’re considering applying to more than just a handful of colleges, it’s fair to say that you could rack up serious expenses if you tried to visit all the campuses in person. By attending a college fair, you can “visit” each school in a way that will still allow you to learn about the college, ask questions, and get immediate feedback without breaking the bank. You can then take everything you learn at a fair and use it to decide which colleges deserve an in-person trip.
- You’ll learn how to talk to an admissions officer. Many colleges request that students complete an interview with either an admissions representative or an alumnus as a part of their admissions packets. Learning how to interact with these people early on will set you up to succeed when it’s time for a real interview. Be sure to talk clearly, take note of any responses, and if an admissions counselor gives you any advice, from your appearance to your speech patterns, take it to heart.
- You’ll show interest. Attending a college fair is a simple and cheap way to show interest to a school without having to make a campus visit. Be sure to take down the name and email address of the admissions representative with whom you have a conversation in case you want to follow up with any questions or a thank-you note. When you meet a college admissions officer, it will be noted in your admissions file. This is a good thing. It shows the college and the admissions committee that you took the time to research the school thoroughly.
- You have nothing to lose. College fairs are free to attend and the number of schools you’ll be exposed to once you arrive is many more than you would ever be able to visit. Take a few hours to browse the booths and learn about options that you didn’t even consider. As an added bonus, you could make new friends, get your name on a list of prospective students, and possibly find the college of your dreams.
Find and register for your college fair.
First, decide whether you want to attend a National College Fair; a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) College Fair; or a Performing and Visual Arts Fair. Which fair you choose depends on your postsecondary interests. Do you want to go to a college that has a strong engineering program? Choose a STEM College Fair. Do you want to study ballet and go on to join a dance company? Your best bet will be a Performing and Visual Arts Fair. If you don’t have a particular path chosen yet, that’s perfectly fine. Attending the National College Fair in your area will give you a great overview of the types of institutions and programs that are out there. You’ll come away with a head full of valuable information that will make decision making easier later on. If you’re not sure whether a STEM-oriented college or a liberal arts school would be best for you, it’s worth your time to sign up for both the STEM and the National College Fairs.
Registration is completely free and you can do it online ahead of time so that you don’t have to wait in line to register on the day of the fair. You will be asked to create an account and input basic information (name, address, contact information, birthday, and gender). You will also be required to list your prospective major (if you don’t have one yet, just pick a couple of areas of interest and leave your major as undecided); when you will be beginning college; the name of your current high school; and whether you are an international, transfer, or nontraditional student. You can choose to input extracurricular activities and your SAT or ACT scores. NACAC asks for this information because when you attend the fair, you will be given a personal barcode. Colleges from which you’d like to receive more information can scan your barcode to know that you’re interested and have basic information about you.
Find out what schools will be attending your chosen fair.
No matter your year in high school, a college fair can be useful for you. If you’re a junior or senior, you may already have created a list of schools to which you want to apply. Check the NACAC website and click on the fair you’re attending to see if any of your chosen schools have booths. If they’re attending, make sure that you take note of their booth number so that you’ll be able to find them once you get to the fair (you can get a map when you arrive). If you are a freshman or sophomore, consider this an opportunity to be introduced to schools from around the country. Browse through the list of attendees to see if any names ring a bell or if your fantasy dream school is on the list. Stop by any booths that you’re interested in, but don’t pass up the chance to learn about other schools you’ve never heard of either.
You may notice that many of the schools attending a particular fair are located in the same region as the fair itself. Don’t get discouraged if you were hoping to attend a college across the country from your hometown; just because they don’t attend a fair doesn’t mean that they’re not an option. While some of the attendees may not be of high enough caliber to be your reach school, you may find some great options for match and safety schools that you hadn’t even considered!
Decide who you’ll go with.
While it might be more fun to go to a college fair with your three best friends, you’ll get more out of it if you go alone or with a trusted adult (your parent or guardian). The school that is right for each of your friends may not be the same school that is right for you. Instead of going with them from booth to booth and exploring colleges that aren’t of interest to you, spend your time at the booths of schools you’d consider attending. While a college fair is inherently social, it’s a time for you to talk to admissions representatives, not your friends.
You’re not going to want to show up in a cutoff tee and Daisy Dukes. While it’s okay to dress a little more casually (this isn’t an interview, after all), don’t go so casual as to wear something you’d wear to the pool. Wearing jeans and a long-sleeved tee shirt would be acceptable, as is business casual. Avoid anything that you wouldn’t wear to school (short shorts, crop tops, etc.).
Show up prepared.
Once you arrive at the fair, you will likely be given a map. Keep this handy, and compare the map with the list of schools you don’t want to miss. Use the map to navigate your way to these booths, but don’t be afraid to stop at others in between. Alumni and admissions representatives will give out pamphlets of information on each school and maybe a keychain or pencil advertising the institution. (And remember, just because there isn’t a swarm of people around a booth doesn’t mean that they’re not offering valuable information.) Bring a folder, shoulder bag, or backpack so that you have an easy place to stash all of your goodies. You should also bring something to take notes with; just because a school is giving you information doesn’t mean that it’ll contain the answers to all your questions. Take notes when you talk to an admissions representative or alumni, especially when you’ve asked a question.
You may also consider bringing your résumé (if you think it would add to the conversation or have a specific question about it) or your art portfolio (you could choose to bring digital versions of your art or performances). Don’t forget to bring your phone so that you can use it to take pictures of any information that schools are offering, but not handing out. There is often extra information at the booth that isn’t included in the giveaway pamphlet, and you won’t miss anything if you can bring a picture home with you to read later!
Ask questions and interact professionally.
Don’t just pick up a pamphlet at every booth. If there is a college that is on your list of prospective schools, or one that seems interesting as you walk by, talk to the representatives manning the booth. While discussing the information on the pamphlet may be interesting and easy, use this time to ask questions that aren’t answered in the printed materials or listed online. If you do want to read a pamphlet, don’t just do so at the booth while not talking to anyone and holding up the line. Move to the side or find an open area in which to do your reading, and then return to the booth if you have any questions afterwards.
Depending on the college, a booth will either be manned by an admissions representative or an alumnus. Admissions representatives work at the school in question, but chances are they didn’t graduate from the same school. Alums spend time on campus, know about student life, and can tell you about their experiences. Chances are that admissions standards have changed since they applied, and they probably don’t know them off the top of their heads anyway. Tailor your questions to who you’re talking to. Here are some examples.
Questions for an admissions representative:
- What characteristics are shared by the most competitive applicants to this school?
- What types of resources are offered for students who are interested in working on or off campus during the semester?
- Are there any grants or scholarships for incoming students that aren’t listed on the website?
- What is your favorite part about working for this school?
- If you could choose a slogan for the school, what would it be and why?
Questions for an alum:
- What was your favorite part about attending this school?
- If you could change one thing about the school, what would it be and why?
- Are there any quirks or traditions that students participate in at the school?
- What is life outside of academics like?
When you’re talking to one of the people manning the booth, be respectful of them, the college, and people around you. Another student may interrupt your conversation with a question; instead of getting mad, listen to the answer and then ask your next question. Admissions representatives often take note of who they talk to, and a note describing your level of interest and what the representative thought of you may end up in your admissions packet if you choose to apply. You definitely don’t want a note saying that you were rude and aggressive to other students as a part of your application. Similarly, alumni often conduct interviews during the college application process. If you happen to get an interview with someone you’ve already met, you want them to remember you fondly.
Get contact information and follow through.
Getting the name and contact information of an admissions representative means that you have a direct line to someone who can help you if you struggle with the admissions process in the future. Ask for their email address or their card and then follow up if you have any other questions that need answering. Even if you don’t, sending a quick email about how lovely it was to meet them at the college fair is always a good idea. It shows interest, maturity, and respect. If you do choose to apply to the school, it will be on the record that you’ve been in contact with a representative, which indicates your level of interest, and you’ll know who to contact when you need help scheduling a college visit!
Page last updated: 05/2019