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Monday, September 28, 2009

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…college fair season

My post title is actually a little sarcastic. It’s college fair season, when admission officers pack their trunks full of boxes of brochures, don their most comfortable shoes, and race around the country while trying to stay ahead of hunger pains and caffeine headaches. We encounter all sorts of people, from the bewildered to the clueless to the fearful to the aggressive. At some fairs (especially those at malls or large venues), our alumni help us by answering questions with us. It’s chaotic and tiring, but also fun. We wind up having a lot of stories by the time the college fair season is done.

The real point of this post is to give you some things to think about before you head off to a college fair. These are things that will help you get better information out of us and help us not leave the fair contemplating a career move.

1. Do a little homework
If you already have a few schools on your list, go to their websites and look up the basics (population, number of applications, deadlines, and admission stats). At one mall fair a few years ago, the only questions being asked were about the average SAT scores and the average GPA. The firsts stat is on our website and on the brochures we give out at these fairs. The second is a tricky statistic because of all the different GPA scales and weights out there. It’s not really a significant stat. I got so tired of the questions that I made two table tents with the answers on them. Of course, then people would read them, look at me, and ask the same question again in the form of a question (“So the average SAT score is 1250-1430?”).

2. Don't ask “How is your __ department?” or “Tell me about your ___ department.”
These questions make admission officers cringe. At a busy fair, few admission officers are going to give anything other than a vague, positive response. There was a time when I would respond asking for clarification (“What would you like to know about our psychology department?”) hoping to get a more specific question. I had a friend at another school who used to simply reply with “very strong” and wait for follow up questions, which didn’t always come.

There is rarely enough time for us to remember who asked us certain questions, so feel free to ask about the fun stuff - food, dorms, activities, sports, etc.

3. We don't expect you to have a resume

A few years ago, I started seeing students arrive at college fairs with stacks of resumes in hand. To be frank, we don’t want your resumes. If you wind up applying to our schools, you will probably fill in a chart with your activities anyway. The resume is redundant. What’s more, those of us who work in paperless offices don’t want to arrive home from a week on the road with stacks of paper.

We aren't expecting you to be perfectly polished at a college fair. You don't have to dress up or be ready to recite your stats. There really isn't enough time for us to get to know you, so relax and don't feel pressured!

4. Conserve your energy and our paper
One of my colleagues called me this morning to say that she went through 750 brochures at a college fair last night. She said that the students at the fair were younger than ever, including a family shopping around with their 5th grader. Pace yourselves. Whatever information you gather from a college fair is going to change in a year or two. While it’s good to attend a fair when you first start your search, there is no reason to go to one of these things if you aren’t going to file an application in the next couple of years. Starting early is good, but starting too early is going to lead to burn out.

For those of you who are juniors and seniors going to college fairs, take it slowly and if you are there when the fair starts, skip the first row of tables so you can walk around without a crowd on your heels. Bring some address labels to stick on the postcards each college will have. It will save time and make sure that colleges have your correct contact info (important for matching things up and avoiding duplicates on our mailing lists).

My colleague also noticed that a family would approach the table and each take a brochure. Now, some schools are happy to unload all of their “stuff” on you, but being a public school on a budget and also being a paperless office, we hope that you’ll help us conserve resources by taking one brochure and sharing it with your family. The school website is more up to date than the brochures are anyway.

I’m sure there are more pointers to be give on getting the most out of a college fair. Feel free to ask questions or share you advice for others in the comments.