Top Tips For Students and Parents Attending College Fairs

Middlebury RHS college fair 9-15-15Last week I represented Middlebury College at the Kansas City Private High School’s College Fair. I’ve done this event several times in recent years. I enjoy getting to talk about one of my favorite places and times of my life—my college experience at Middlebury (see here and here).

I am an alum, not a professional college admissions officer, so I’m limited in what I know about the admissions process and financial aid packages. I have been a parent taking kids to these fairs, so I have experience from that side of the table as well.

Each year the kids look younger (and so do the parents, I must admit). But each year, the experience is similar. Some kids are well prepared, others don’t have a clue why they’re there. The parents all want to know about test scores and financial aid.

Here are my tips for students and parents about how to get the most out of your two-hour look at a variety of college possibilities:

Five Tips for Students:

1. Have a reason for stopping at a college table

It’s best if you’ve done some research in advance, and at least know where the college campus is. Most college fairs publish a list of the schools that will be represented, and you can select five to ten in advance that you know you want to investigate.

That being said, college fairs are an opportunity to explore. So even if your reason for stopping by is to ask “I don’t know anything about liberal arts colleges. What do you see as the pros and cons of attending one?” you at least sound like you’re thinking seriously about the next phase of your life.

2. Don’t take information on a college unless you think you’ll read it

This stuff costs money to produce and to transport around the country. Colleges create the brochures and other materials for you to learn about them, so take the pamphlets if you might be interested.

But if you know in your heart that you would NEVER go to a school where the temperature dips below 40 degrees, then DON’T take information from a school in Vermont.

3. It’s OK not to know what you want out of life

Don’t be embarrassed by not having your whole life mapped out until retirement, including your future kids’ birthdays. Most people don’t at sixteen or seventeen. Don’t make stuff up. Do be prepared for questions about your interests.

You can respond to questions about prospective majors and the like by stating what you’ve enjoyed in the past or what you’d like to explore. “My favorite course so far has been American History. I’d like to take more courses in this subject in college.” Or, “I’ve always wanted to learn Mandarin, and my high school doesn’t offer it. Does your college?” Or, “I’m really into photography. How can I continue that interest at your institution?”

4. If you do know what you want to pursue in college, be able to probe quickly

For example, “I want to get a pharmacy degree. Does your school offer it?” Or, “I want to play Division I football. What division is your school in?”

That will speed the process for both you and the college representative. We both have better things to do than chat about a school that can’t meet your needs.

5. Don’t look bored

This is your life we’re talking about. Even if your parents dragged you to the college fair, get what you can out of it. Even if you’re introverted and hate talking to strange adults, have a question or two prepared to get the discussion going. I’ve given you several examples in this post.

My suggestion: Go to the fair with the intentions of (1) gathering data about five schools you think are definite possibilities for you and (2) researching three more schools that you don’t know much about but that sound interesting.

Five Tips for Parents:

1. You really don’t need to be there at all

I know you have a vested interest in where your student goes to college. You’ll probably be paying a lot of the expense. And you want your kid to be happy. But almost all of the information that is shared at college fairs can be learned at school websites. Let your student take the lead on this.

2. If you do attend, only attend with your student

I don’t mind talking with the parents that do come with their kids. But I do mind the parents who wander the aisles picking up information on behalf of their student—“Johnny was too busy tonight, so I’m taking brochures home to him.”

If your kid doesn’t care enough to spend two hours at a college fair (or do his or her own research on the internet), then does he or she care enough to go to college? Why should you make it easier? Applying to college requires a student to invest a lot of time for a reason. It’s his or her future we’re talking about. They need to care.

3. Let your student do most of the talking. . . just listen

You can learn a lot about your kid listening to what they ask about. Did you know he was interested in psychology? That quidditch is her favorite sport? If your kid says he is interested in a Classics degree and you think that is totally impractical, then you have something to talk about on the drive home.

I try to direct the conversation toward the student. If a parent asks a question, I answer it, then ask the student a question directly. I want to know if my college fits the student’s interests, not the parent’s.

4. You won’t get a sense of the money issues at a college fair

All you’ll hear is “needs blind admission” and “the college will work with you.” I can tell you what the tuition, room and board costs are, but I can’t give you any kind of commitment. An alum like me doesn’t even know the college’s process for awarding financial aid. You won’t even get a commitment from the professional admissions office employees at a college fair.

So wait for your student to narrow down his or her preferences before discussing money. Then contact the admissions offices directly. And be sure to follow all deadlines for getting information into the financial aid offices.

Besides, you might be surprised by a scholarship offer before you have to commit.

5. Support your kid

The colleges admissions process is a stressful time for students. I know it’s stressful for parents also, but it’s worse for the kids. But if you think the autumn is bad, with its college fairs and application deadlines, just wait until spring. Then the envelopes, skinny and fat, start arriving.

And it’s time for decisions.

Do readers have any additional tips to offer?

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