Making the Most of College Fairs When You Can't Get to Campus

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Question: I am not going to be visiting colleges because of financial constraints, but I am going to a college fair. How do I get my name on the lists of the colleges I visit at the fair so they know I've made contact with their admissions people? Should I print up business cards?

Admission officials are understanding when prospective students don't visit due to costs, but it will be helpful to let them know that it was money matters — and not lack of interest — that kept you away. Down below, “The Dean" will talk about how to do this.

But, when you can't get to campus, college fairs can provide an alternate opportunity to gather information about potential target colleges ... certainly nowhere as helpful as the chance to sip a latte in the Student Center with your eyes and ears wide open, but at least a good way to cover as much ground as the confines of a convention center or cafeteria will allow. However, you don't want to bring business cards to these fairs. They'll just get lost in the shuffle. Instead, bring sticky labels that you can either print at home or order cheaply at a local copy center. Here's what to put on them:

Your Name (as it appears on your school records)

Home Address

Year of High School Graduation

Phone Number

Email Address

High School Name and its City/Town

College representatives at the fair will usually provide cards to fill out if you want to land on mailing lists, and so -- by affixing a handy-dandy label to the card -- you will save yourself time (and writers' cramp) as you go from booth to booth.

Another strategy that will help you benefit from fairs is to take a few notes when a college interests you. The notes should include:

- The name of the representative you spoke with (and receiving a business card is more useful than giving one, so make sure you've got a place to tuck them easily). Also, try to find out about this rep's connection to the college. He or she may be the actual admission staff member who will read your application, or another staff person who probably won't. The rep could also be an alumnus, a student, a parent or, occasionally, someone with even more distant ties to the school.

- A detail or two about the college that you learned at the fair (e.g., “Study abroad is required ... that's rare!")

- A detail or two about your interaction with the college rep when possible. (“She was a Vikings fan who commented on my Saints shirt.") Because booths can be crowded and reps busy, you may not spend quality time with all of them, and you shouldn't worry about it if you don't.

Here are some other thoughts on making the most of college fairs, courtesy of Vanderbilt University:

Shortly after a college fair is over, you should send an email to all of the colleges that interested you. Address the email to the staff member who oversees applicants from your high school. You can often find those details right on the college's admission site. If not, telephone to ask. Here's what your email should include:

- If the recipient is the person you met at the fair, be sure to begin with that, adding a memory-jogger from your notes if you can. (“I was the guy in the Saints shirt who tried not to cry when you brought up the Vikings!" or “I was the student who asked you about starting a water polo club.")

- If the recipient is NOT the person you met at the fair, you can start by saying that you attended the fair and spoke with ___________. (That's when those business cards that you hopefully collected will be valuable.)

- Mention one or two aspects of this college that make it stand out for you. Try to focus on what is unique or at least not common. “There is a major in Homeland Security" would fit the bill. “There is psychology major" would not.

- Conclude by saying that you would love to visit the campus but it is not within your economic means to do so. Thus, you are gathering all the information that you can and will look forward to being on the mailing list and attending additional programs in your area, if any. (And you can ask here what's on the schedule, if this isn't on the website.)

You can also amend this message to send to colleges that you did not see at the fair. It's definitely worthwhile to tell admission officials that you can't afford to get to campus, when this is true. On the other hand, if the campus is within two or three hours from home, the admission folks will expect prospective students -- except those from very disadvantaged backgrounds -- to find a way to visit. So, if you are a borderline candidate to begin with, it might hurt you if don't visit the campus.

However, if you are an underrepresented minority student, a first-generation-to-college student or if you come from a low-income family, you can also ask admission officials if there is a “fly-in" program that provides free trips to strong candidates. It's usually the well-heeled, highly competitive colleges that offer this option, and you should expect to fill out a special application — essays and all :-( —to be selected.

Bottom line: Campus visits can be very valuable as you create a college list, but they aren't imperative. When you can't get to campus for financial reasons, let the colleges know this and try to find other ways such as college fairs ... and College Confidential (of course!) ... to learn as much as you can from afar.


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