College Fair Dos and Don’ts


At a time when the seniors have all but concluded their college searches (except for those holding out for a waitlist decision), all the juniors and a number of underclassmen are ramping up the process by poring over printed and online resources, exploring campuses near and far, while adding and removing schools from their respective lists.

Even though the information available in print, whether in conventional ink or electronically, is extensive, it is often difficult to pick up on institutional nuance. Visiting campuses to get a sense of “feel” is absolutely essential, but is it really practical to travel to every campus that you have a passing interest in? So what is the solution? How can you investigate a broad range of institutions, gleaning insights only possible through direct interaction with people who know both campus and community, without leaving the East Side?

Answer: the Providence Independent School College Fair, sponsored by Moses Brown,Wheeler, Providence Country Day, Portsmouth Abbey and Lincoln School.

On Thursday, April 25, representatives from more than 100 institutions from across the country and around the world (France, Italy & Ireland) will descend upon the Wheeler School’s Madden Gymnasium from 4:30 to 6:30 PM to share information about their schools.

With so many colleges and universities available to talk to, fairs like this can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. Knowing what to expect, and having some sense of what you want to accomplish can ensure that you get the most out of the experience.

So what can you expect? It will be crowded, a little hectic and probably even a bit loud. The representatives, while happy to talk about their institutions are present primarily to identify potential admission candidates, with whom they can communicate further, whether to cultivate even more interest or to encourage those less familiar to further investigate and seriously consider their institutions. They will have institutional materials to share and will encourage you to “get on the mailing list” for additional information. Since there is no opportunity for the colleges to conduct presentations, the discussions tend to be driven by student and parent inquiries. For the institutions in which there is the greatest interest, leisurely conversations are hard to come by.

If you are just starting your search, you may simply want to browse at the fair, engaging in more general discussions with a wide variety of schools. You will need to ask questions that help you really differentiate one institution from another, as you begin to identify college attributes and programs that appeal to you. If you have a clearer sense of what you are looking for, it will be easier to focus on specific institutions in pursuit of more detailed information. Either way, the basic goal is the same. You need only determine, whether a school goes or stays on your list, and if you know enough to warrant further exploration and possibly a campus visit.

In order to get the most out of the fair, I offer a few simple dos and don’ts:

• Visit with representatives of colleges that you have never heard of. (It is ok to say, “I’m not familiar with this institution, how would you describe it?”) Even if an institution does not appeal to you, the representative can often be a great source of information and advice.
• Ask questions that elicit perspectives and insight not available online or in publications. (See sample questions at the end…)
• Provide your contact information to learn more about specific institutions that interest you.

• Focus exclusively on admission requirements and the profile of admitted students. Having a sense of how your academic credentials match up can be helpful, but you will be better served exploring questions of institutional match and campus opportunities.
• Grab and run. Picking up materials indiscriminately from each institution is not the most efficient way to refine your list of potential schools.
• Arbitrarily fill out contact cards. See above…
• Allow your illegible handwriting to prevent you from getting additional information from schools that you are interested in. (Pre-printed labels with your name, gender, birthdate, address, email, phone number, school, graduation year and intended major can reduce both the time it takes for you to fill out contact cards, and the time necessary to decipher what you have written.)

As far as questions to ask, you are free to make inquiries about anything that helps you understand what a college offers or is “about.” While questions concerning location, average class sizes, majors offered and the like are certainly valid, these more demographic characteristics can be easily found independently. College reps are unlikely to make qualitative distinctions between their offerings and those of peer institutions, and those that do can hardly be expected to be objective. Similarly, any inquiry that requires a value judgment like “How is your Pre-Med program?” or “How are the dorms?” will generally result in a quite favorable review.

Better questions tend to be the ones that you might ask a friend who is currently enrolled. A few of my favorites are:
• What are the primary reasons that students choose this college?
• How would you characterize the student culture?
• Beyond academics, what qualities make someone a good candidate for admission?
• Are there any featured or distinctive programs that the college is especially proud of?

Obviously, there are others, but hopefully this is enough to get you started.