Picture this: A high school freshman comes to the college fair in the school gym and sets off on a scavenger hunt arranged by her counselor. Equipped with a map and a plastic bag, she makes the rounds to each college recruiter’s table to ask about their majors and school size and collect their informational brochures, as well as a few college-branded items. She fills out a contact card at each table and asks the recruiter to sign a handout that she’ll later return to her counselor for credit. All of the seniors will be invited back to a College Application Day later in the month, which the recruiters will attend to help them apply.
Sounds like a successful college fair, right?
According to college recruiters, not at all! If the ultimate goal of a college fair is for students to enroll in the best college for them, then this kind of fair isn’t set up for that, even if it’s planned with the best intentions. The structure, target audience, and activity before and during the fair need rethinking.
Get2College recently convened a focus group of college recruiters who shared what makes a college fair most likely to match students with the best-fit school and expedite the enrollment process. We noticed that the expectations of college recruiters tended to be very different from those of high school counselors. In short, counselors want the college fair to be an introduction to their college options, while recruiters want to meet the students who are truly interested in their college/university and can ask next-level questions. Then the recruiters can follow up with students in hopes of moving them through the admissions process and ultimately enroll them.
As important as it is for underclassmen to start thinking about college, a college fair is just not a productive place for them. They just aren’t in the headspace yet to have the meaningful conversations with recruiters that make a college fair valuable. Give them other opportunities for college planning. That will leave more space at the fair for juniors, who are seriously exploring their postsecondary options, and seniors, who will be applying to college in the near future, to speak with recruiters.
Recruiters say that having one-on-one or small group conversations with students and parents allows them to get to know applicants personally and answer specific questions. Schools might schedule private appointments with college representatives, or hold concurrent info sessions in several 10-15 minute blocks; attendees can choose to attend several that interest them. There should be ample time allotted so students aren’t rushing from table to table between classes or during their lunch breaks. Holding the fair during the school day works better than after hours, when students may have jobs, extracurricular activities, or transportation challenges.
Recruiters recommended a 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. college fair and application day structured this way:
When students are required to ask a list of questions to recruiters—or worse, to take a bunch of their expensive brochures and giveaway items!—neither one gets much out of the exchange. It is crucial that students do a good deal of pre-fair research in advance. That way, they can zero in on their top three schools and have meaningful conversations with the recruiters there. They should not ask questions that they can answer by visiting the school’s website. Give them a list of schools that will be attending and a list of questions to help direct their research.
When students fill out contact information cards at the fair, it takes up valuable time that would be better spent in conversation with recruiters. It can also create a bottleneck at the recruiter’s table that is frustrating for recruiters and the people waiting to speak with them. Instead, students can come equipped with the written contact information that recruiters need. Here’s an example:
You can also print this information on labels that students can stick on the cards of the colleges that interest them.
College Countdown Mississippi strongly encourages all Mississippi schools to host a college application day, where students apply to college at a designated time during school hours. Recruiters enjoy attending these events, but coming to a college application day and a college fair for every school is impossible. Combining your college fair with an application day just makes sense. Even more, students who learn about colleges that interest them can apply that day, with the guidance of representatives from those schools. Refer to #2 for a recommended schedule. (The same goes for a college signing day in the spring; consider combining this with your awards day so recruiters can attend.)
It’s no surprise that schools like to host their own college fairs. It’s more convenient to hold the event in their space and be able to manage all of the details. Coordinating with other schools in the area can be complicated.
But in spite of the challenges— Which date works for everyone? Which space is big enough and centrally located? Who pays to rent it?—linking up with other schools opens up more opportunities for your students. If college recruiters know that they’ll be able to reach several hundred high school seniors instead of a few dozen, they won’t want to miss your event. Selective and out-of-state colleges are also more likely to participate. Your students will see that they have many different options, rather than only a handful of nearby colleges already familiar to them.
Even if you have a “tried and true” way of planning your school’s college fair, consider incorporating the best practices above. When your students end up at the right college for them, they will thank you for it.