Winning College Fair Etiquette

Last Updated Apr 17, 2009 2:32 PM EDT

It's easy to waste time at a college fair.

At the large college fair I attended this week I saw lots of teenagers -- thrilled to be skipping classes -- wandering the convention center with their friends. Rarely did they stop to chat with one of the college reps.

But I'm not even talking about those kids. Even conscientious teenagers often fail to take advantage of the opportunity. So what should teenagers be doing at college fairs?

I asked some college reps, who were manning booths at the college fair, for some advice. Here is what they said....

Don't walk in cold. "I wish students would come more prepared," lamented Martin V. Vaughn, II, an associate admission director from Brandeis University. A teenager can typically get a list of college fair exhibitors ahead of time. Do a little research on some of the possibilities. You can learn a lot by using the federal College Navigator software, which I talked about in my last post.

Look beyond the obvious. The kids at the San Diego fair were double and triple parked in front of the UCLA booth. I just shook my head at that sight. You think Harvard's tough to get in? UCLA rejects far, far more kids every year than any Ivy.

These UCLA worshippers were ignoring some amazing schools that were getting very little foot traffic. And guess what? Schools beyond the West Coast LOVE California kids and are willing to back up their desire with cash. And this isn't just a California phenomenon. Teens willing to attend a college two or three time zones away can often pick up better aid packages.

Tell yourself this isn't a competition. At these fairs, teenagers focus too much on "getting into" a school as if it were a winning lottery ticket, complained Stephanie DuPuis, assistant director of admissions at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI. Consequently, the kids ask questions about GPAs and SAT/ACT scores rather than trying to get a sense of whether a school might be a good academic fit.

Alex Gano, an admission counselor at Vanderbilt University, shared the same gripe. "I hate when students ask about GPAs," he complained. High schools, he explained, weight GPAs so differently that it's nearly impossible to provide an answer without knowing about a high school's policies.

Ask relevant questions. Here's a variation on a question that all the admission reps I talked to say they wish they'd hear more often:

I am interested in ______ (fill in the blank with an academic major). Could you tell me about that academic offering at your school?

Sounds ridiculously simple, but most kids never think to ask.