Pre-test a college’s vibe at the local college fair

October 1, 2013 | Posted in: High School

First impressions count – a concept that has been particularly relevant as we’ve worked our way around the Northeast looking at colleges with our high school senior.

Creating a list of college possibilities started with a visit to, where my daughter whittled down options based on her interests, grades and test scores (SAT, ACT), as well as geographical location. One small liberal arts college caught her attention because of its stellar academic program. She knew it was a “reach” school, but the less-than-two-hour drive made it a doable Saturday day trip this summer.

We arrived at the admissions office with a few minutes to spare before the 10 a.m. information session, so she grabbed a prospective student questionnaire and we headed into the auditorium. “I can hand the questionnaire in afterward,” she said.

There were at least 75 people in the auditorium, and we listened to information about academic offerings, costs, financial aid, and social life. “Saturday is one of our busiest days of the week,” the admissions representative told us.

After the presentation, we were divided into three groups for our tour.

“What do you think?” I asked as we waited for the tour to start.

She shrugged her shoulders. “I want to take the tour before I decide,” she said.

The tour guide was lovely, but she did not convey the energy we had experienced with tour guides at other schools. Nearly all of the buildings were locked, with the exception of a dorm where we saw a typical freshman room. When we returned to the admissions office at the end of the tour, that door, too, was locked.

There were two things that most influenced my daughter’s opinion about the college:

1. If Saturday is the busiest day for prospective students to visit, why were there only three tour guides? A tour of 25 people is large, particularly if a tour guide does not project his/her voice well.

2. If Saturday is the busiest day for prospective students to visit, why was the admissions office closed when the tour returned? We certainly could fend for ourselves, but it would have been nice to be able to gather a little more information if we wanted it – and to use a restroom.

The schools on her list have the academics she’s looking for; whether they make the cut for her comes down to the “vibe” she has gotten by visiting the campus. And it’s that “vibe” that will deter her from applying to this particular college. She left with a sense that the college didn’t care enough to make her feel like her visit mattered.

Visiting a college can be an important step in deciding where to apply, but making the trek to every college on the list may not be possible. College fairs can be a good way to trim the list of possibilities to something manageable – and a way to get a sense of whether the “vibe” might be what you’re looking for.

College fairs gather college representatives from a wide geographic area in one place so you can get a snapshot view of numerous colleges in the same day. Some of them take place at a local high school; others are larger gatherings in area community college gymnasiums.

A few tips for your child in approaching the college fair:

  • Do your homework ahead of time. Review the list of colleges that will have a representative present and determine which ones you most want to speak with.
  • Develop questions to ask the admissions representative. Focus on issues that are relevant to your intended major/experience (rather than something like the quality of the food). Here’s a good list:
  • Make a plan. Grab a map of the room’s layout if one is available when you arrive and plot your course.
  • Be flexible! You may see something that catches your eye at a college that didn’t make your initial list. Be open to exploring other possibilities.
  • Be ready to walk away. Make sure that a college has your non-negotiable qualities before launching into a lengthy discussion. If you’re determined to major in marketing but the school that caught your eye only offers it as a minor, walk away! Don’t waste precious time when you know a school doesn’t have what you’re looking for.
  • Bring pre-printed labels with your name, address, phone number, email address, high school, year of graduation, intended major(s), and any extracurricular activities you’re interested in. It will save time filling out college information cards at each table.
  • Make contacts. A college admissions representative who covers your area is a great connection and resource for follow-up information.

While visiting a college fair is not the same as visiting a campus, you can definitely get a “vibe” from an admissions representative. From there, you can decide if a road-trip is in your future.

For a list of upcoming college fairs in New York state, view this College Fair Calendar.

For a list of larger events, visit the National Association for College Admission Counseling website. has a helpful college fair checklist.

Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since 2011. Prior to that, she spent many years as a journalist in the Boston area. She enjoys taking road trips with one or all three of her children as the oldest narrows her list of college options.

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