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How to College Fair: Parent Edition

Updated: Sep 16, 2022

Thom being a "kid in a candy store" according to 16-year-old Andrew.

“I'm going to go get the free stuff,” my high school junior son declared.

“Free stuff?” I asked.

“Yeah, the merch.”

“Ok, so if you want ‘the merch’ you have to have ‘the conversations.’” I added double hand air quotes to make sure the sarcasm was being received in the measure I intended.

In response to the silence I added, “I spent nearly 15 years behind these tables son. You are not going to be one of these kids who walks up, asks for a pen, and then walks away. I raised you better than that.”

My oldest son and I surveyed the gym at our local community college and the 100 or so brightly colored banners and smartly dressed college representatives contained therein. College fairs like this one taught me how to communicate clearly and to articulate as they were usually held in noisy and crowded gyms. College fair organizers usually arrange the college tables alphabetically, which explains why, as a representative of Purdue University, some of my closest friends today were representatives at places like Quincy University (IL) and Valparaiso (IN).

There are hundreds of these kind of college fairs all over the world every year and for much of my career, I was an aficionado of them. I knew which ones served you meals before the event, which ones were sweaty messes, and which ones were full of pen stealers. The modern admissions officer doesn’t have to worry about this with the adoption of QR codes and online forms, but OG admissions folks know all about the contact card (used to gather student contact information) and the buckets of pens you had to cart around for students to use to fill them out. Making sure you had enough pens to make it through a full week of college recruiting events was an exercise the seasoned admissions officer knows too well. College fairs were full of students walking up and asking for “stuff” including pens without taking the time to ask anything about the college which is a major pet peeve for many admissions reps. I knew some admissions officers who attached their pens to strings like they were a cashier at a gas station. So it is with this lived experience that I attempted to guide my son in his interactions at the college fair.

Though I have been to hundreds of college fairs, this one was unique: this was my first I was attending as a parent. My son is starting his college search and wanted to speak to a few of the schools on his list. Well, “wanted” might be too strong a word. He “agreed” to speak to a few schools on his list.

I did my part in explaining to him how college fairs work and to encourage him to ask good questions such as the ones we outlined in our previous post about How to College Fair. But on this night, I was more observant of parent behavior, namely my own.

So here’s my college fair do’s and don’ts for parents:

Let them speak for themselves

Like most things in the college admissions process, it is vital that your student engages with the process, starting with engaging with college reps. It’s fine to get them started with a simply, “This is Andrew, he is a junior at X high school,” but then you need to step back and let your student do the talking. And when I say “step back” I mean it literally. At a college fair, the representatives are on one side of the table with you on the other. Taking a step back sends the clear signal that the conversation is between your student and the rep. Of course, if you have any questions, you can ask after your student has wrapped up the conversation.

You guide, they decide

One time during my admissions career I had a student walk up to my table and after exchanging pleasantries, I asked, “Well what can I tell you about Purdue?” To which she replied, “I dunno, my mom is making me talk to you.” Brilliant.

Most college fairs will publish a list of the colleges in attendance in advance. Provide that list to your student and have them identify the colleges they would like to speak to. Set the expectation that they will need to speak to a certain number because after all, you are taking time out of your evening to take them to this event, but they are in charge of which colleges they speak to. Of course, if you are interested in a college, you are more than welcome to engage in those conversations, but please do not force your student to talk to a college rep. The rep will thank you.

You are not their sherpa, literally or figuratively

This is admittedly a small thing, but I find it to be symbolically important. At every college fair there is usually a bag that is provided to you at check-in for you put all of the materials you gather from the various colleges. Your student should carry this, not you. It’s good for them. This is their college search and they can handle it. It builds muscles, literally and figuratively.

Like most things in the college search, college fairs are a delicate dance of guiding and teaching your student, not directing and cajoling them. Yes, it might be awkward helping your teenager talk to strangers and to engage in conversations about their unknown future, but this is what we signed up for as parents. Yes, there will be stress along the way, but so long as you are there to love on your student and guide them towards adulthood, and so long as no one steals any pens, everyone will be just fine.

Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.

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