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The Unexpected Benefits of Attending a Virtual College Fair

College fairs can often feel overwhelming, bursting with more offerings than a Las Vegas buffet. In pre-pandemic days, these events typically were held in crowded, stuffy high school gyms. A large number of colleges and universities (and their eager representatives) gathered to provide an abundance of information that could leave students’, and parents’, heads spinning. Yet, at the same time, these fairs served as an excellent opportunity to learn about dozens of colleges and connect with admissions officers in one convenient setting.

But as the pandemic continues, these in-person events have gone virtual, something Laurie Kopp Weingarten at One-Stop College Counseling calls “one positive outcome of social distancing.”

The Benefits of Virtual College Events

“Students don’t have to travel, and they can attend many more fairs than they have been able to in the past,” she says. “In addition, some of the specialty college fairs, such as the STEM fairs and performing and visual arts fairs are usually only held in select locations. But now that they are virtual, anybody throughout the world can attend.”

While plenty of high schoolers are suffering from online-learning fatigue, Kopp Weingarten says college fairs are something students should get excited about.

“Students are the drivers of this process. They can select which colleges and what times are convenient for them,” she says, noting that online fairs will post a list of attending schools and sessions in advance, allowing students to plan accordingly. “They should try to get psyched up to enthusiastically begin their search for their future four-year home on a college campus.”

The Online College Search

Prior to attending a virtual fair, college consultant Dana Ponsky suggests students use their school’s college counseling platform to do a basic search based on their particular needs or interests to narrow the field. For example, does your child have her heart set on pursuing a specific major, staying close to home, or continuing to play a sport? Keep these criteria in mind when putting together a list of schools to virtually visit.

Ponsky recommends families take advantage of school platforms as well other resources like Scoir. This site allows users to sign up for a free account to search for schools that match interests, academic ability, and budget. The platform makes visitors aware of admissions-related webinars and virtual school tours, while online calculators give parents a sense of college financing information.

6 Tips to Make the Most of College Fairs Online

To make the most out of the virtual college fair experiences, consider these additional tips:

1. Know the basics

Become familiar with the fair in advance by reviewing the list of colleges that are participating. For schedules of upcoming virtual fairs, visit Virtual College Fairs.org.

“Various fairs have different procedures. But often you can bookmark the institutions that interest you, sign up for special programs, or even schedule a one-on-one meeting with an admission officer,” says Kopp Weingarten. “Use their virtual scheduler or create your own document listing the events you intend to join, and review it often. Map out your entire experience. You don’t want to exit the virtual fair only to realize that you forgot to e-visit two of your favorite schools.”

2. Do your homework

Take the time to check out various college websites in advance. Write down the contact information of anyone you meet during the fair so you can follow up at a later date if you’d like to, suggests Kopp Weingarten.

Students should be prepared to ask questions about their intended major, extracurricular activities, and housing. But, this is also a chance to get a more candid take on an institution.

Victoria Dimock, IvyWise premier college admissions counselor, recommends asking admissions officers open-ended questions “that might elicit an anecdotal response or a more personal experience about a school.”

“For example, ask an admissions officer what their favorite thing about the school is. It might elicit a story about a student who had a great experience in a really cool class” says Dimock. “Avoid questions that are easily found on a school’s website, like the average test score of an admitted student. Instead, opt for questions about experiences or fit of students on campus.”

Some examples Dimock offers include:

  • What is your favorite school tradition?
  • What kind of student thrives at this school?
  • What is the most interesting class you have heard of a student taking?
  • What do you think is unique about the school?

“If the admission counselor went to the institution, you can ask them who their favorite professor was and why or what their favorite class was and why,” she adds.

3. Embrace the unknown

Many students and families crowd their schedule with schools they already know about when attending a live or virtual college fair. This is a common mistake, notes Ponsky. For every college that they already know about, they should choose another college that meets their criteria for size, location, distance from home, academic major/degree program, extracurricular interest, or price that they have never heard of before.

“The colleges that might not have the popular name recognition may have fewer visitors during these fairs. So when you make an effort to attend their virtual booth/session, you might get a more personalized experience and get a deeper insight into that college,” she says. “You might also be pleasantly surprised by their offerings and the relationship building opportunities.”

4. Take good notes

Students should write down any information about a college or university that they learn about during a virtual college fair.

“The more notes you take now, the better for your further college research and applications later,” says Dimock. “Especially take notes of those personal experiences and stories you hear about the school. You can quickly forget which school you heard an interesting story about after visiting with several schools. I recommend students start a college application notebook with notes on colleges in the same place, having a separate section for each college.”

5. Take advantage of all the help offered

If you have general questions, there are typically volunteer helpers that you can chat with.

“I volunteer at the virtual NACAC National College Fairs. I, along with many other counselors, are on standby. We help students with every type of question ranging from what colleges offer engineering on the West Coast to how can I find a university with a marching band?” adds Kopp Weingarten.

6. Review your findings

Pay close attention to both what you liked about certain schools and what you did not like, advises Dimock.

“Sometimes what you did not like about a school can help you rule out other schools with similar cultures or offerings,” she says. “If you are taking extensive notes, it can help to highlight both the things you like and don’t like with your own system. For instance, [use] stars for liking something and x’s for not liking something.”

A college fair is a great way to get an introduction to a college, but remember it’s only the beginning. A full tour, couple with gathering additional information, can help whittle down the list.

Virtual college fairs are a great starting point. They can encourage students and parents to do more research on any school that could be a possible contender.

Liz Alterman

Liz Alterman’s work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and more. She’s also the author of a young adult thriller, He’ll Be Waiting.

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