Family Tips: How to Help Your Student Prepare for a College Fair (and Then Get Out of Their Way)

As the family of a college-bound student, you want to do everything in your power to get your student to the school of their dreams. And while there is a fine line between “helping” them and “taking over,” there actually are some things you yourself can do to help, such as research schools, look for available scholarships, become financially literate. However, there is also a long list of things you can’t do, including keeping up their high school GPA, taking the SAT or ACT . . . or attending a college fair for them.

College fairs offer excellent opportunities to browse “what’s out there” and get answers from college representatives. However, this experience is for the student. Let’s repeat: the college fair is for the student, not the family. Your student is the one ultimately choosing where to spend the next four years of his or her life, so they need to be the one taking charge of the college search and, in this case, the task of attending a college fair.

That said, there are several things you can do to help your student get the most out of their college fair experience.

Review the list of participating schools. There is a lot to be said for going into a college fair with a plan of attack. Sit down with your student and help them to look through which schools will be in attendance and prioritize accordingly. Circle the “don’t-miss” schools and highlight others that might also be of interest. This will ensure that, on the day of the fair, your student doesn’t become overwhelmed and waste their opportunity to research schools and make a good impression.

Brainstorm questions to ask each school. College fairs can be intimidating. Lots of students are vying for the attention of a limited number of college representatives, and when they finally get the floor, students can suddenly freeze, forget everything they were going to say, and squander the opportunity to learn what they really want to know about a school. One way to help your student avoid this “blank-out” is to brainstorm with them ahead of time and write down the questions they want to ask. These questions can be applicable to all of the schools they’ll speak with, or specific to a particular school. A few example questions include: What kind of student does your college try to attract? Is your school known for a particular program? What sorts of activities are popular in the community off-campus? What public transportation is available?

Listen and (if asked) offer advice. If this is your student’s first college fair—or even their hundredth!—they may be nervous. Listen to their concerns and, when appropriate, offer advice. The college search can feel grueling, so reassure your student that you’re in this together . . . and that it will all be worth it in the end.

Then, back off! This is an information-gathering session for the student. College reps want to talk to your student, not to you. So if you’re in attendance, stand back, observe, offer moral support, and let your student gain as much information as they can for the long, formative journey they have ahead.