Updated: Apr 26
Across the globe, students, families, and education professionals are confronted with a new reality: this college application season is infected with the coronavirus. Over the past several months, colleges and high schools have pivoted their pandemic policies on what feels like a monthly (sometimes weekly) basis. The coronavirus has mutated the already unwieldy, stressful, and complicated process of applying to colleges into an even more confusing strain. Now more than ever, admissions professionals from the college, high school, and independent advising fields are needed to help guide, educate, and advocate for students and families during this process. To all the families and students who feel lost, confused, and hopelessly overwhelmed, this series is for you.
For this post in our COVID College Search Series, we are exploring the rise of virtual college fairs. What are virtual college fairs? Where can you find them? Are they worth it? Lastly, how can you make the most of the experience?
What Are Virtual College Fairs?
Before we talk about a virtual college fair, let's turn back the clock and look at what defined traditional college fairs. Typically, college fairs were hosted by schools, districts, or large organizations as a way to wrangle the greatest number of students, parents, and college admissions officers in the same place at the same time. Are there plastic tables with banners, pamphlets, and college swag? Is it hosted in a gym, library, or community center? Is the space uncomfortably small for the crowds of visitors OR eerily large for so few people? If you answered yes to at least two of these questions, then you're probably at a college fair (or a really strange convention). The game plan for a traditional college fair is simple: find a college, walk up to their table, talk to college reps, grab some swag, repeat.
However, given the current health climate, I can think of few places I'd rather be during a pandemic than in a college fair. Handshakes, hugs, yell-talking, crowded lines, no standing room, people bumping into one another, and exhausted students coming from sports practice. Throw all of that into a confined space and tell me it doesn't sound like a Petri dish. Hence the "virtual" in virtual college fairs. Although not as intuitive as the traditional format, the game plan remains more or less the same: find a college, click on their link, check out their info, chat with an admissions rep or listen to an information session, repeat. The main difference is that you are doing this virtually instead of in a bacterial breeding ground.
Where Can You Find Virtual College Fairs?
At the bare minimum, to attend a virtual college fair you're going to need some form of internet connection and a computer/smartphone. Once you have the required technology, you have to find and register for the virtual college fair. Given how rapidly the current health climate is changing, organizations have been developing new virtual college fairs on a daily basis.
Here are my recommendations of trustworthy and reliable organizations that provide virtual college fairs:
Are Virtual College Fairs Worth It?
YES! While going virtual has generated its own fair share of problems, there is no reason students shouldn't be signing up for these virtual college fairs. If anything, more students than ever should be able to attend. With many of the traditional physical barriers removed (i.e. transportation, work schedules, etc.), virtual college fairs have created opportunities for all students to participate.
Don't have wifi? Doesn't matter! Head to a local coffee shop, the library, or a friend's house to mooch off some wifi and explore colleges all around the country.
The majority of these college fairs are free!
You can peruse information about a college without awkwardly standing silently in front of the admissions rep.
If you want to talk to a rep, they'll almost certainly have a way to request some one-on-one time.
You can explore colleges and listen to presentations from the comfort of your home or local wifi mooch spot (no more uncomfortable plastic chairs and standing in lines!).
You can submit your information to each college with the click of a button. No more repeatedly filling out those paper information cards.
Sessions are often recorded and can be replayed at a later date. If you can't attend live, you're not missing out!
Virtual college fairs often happen more frequently than traditional college fairs.
No stress about coming straight from sports practice or being hangry because you haven't had dinner yet.
No COVID! (Theoretically. I can't actually make this claim.)
It can be more difficult to make a meaningful and lasting impression on an admission rep virtually.
If you don't have access to the minimum tech requirements, you need to get creative.
Not every school will offer a presentation AND one-on-one sessions. You might have to choose or the choice may be made for you.
Some schools will be scheduled in the same time slots, so you'll have to choose one (or divide and conquer with family/friends). Quick fix: watch the recordings for the schools you couldn't catch!
Although they are more frequent, they can be easier to forget, overlook, or go completely under the radar.
How Can I Make the Most of a Virtual College Fair?
There is a cold, hard truth about virtual college fairs (and truthfully most of life): you get out what you put in. If you don't pay attention, it will be a waste of time. Simply attending a virtual college fair will not win you favor with admission reps or fill your brain with college search nutrients. If you want something beneficial out of this, then you HAVE to put something into it.
Here are my tips for students to make the most out of a virtual college fair:
Create a List Just like with traditional college fairs, there are WAY too many schools. You are going to have to do some prep work beforehand to have an idea of the best way to spend your time. Think about where you are in the process and what you're looking for in a college. Write down your thoughts and focus on schools that match those parameters. I suggest going the extra mile: think of a few specific schools that interest you and hone in on them.
Attend Information Sessions Not all virtual college fairs have information sessions, but quite a few do. This is a good place to learn more general information about the college search, admissions policies, financial aid, scholarships, athletic recruitment, how to write a great college essay, and other important topics. You'll also probably hear from a panel of multiple admission reps, so take advantage of the variety of viewpoints. If someone on a panel really connects with you, find out where they work and reach out to them for a one-on-one chat.
Be Active in Chat! I get it, and trust me, I understand the allure of sitting back and not participating. I will tell you though, as someone who has been on the other side of the presentation screen, a little audience participation goes a long way. Additionally, admission reps are more likely to remember you if you speak up and ask a question. Don't have a question? Sure you do! You just don't know that you have it yet! You can even cheat and think of a handful of personally meaningful questions to ask each admission counselor you speak with.
Follow-Up I cannot emphasize how important a follow-up is for many of the admission reps you might be working with. As I mentioned in the cons list, going virtual has made it more difficult to create a meaningful, authentic, and long-lasting impression on admission reps. Something as simple as: "Hi Sawyer, I listened to your presentation at the virtual college fair last week. You weren't that funny, but I appreciated the effort :) Best, Student McStudentson" Just reading it warms my heart and nearly brings a singular dramatic tear to my eye. Joking aside, this allows you to start a one-on-one dialogue with the admissions rep in a way that will actually stand out. Most schools also track interest (and it can be a deciding factor), so logging a visit at the virtual college fair and following up with an email is a strong show of interest. You also never know what college-related opportunities the admissions rep might know about that you don't. If you let them know you're interested in oboe, eSports, or swimming, they might have a connection to help you learn more. They might even know about scholarship opportunities.
So there you have it, virtual college fairs in a nutshell! If you happen to see my name at one of the virtual college fairs, don't be a stranger. I always love to talk with students and families about the college admissions process (or really just life in general). A quick refresher for the virtual road:
Use the internet and a computer/smartphone to learn about colleges and talk with admissions reps.
Find opportunities here: The National Association for College Admissions Counseling, StriveScan, Go To College Fairs.
Virtual college fairs can be convenient and efficient, but at the cost of personal interaction and exploring lesser-known options.
Be prepared. Be engaged. Be active. Be the student who stands out afterward.
Best of luck to all of you out there, and safe travels wherever your journey might take you! As always, be kind to each other, support each other, and challenge each other to make a better tomorrow.
With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors