Planning for college can be an exciting process, but students often don’t know where to start. Sure, you need to decide where you’ll apply, but with so many schools out there, how do you know which ones to look at?

When you begin the search process, there are certain steps you can take to help determine which schools are the right fit for you. One of the best ways to get started is to attend a college fair, where representatives will be available to provide information and answer questions about their school. This will help narrow down your list of schools to apply to but you likely won’t have time to visit every booth, so you’ll have to prioritize your top choices.

While your high school is likely to have a college event, there are national fairs that may tour your area as well. If you want to make the most out of your experience at a college fair, you’ll need to be prepared. Here are a few tips that will make your visit productive.

Plan In Advance

Whether the fair is run by your high school or an outside organization, there is usually an online site or handout available in advance that will list the schools that will be represented, as well as a map of where their booths will be located. Keep a copy handy as you plan your approach for the day of the fair.

Not all schools offer the same academic programs, so a good way to start thinking about who you want to approach at the fair is to create a list of schools offering programs that align with your academic interests. If you haven’t decided what you’ll be majoring in, note the classes you’re most curious about and ask the school representatives for more details. If you’re more enthusiastic about the sciences, you wouldn’t want to spend much time at the booth of a school that’s known for the arts.

Match It Up

What you enjoy doing when you’re outside of class is important to think about as well. Are you looking for a school with a student orchestra, dance group or a student-run radio station? Do you want to have a lot of athletic options, be involved with a religious fellowship or write for the school’s newspaper? You’ll want to find schools that offer campus culture, clubs and organizations that align with your personal interests too.

Making decisions in regard to the school’s location and size is also critical. Some of you might want to be close to home, while others may be considering schools farther away. A student who wishes to experience a large university in an urban environment will likely not have the same preferences as someone who’s dreaming of attending a small, suburban liberal arts college.

Now take a good look at your list of schools and start matching them to your needs and wants. Depending upon your preferences, narrow down the list to come up with a final selection of the booths you should visit.

Have a Sense of Purpose

Write down any questions you want ask, then do your research and try to answer these questions for each school on your list by looking at the school’s website or course catalog. Bring your remaining questions along to the college fair. The college fair is your opportunity to get the inside scoop that won’t be available elsewhere, such as:

  • Is there a secret to getting into that popular class you want to take before it gets filled?
  • If a class is not available to undergrads but is available to graduate students, can I take it as a freshman?
  • Are there options for specialized concentrations within a major?
  • Can freshmen participate in research programs?

Step outside your comfort zone and really think about what you want to do and how you want to do it for the next four years. It’s not too soon to ask representatives about how the school provides and supports student internship and fellowship opportunities, and what the career and alumni centers have to offer.

Don’t Be a Brochure Collector

Finally, don’t visit random booths to collect brochures as a “just in case.” If you’ve prepared for the fair, a pile of materials won’t give you more clarity. In fact, it may distract from your objective, which is to gather useful information to help you find the colleges that best fit your academic and personal goals.

It’s Your Adventure

By preparing for the fair in advance you’ll not only meet each college representative with confidence, but you’ll also be in the driver’s seat. These are your choices to make and if you continue each stage of the process with a thought out plan, it should take you all the way to the school of your choice.