Your first step to higher education

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National College Fair

11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sept. 29

Festival Hall Complex, Hall A

Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand

Admission: free;

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Calling all high school students. If you’re planning to attend college — and especially if you haven’t given it much thought — then the National College Fair at Navy Pier running from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 29 is a must-attend event.

Admissions counselors representing more than 400 colleges and universities in the United States and 20 foreign countries will be available to answer your questions and address your concerns at this free event sponsored by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.

“The fair is the perfect starting point for all high school students, regardless of where they are in their search for a school that is the right fit,” said Beth Gilfillan, co-chair of the fair and a college counselor at Deerfield High School. “They’re able to talk one-on-one with recruiters from a wide range of schools, including some they did not even know existed — but could be just what they’re looking for. In addition, workshops will also be offered throughout the day with practical advice on everything from improving ACT scores to financial aid.”

Since 1972 the NACAC has held college fairs annually in every metropolitan area of the United States. These fairs are one of the most reputable and productive recruiting tools available to colleges and universities.

Gilfillan strongly advises students to visit the association’s website at where they can preregister at and also watch a short video for more information about what happens at a NACAC College Fair. They also can register at the event.

Participants will receive a sheet with a personal bar code that contains their name, mailing address, tentative majors, extracurricular interests and other information. All the admissions counselors have to do the day of the fair is scan the bar code to capture the data to guarantee the students will receive the information they need to help them make an informed decision.

NACAC college fairs typically attract 10,000 visitors so Gilfillan advises students and their parents to plan ahead and develop a strategy to get the most out of this once-a-year event. Know what you want to find out and have a list of questions that are unique to your interests and not easily found in the college’s literature to ask representatives at each school.

Cross out questions like how large is the freshman class. Instead, ask which majors are most popular. The answer can give you a good idea of the main interests of the student body.

And don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Don’t just focus on “name” schools or schools you’re familiar with. You may find that a school you’ve never heard of offers the exact major or extracurricular program you want.

“When you arrive at the fair pick up a directory and a bag to hold the literature you’ll collect during the course of the day,” Gilfillan said. “If you need help with your search, make sure your first stop is the counseling center where counselors will answer your questions and direct you to schools that meet your requirements as to size, location, major and other areas of interest.”

As in past years, this year’s College Fair will once again offer workshops throughout the day on specific topics including techniques for improving ACT scores, choosing the college that’s right for you, writing effective essays and financial aid. There are also Spanish-speaking sessions covering resources for the college search and financial aid.

“But this year we’ve added four new workshops based on input from counselors who have seen an increased interest in these topics,” Gilfillan said. They include information about highly selective schools, medical and law school admissions, college athletics and navigating your transfer from a community college to a four-year college.

Murphy Monroe, executive director of admissions at Columbia College who has represented his school at NACAC college fairs for many years, considers them invaluable for “demystifying” the often intimidating process of applying for college, especially for students who may be the first member of their family to attend college.

“The fair is the first step in the process of building a relationship with the student. The recruiter conveys the first impression the student has of the school he or she is representing, so it’s a great opportunity to speak directly to the student and his parents and answer all their questions and concerns,” Monroe said.

Kathryn Deluhery, associate director of freshman enrollment at Benedictine University in Lisle, agrees that engaging the prospective student in conversation at the fair is the first step that ideally will lead to more in-depth exploration of what the school has to offer.

“We encourage prospective students to come for a day or weekend, to sit in classes, spend the night in a dorm, eat in the cafeteria and talk to current students,” she said.

Jean Guarino is a local freelance writer.