College fair puts campus atmosphere at your fingertips

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There’s no argument Navy Pier’s Festival Hall is a big place. But it’s possible to navigate through the fair’s hundreds of colleges pitching their programs at the free National College Fair on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

One of the simplest and most effective steps is preregistering for the fair online, according to Oscar Rodriguez, director of Recruitment and Outreach at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). The name badge the registration process generates saves a student from the tedious task of giving his name and contact information to college reps multiple times. “The colleges just scan the students’ badges and then are ready to start talking.’’

Prospective students may visit

and select Chicago. The form collects student contact information as well as academic interests.

Rodriguez urges high school and transfer students to “have as many conversations as they can” at the fair. “There will be a lot of schools you have never heard of,’’ he said. “Sometimes families from a city as large as Chicago, with many colleges and universities, tend to forget there are schools west of the Mississippi River.”

The fair gives those colleges that aren’t household names a chance to form an impression on a student. “You never know when a relationship with that school might take root. The school that’s a little farther away may be just the right fit for a personality.”

While it’s unrealistic to visit even the majority of booths, Rodriguez said it’s good to have a list of four to eight schools that are “must visits.” After that he recommends stopping by at least a total of 20 tables to get a feel for the differences among schools and the types of students they want to attract.

Students also need to develop their own “elevator speech” about their goals for college and beyond. “Although the term ‘elevator speech’ is popular among job seekers, it fits the prospective college student as well,” Rodriguez said. The prepared student might have three majors in mind and ask the college rep if his college offers those. On the flip side, if a student is undecided about areas of study, he might inquire about how a college helps those students apply their interests and natural talents to a major. And an undecided student may want to look for schools with a large number of degree-granting programs.

Fair attendees should also be thinking beyond academic majors. Some students are drawn to smaller, liberal arts colleges where the emphasis may be on “studying what it means to be human and living in a democracy,’’ he said.

Other questions that may prompt good conversations also revolve around how undergraduate classes are taught, whether by full professors or graduate assistants. Some universities are also giving undergraduates more opportunities to participate in research. “Or does the school lean more toward the consumption of knowledge,’’ Rodriguez said.

And today the elephant in the room is the cost of college. When a student is at a fair, no school should be bypassed because of its sticker price, Rodriguez said. He said all schools have some form of financial aid available, and that can be touched on with a representative. “But it’s up to the school to come up with the financial aid package, and that doesn’t occur until later in the process,’’ he said. Award letters are not issued until a student has been accepted.

“When you pick up literature from the schools, take the information about tuition, fees, and room and board,’’ Rodriguez said. “Then later make sure you are comparing apples to apples because schools may list those categories separately or total them. It can make a big difference.’’

Overall, Rodriguez recommends that students be open to new experiences at the fair. “It should be a fun to tap into a place that fits your personality.’’