A College Advisor's Journey Through New York City's National College Fair

05/02/2016 04:27 pm ET Updated May 03, 2017

Over the course of my 12-year long career as a college essay advisor, I have attended many an admissions event and college fair, and the same thought always strikes me as I walk through the doors of one of the convention centers or auditoriums:

Why would so many parents and students want to cram into this godforsaken place on such a beautiful day?

"Doing the proper preparation is key," Matthew Spatz told me, as I walked into this year's National Association for College Admission Counseling's (NACAC*) New York National College Fair at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on April 24, just a couple Sundays ago. Spatz and his daughter Jennifer, an eleventh grader at St. Vincent Ferrer High School, trekked into Manhattan all the way from Yonkers to line up at the tables at NYU (not in attendance - sorry, Jennifer!) and SUNY Albany. "There is a lot of competition out there," Spatz said.

The battle at the convention seemed to center around getting face time at the tables of a select set of schools. Many high-profile institutions, including all members of the Ivy League, were absent from the event, while crowds formed around Vanderbilt, University of Maryland and the various SUNY locations.

On line to chat with the Vanderbilt reps, I encountered a tenth grader from Stuyvesant, who prefers to remain nameless; both his age and commitment to secrecy a measure of the competitive spirit that has infected the admissions process, especially in New York City's exclusive high schools. The sophomore was checking out schools with his mom, who told me that the brand name schools her son was truly gunning for weren't in attendance at the NACAC fair, but would be represented at Stuyvesant's school college fair. The disparity between expectations and reality at the NACAC fair is perhaps a symptom of the increased pressure students are feeling to apply to an upper echelon of schools defined by microscopic acceptance rates and a cultivated air of exclusivity.

Another parent, Diana Cui, whose daughter, Catherine Yung, has her hopes set on attending MIT, Columbia or Brown, showed me the materials the pair had prepped at the suggestion of the schools counselor at the Kew-Forest School in Forest Hills. As I flipped through ten pages of questions, carefully tailored to each school, as well as Yung's immaculately plotted resume and homemade business cards, I felt a little sad for her that none of her dream schools were on the floor that day. Yung's pointed list of questions, however, is the kind of preparation appreciated by admissions officers and local reps around the floor - and who asks the question matters.

"We like to see the students ask the question instead of the parents," an Admissions Intern named Amy Vu told me from behind a packed Stony Brook booth.

When I asked students what kind of information they could get at the convention that they weren't finding on school websites, the answers were almost always the same: average SAT and ACT scores, qualifying GPAs, acceptance rates and financial aid details. The majority of this information is available online, or can be easily uncovered with a quick call to a school's admissions department.

For me, the true jackpot reveal came at the University of Maryland table, where the New York rep, Ashley Johnson, was able to answer questions about the Coalition Application, a new platform aiming to compete with the Common Application starting this year. After declining to ever hop on the Common App bandwagon, Maryland will be using the Coalition App exclusively this year, Johnson confirmed. She also said the app's much anticipated virtual locker, which will allow students to collect their activities and assignments for submission is set to release sometime this week. She did not seem aware, however, that the application's essay prompts had been released last week, which just goes to show that no one forum will provide you with all the information you're looking for. A thorough approach to researching (both now and in college!) is key.

WHY ATTEND A COLLEGE FAIR?
College fairs allow students to get an overview of the options available to them and collect basic information on schools of potential interest. The environment is generally exploratory and low pressure, so cast a wide net and make the most of this opportunity to practice interacting with admissions officers and local admissions representatives. For meaningful, one-on-one face time with admissions officers, attending school-specific info sessions or booking on-campus interviews is your best bet.

WHAT QUESTIONS SHOULD YOU ASK?
Use your time in front of an admissions officer or local rep to pointed questions about things you might not be able to easily glean from a school's website like a school's environment and vibe and job placement after graduation. Also ask time-sensitive questions (about the Coalition, for example) that only an admissions insider will be able to answer.

HOW CAN YOU PREPARE?
Having your resume and a list of prepared questions targeted at each of your schools of interest is never a bad idea. Also, take a look at the list of exhibiting schools before you go, so you're not disappointed upon arrival. It may still be worth attending if your top choice schools aren't on the list - it's never a bad idea to explore new options - but pumping yourself up to chat with a school that isn't represented is a recipe for disappointment.

WHEN WILL YOU HAVE ANOTHER CHANCE TO ATTEND?
NACAC's next college fair in the tri-state area will take place on October 2 at Suffolk Community College. The organization also recently launched a STEM-specific college fair, which will premiere at Columbia University on Oct 29. Dates for fairs in other cities can be found here.

For more information on how to approach future college fairs, check out College Essay Advisor's 5 Best Questions to Ask at a College Fair. And while you're weighing your future application options, don't forget to start brainstorming for your Common App and Coalition App Personal Statements with our handy dandy guides. Or, check our College Essay Academy, a comprehensive video guide to and the perfect primer for writing application essays.

*Note: Author is a member of NACAC.