College and Career Fairs
What are College and Career Fairs?
College and career fairs are career awareness activities that expose students to a wide range of careers and higher education programs. These events typically bring multiple employers and institutions of higher education (IHEs) into one large space where each exhibitor has a table or booth at which to showcase options for students. Since most IHEs participate in college fairs as part of their regular recruitment function, the focus of this chapter is on working with employers to participate in career fairs. When planning a college fair or a combined college and career fair, the best contacts at IHEs and other postsecondary training organizations will be the recruitment or admissions staff. IHEs are usually well-equipped to provide an informative exhibit without much help from the WBL coordinator.
Fairs provide students with the opportunity to learn about a wide variety of potential career paths and post-secondary options, helping them identify career interests that warrant further exploration. They also help students learn about the high school courses required to enroll in higher education and/or prepare for specific occupations. Although often focused on either college or careers, fairs that combine the two may enable students to connect learning about careers with learning about how to access the education and training required for those careers.
The students’ primary role is to interact with adults and ask questions that will help focus their future career exploration activities. They may also collect brochures or other informational handouts that can be used to stimulate family discussions about education and career planning.
Which Students Participate in College and Career Fairs?
While college and career fairs are typically offered to students in grades seven through twelve, expectations for student outcomes and the content presented by employers and IHEs should be relevant to the age of participating students. Fairs attended by middle school students should offer broad information about careers, while fairs attended by high school students should provide more detailed information about specific careers and the education and other requirements for them.
How are College and Career Fairs Structured?
A college and career fair might be planned for a single school or for multiple schools in a region. A larger fair would be a more efficient way for employers and IHEs to reach more students, but it would require a larger venue and transportation for students. In rural areas, a fair for multiple schools would require transportation over longer distances. The WBL coordinator should weigh the trade-offs before deciding whether to plan a single regional fair, a fair for a few schools in the same area, or one for each school.
College and career fairs typically last from several hours to a full day; some extend into the evening to facilitate attendance by parents. The format can vary based on the age of participating students and the context in which the fair is offered. Some fairs include breakout sessions that highlight specific careers, education/training programs, or industry trends, while others simply host a broad array of college and employer representatives. Some fairs have employer booths and IHE booths in separate rooms; others have them together in one room. Often, students are scheduled to arrive at the fair in “shifts” to prevent overcrowding and provide each group time to interact with the exhibitors.
While each fair should be tailored to local context, needs, and resources, a sample agenda for a fair could include:
- Introduction/overview sessions for students and employers/IHEs
- Student and employer overviews should be conducted separately, but will both cover what the day will look like, what is expected of them, the location of restrooms and refreshments (if provided), and the schedule for breakout sessions (if any).
- The student overview could be done on the bus on the way to the fair (if it is off-campus) or in class the day before.
- Wrap-up/close of fair
Strategies to track and manage student participation at booths and in breakout sessions should be developed during the planning stages. Some fairs document student participation through stamps or signatures obtained at employer and IHE booths – like getting stamps in a “passport to the future.”
Successful college and career fairs require collaboration, communication, and preparation by multiple stakeholders. The process involves identifying planning and implementation partners; selecting an appropriate venue; developing and funding a budget; recruiting employer and IHE exhibitors; making logistical arrangements; collaborating with teachers to prepare students to learn and participate; and preparing employers and IHEs to communicate effectively with students.
The work involved in planning a college and career fair, whether it is for one school or several districts, can extend over several months. As noted in the Introduction, the following steps should be followed when organizing a college and career fair.
- Identify the partners needed to assist with implementation. Typically, these will be REA staff, school and district staff, representatives of employers or employer membership organizations, and IHE representatives.
- Consult with school and district staff to determine the scope of the fair (college, career, or both; one school, one district, or multiple schools or districts).
- Working with school partners, identify a few options for the date of the fair and venues at which it could be held.
- Draw up a tentative budget, which may include: facility rental, equipment rental (e.g., tables, chairs, and audio-visual or other equipment); transportation; and refreshments. Develop a strategy for securing the necessary funds (e.g., school or REA budget, fees from exhibitors, sponsorships).
- Solicit student, teacher, and counselor input on specific employers, careers, and IHEs that are of greatest interest. Use this information to develop an invitation/recruitment list for the fair.
- Recruit employers and IHEs to participate in the fair. Employer and IHE recruitment can be slow and time-consuming; starting early is advisable.
- Arrange student transportation, unless the fair will be held at a single school for only the students who attend that school.
- Prepare students for the fair.
- Prepare exhibitors for the fair and make sure that their needs are met.
- Hold the fair and document it with photos, as appropriate.
- Provide structured opportunities for students to reflect on their experience.
- Obtain evaluations from students and exhibitors.
- Recognize participating stakeholders, especially sponsors and employers.
The following text provides more detailed descriptions of steps for implementing a well-organized fair. These steps are presented in the form of a time line, starting six months before the fair. The time line is flexible and can be condensed, but proper planning is essential as there will be many details to manage.
Note: Throughout this manual, the term WBL coordinator (typically REA staff member) is used to refer to the individual responsible for planning and implementing WBL activities. Depending on the activity and context, stakeholders from school sites (principal, counselors, teachers, and administrative staff) may be involved. The WBL coordinator should be sure to use the WBL database, as described in the Introduction, to track employer and school contact information as well as the tasks each has agreed to carry out with respect to the college and career fair.
The WBL coordinator should refer to the overall WBL plan (see Introduction), if there is one, to ensure that the scheduling of the college and career fair is coordinated with the implementation of other WBL activities planned for in the region. Employers, IHEs, and school staff will appreciate it if the WBL coordinator initiates contact for the fair in that larger context.
The WBL coordinator is assumed to be the individual responsible for completing or assigning all the tasks listed below, except where noted otherwise.
Six months before the college and career fair
- Create a planning team. Members might include REA staff, school staff, IHE representatives, and representatives from business associations or employers in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. This team will: plan the event; assign responsibilities for various tasks associated with the fair; develop a budget and secure resources to fund it; determine who will staff the event; and participate in any follow-up necessary after the fair. The planning team should meet regularly (in person or by conference call) to make sure everyone is well-informed and on track. More frequent communication will take place among team members with respect to specific tasks.
- In partnership with school staff (e.g., career counselor, career advisor, teachers, and administrators), determine which students, classes, or schools will participate in the fair.
- Determine whether providing breakout sessions for more in-depth presentations by some exhibitors is desirable.
- Based on the anticipated attendance, the number of likely exhibitors, and whether or not space is needed for breakout sessions, identify potential locations for the fair. The WBL coordinator should then follow up to investigate costs, availability, capacity, and other factors that would influence the choice of location. The location should provide an open space for exhibitor booths or tables. Spaces for breakout sessions should be nearby and large enough to accommodate special presentations for 15 to 30 students at a time.
- After consulting school calendars and checking with key employers and IHEs, set a date for the fair and reserve the location. Assign specific tasks to specific team members, along with milestones and deadlines.
- Work with school staff to determine how they will obtain teacher and parent/guardian permission for students to register and participate in the fair and be absent from classes. Examples are provided in the Resources section, but it would be best to use the same forms they use for field trips and the same process and deadlines for distributing and collecting the forms. The forms may need to be modified to include a release for photographic documentation of the fair. (Note: If the fair is being held on the school campus, parental permission should not be necessary.)
- Consult with teachers, counselors, and career advisors to identify which employers and IHEs are likely to be of greatest interest to students. These are the participants that will be targeted for the most vigorous recruitment and, if space for the fair is limited, will get priority for exhibit space. Send a “save the date” communication to these high-priority employer and IHE contacts.
- Solidify the final budget and secure funding commitments.
Four months before the college and career fair
- Begin outreach to employers and IHEs, especially those identified to be of greatest interest to students, to build awareness of the upcoming fair and generate interest. Review the employer outreach section of the Introduction for useful tips.
- Start with high-priority employers and others that have had successful experiences with WBL activities or have been well-received at past career fairs. See a sample letter in the Resources section.
- Meet with chambers of commerce and other employer groups to talk about the fair and ask them to encourage their members to participate. If they are willing to assist, make it easy for them to do so by drafting an article for their newsletter or a letter to their members. The sample outreach materials in the Resources section can be adapted for this purpose.
- Contact IHEs and other training programs that should be included in the fair.
- Send information home with students for parent awareness and recruitment of additional employers.
- As employers and IHEs respond to these contacts, secure their commitment to participate using or adapting the employer/IHE participation form in the Resources section.
Three months before the college and career fair
- Follow up on invitations, especially to the employers and IHEs of greatest interest to students. Ask employers that have already committed to participating for help in recruiting others, using peer communication such as the example in the Resources section.
- Create a participant checklist to help employers and IHEs plan their exhibits for the fair. The Resources section includes a sample that can be adapted to local context and needs.
- Communicate the schedule for the fair as well as the space and equipment that will be available to exhibitors, and offer tips for how to engage with students during the fair. Give examples of hands-on activities or demonstrations that will expose students to work-related tasks.
- Send the participant checklist to employers and IHEs that have submitted participation forms. Offer to assist them in planning their exhibits.
- Continue employer and IHE outreach as needed until the high-priority exhibitors have responded and the available exhibit spaces are filled.
- Determine transportation needs for students (e.g., school, parents, or other) and contract with a bus service if needed.
- Determine the number of staff volunteers needed for the fair and identify and articulate the responsibilities of each (e.g., assisting in set-up, serving as bus monitors, assisting students as they move through the fair, greeting arriving students and exhibitors, providing refreshments, taking photographs and video, or helping with clean-up).
- (Teachers) Introduce students to the college and career fair and begin to prepare them to get the most out of their participation.
- Refer to Roads to Success, Grade 7, Careers 4, 5, and 6: Career Fair: Career Research 1, Student Handbook, Grade 7, Career Research, Likes and Dislikes.
- Refer to Roads to Success, Grade 7, Careers 5: Career Fair: Career Research, Student Handbook, Ask the Experts! (all three pages).
- Refer to Roads to Success, Grade 7, Unit 5, Careers 8: Listening and Asking Questions.
 The term “teachers” should be taken to include counselors, career advisors, and REA staff.
Two months before the college and career fair
- Continue employer and IHE outreach as needed, using all the methods described earlier.
- Continue phone calls with participants after they have reviewed the resource materials to confirm their understanding of what is expected and to answer questions or provide advice.
- If breakout sessions will be offered, determine which exhibitors they should feature, invite them, and help them prepare. Breakout sessions are typically 30 minutes long for about 15 to 30 students and focus on high-need industries, high-need skills, workplace skills, education programs, etc. Work with presenters to build powerful and engaging presentations. Resource materials from the Guest Speakers chapter of the manual may be useful for this purpose.
- Determine how to manage students’ time throughout the fair to avoid too many or too few students in breakout sessions or visiting each booth at the same time. Staggered arrival and departure times for groups of students are a typical way to avoid excessive congestion at the fair.
- Provide updates to teachers regarding confirmed employer and IHE participants, so that they can pique students’ interest and acquaint them with what they might learn.
- Continue preparing students using Roads to Success, Grade 7, Careers 4, 5, and 8, listed above.
One month before the college and career fair
- Continue employer outreach and obtain commitments, as needed.
- Maintain contact with participants and continue to offer assistance in planning their exhibits. Gather information on any space or other requirements (e.g., electrical outlets, internet access) to make sure that they can be provided.
- Recruit staff and volunteers for the day of the fair. They may be school staff, parents, college students, or even high school students, as long as they still have time to participate in the fair.
- Develop student deliverables for participation in the fair. They may include passports to the future (see sample in the Resources section) to be stamped by employers or IHE representatives or other tools that encourage student engagement and facilitate tracking of students during the fair.
- Reach out to local media outlets that might cover the fair. These could include local and regional newspapers, radio and television news programs, and/or school publications.
- Have schools distribute required student registration/parent permission and teacher permission for class absence forms and a list of participating employers and IHEs to students. Include an invitation for parents/guardians to participate, if possible. School staff should determine the deadline for return of permission forms.
- (Teachers) Have students conduct research on participating employers and IHEs, with a special focus on those that align with students’ career interests. Have them discuss questions they would like to ask.
- Refer to Roads to Success, Grade 11, Student Handbook, Job Shadow 6, Informational Interview 2, Research Questions.
- (Teachers) Introduce students to informational interviews (see more in Chapter 5) to help them interact effectively with employers and IHEs.
- Refer to Roads to Success Unit 4, Grade 11, Student Handbook, Job Shadow 5 and 6 for useful lesson plans and tools (including templates that students could use to record questions and answers).
Two weeks before the college and career fair
- (School staff) Finish collecting registration/permission and class absence forms.
- Touch base with employer and IHE participants to answer questions and confirm all logistical information.
- Create and finalize a floor plan or diagram for the fair, assigning booths or tables to participants.
- Finalize assignments for staff and volunteers and define expectations for each assignment. It may be helpful to designate task leaders for jobs like set-up and clean-up.
- Confirm transportation plans.
- Confirm site preparation arrangements, including parking, tables, chairs, refreshments (if any), storage (for coats and exhibitor materials), table decorations (if any), internet access (if required), electrical outlets, etc.
- (Teachers) Continue preparing students for the fair by reviewing participating organizations and past lessons, as needed.
One week before the college and career fair
- (School staff) Determine how to handle students who did not secure parent or absence forms by the due date (e.g., attend a study hall or have special assignments for the time when other students will be at the fair).
- Reconfirm details for participating employers and IHEs. Include information on how to contact the WBL coordinator and other key staff before and during the fair.
- Secure or create directional signage and decoration (e.g., balloons outside the doors to the event, signs with the agenda for the day and locations of specific industries and breakout sessions, name tags, etc.).
- Review the fair logistics with the planning team, staff, and volunteers and make any needed adjustments. Make plans for communication on the day of the fair, using mobile phones or walkie-talkies.
- Remind media outlets that the fair is coming up, so they can plan coverage assignments. Make sure the media have an on-site contact (typically the WBL coordinator, but perhaps a school district media relations person) to guide them to the most newsworthy exhibits.
- (Teachers) Discuss appropriate student behavior and attire for the fair.
- Distribute and review the questionnaires or forms students will be completing during the fair. Refer to Roads to Success, Grade 7, Careers 1, Interest Inventory, Facilitator, DO NOW, Interest Inventory Choices and Grade 7, Careers 4, Career Fair, Career Research, Student Handbook, Career Research for useful templates. The passport to the future in the Resources section is another option.
- Create and distribute schedules for the fair, including transportation arrangements. In some instances, schedules may be customized based on students’ selections of employers or IHEs they wish to meet and breakout sessions they want to attend. Schedules should be shared with the WBL coordinator and others involved in implementation.
- Address any questions or concerns that students (or their parents) may have or refer them to the WBL coordinator.
One day before the college and career fair
- Send a final confirmation email to participants, including logistical and contact information.
- Send a reminder to media outlets with specifics on location, schedule, notable exhibitors, what will be happening, and whom to contact on site.
- (Teachers) Distribute the final list of participating employers and IHEs, the locations of their exhibits, breakout session assignments, and a passport to the future (see Resources section for a sample) or other tool to document the exhibits the students visit. Bring extra copies to the fair.
- If possible, begin to set up for the fair, including technology resources, registration tables, directional signs, decorations, booths or tables, and breakout session rooms.
Day of the college and career fair
- Complete set-up work. Allow ample time to be ready before the start of the fair. Walk the space to identify and correct any problems.
- Gather staff, organizers, employers, and IHE representatives to share logistical information, introduce key staff, and answer questions. Include details about post-fair clean-up as determined during planning process.
- Ensure that all students have transportation and that attendance is taken on the bus to and from the fair.
- On-site staff and volunteers should direct students to appropriate booths or breakout sessions, maintain the schedule, answer questions, and document the fair with photos.
- Greet media representatives and guide them to potential points of interest.
- Ensure that the assigned staff and volunteers perform the clean-up tasks assigned to them and that the space is left as specified in the rental contract.
- As employers and IHEs are leaving, thank them for participating and give them an evaluation form (sample in Resources section) to complete. Follow up by emailing the form.
- Distribute evaluation forms to students as they leave the fair or on the bus.
One day to one week after the college and career fair
- Send thank-you emails to employers and IHEs along with a reminder to return their evaluation forms; include a few highlights from student comments, photos, and media coverage.
- Collect and review student, employer, and IHE evaluations.
- Conduct a debriefing session with the planning team. Share all evaluation results and capture lessons learned for future college and career fairs.
- Follow up with media representatives who did and did not attend. Media outlets that did not attend may still publish news from the fair. Collect news coverage and distribute to participants. Also share any media coverage with school districts, schools, and REA partners. This information can be used for outreach in subsequent years.
- If negative feedback is obtained from evaluations from students or employers, gather information pertaining to the negative feedback and take appropriate action promptly. Capture this information for use in planning future fairs.
- (Teachers) Conduct reflection activities in class and compile students’ written reflections for dissemination.
- Follow up with any employers or IHEs that expressed interest in further participation in WBL activities.
Note: Forms can be printed with expanded space for written responses or adapted in other ways.
- Email to employer/IHE
- Email for partners to forward
- Participation form
- Student registration/parent permission form
- Teacher permission form for class absence
- Passport to the future