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Attending your local college fair is a great way for students and parents to dip their toes into the waters of college exploration. It’s crazy loud, crazy crowded and a little intimidating, but it often yields great results.

College fairs are information-gathering bonanzas. I often suggest that families with high school freshmen and sophomores go; it makes a student’s next step more of a reality. For students who haven’t really figured out that high school grades count a lot, having a brief conversation with an admissions representative from the college of their dreams does wonders.

The reality that college is just a few short years away sinks in and formerly lackadaisical students “get it,” turning themselves into more dedicated students because they now have a goal in sight.

Before you go

• Find college fairs in your area by visiting the National Association for College Admission Counseling website: www.bit.ly/1osbJke. If the website provides a booth location map, scope out your most expeditious route.

• Create a list of questions that are specific to your needs and wants. For example, don’t ask about the college’s SAT test scores when you can find that out on the website or in a college guidebook. Instead, ask something like “I’m thinking of majoring in business but I’d like to study abroad; where will I be able to go abroad and still continue taking business courses that will count toward my major?”

At the fair

• Introduce yourself, if possible, to the admissions representative. Request business cards so you can follow up.

• Ask your question(s) and come prepared to take notes on each college’s responses.

• Divide and conquer. If your list of colleges is very long, you may be best served by splitting up and stopping at booths independently. Some booths will have very long lines and run out of brochures and business cards, so plan your time strategically.

• Attend any of the workshops on the college search process, financial aid, test prep, etc. These sessions are good, and it’s a great chance to sit down.

• Be adventurous and go beyond the “usual suspects.” Make it your mission to find one college that you’ve never heard of and learn something about it.

• Don’t hog the admissions representative, especially if there is a long line. Ask your question, collect your literature, say thank you and move on.

Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website at www.CollegeAdmissionsStrategies.com.