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March 10, 2009

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Regardless of where you are in your application, whether you've already submitted it or are about to start your GMAT prep, it is always a good idea to attend an MBA fair.

Most often held in the fall and winter, MBA fairs offer future business students the opportunity to meet with admissions officers, alumni and current students at programs from all areas of the globe. MBA fair-goers are able to get a feel for the culture of the school and ask direct questions about specific programs; two attributes that a school website's landscape photos and endless click-throughs are unable to provide.

MBA fairs are also a perfect time for precious face time with admissions officers. Make a good impression, and they will remember meeting you when they review your application. However, many of these fairs only offer a two or three hour window for meeting and greeting. Here are a few tips on how to maximize your time and make the best impression.

Which fairs should I visit?

Know what you want to get out of the event. Prospective students who are applying for the upcoming year's class are going to have very different motives than a professional flirting with the idea of an MBA down the road.

If you are going to the event to learn more about getting a business degree in general, some of the larger fairs could be a better option. Many larger events, such as the two main tours, The MBA Tour (www.thembatour.com) and The World MBA Tour (www.topmba.com), offer panel discussions and workshops on various program structures, admissions processes and current MBA opportunities. Even if you are in the first stages of MBA consideration it's never beneficial to "Supermarket Sweep" the convention center when visiting individual tables.

Check out the schools participating online before the event and make a condensed list of those you could actually see yourself attending. "Be realistic about where you are going to go," said Guy Middleton, senior manager at the Australian Graduate School of Management. "Not everyone can go to London Business School, but often times you will see huge crowds around these top schools even though only a small fraction would actually be qualified." Even if you have done little to no research on a school, avoid asking questions that would be one click away on the website. "I've seen so many candidates who ask what our average GMAT score is or even where our school is located," said Mary Miller, associate dean for the college of business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "They don't realize that they've just shot themselves in the foot. It's perfectly acceptable to let the schools know you are in your very preliminary stages of the process and just collecting materials."

If you've already submitted your application or are in the middle of working on your applications to your chosen list of schools, you may want to attend a smaller fair. For instance, Inside the MBA (www.insidetheMBA.org) features only handful of high-caliber schools, and consequentially reduced crowds and more face time with the representatives. "In general, the smaller [fairs] are more informational, more in-depth," said Chris Storer, director of admission at Boston University School of Management. "Here we can cite specific people later on, and have longer, deeper conversations."

Make sure that you know which schools are attending the different fairs. If your dream school doesn't attend a smaller fair, you may have to attend a large tour and deal with the crowds. Large tours also present opportunities for students considering out-of-state or international schools, as schools traveling a long way will try to meet as many students as possible by attending a larger fair.

Prep

Once you've chosen an MBA fair to attend, make a short list of schools participating in the event that you are particularly interested in. Then, you guessed it, research them. Come up with a few questions that specifically pertain to each school. "Some prospective students have clearly done their research," said Jett Pihakis, associate dean for MBA programs at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business. "Have questions that are a little more focused than 'tell me about your school.' Give the representatives a place to start."

In addition, many of the schools vary with regards to interview and admissions policies, and this will be reflected at the fair as well. Although you can't go wrong bringing a stack of business cards, it pays to find out what other materials you may need, and if there are any other opportunities for meeting the school's reps one-on-one associated with the fair. Mary Miller says that many schools will bring along alumni and admissions representatives to conduct sessions that could count as preliminary or formal interviews for applicants and even future applicants. "They need to contact us in advance, and there has to be a pretty good sign of interest in our school."

Mind your manners

Once you've made it to the fair and are talking to school representatives, remember that their time is just as precious as yours (school reps may talk to as many as 700 different prospective students at one fair). At very busy events and stations, don't monopolize one school's time, even if it is your dream school. Come armed with one to three well-thought out questions, and don't linger for more than about two minutes with any one person. These events also provide a great opportunity to learn about school programs you didn’t even know to ask about. "It's very helpful to stand in a circle around the table with the other candidates," suggested Alison Goggin, NYU Stern's director of MBA admissions. "It becomes more of a conversation, and people can stick around and learn from their peers' questions."

Although it's always good to put your best face on for the school officials, remember that this isn't your interview, and they are meeting with hundreds of people just like you. Instead of trying to "sell" yourself to the school, look at the fairs as a means to gather information and genuinely assess whether it will be a good fit for you. "The [attendees] who impress me the most are the ones who aren't trying too hard—who are really comfortable in their own skin," said Pihakis. "The school reps really love talking to prospective students, so there is no reason for a candidate to be nervous."

Finally, let the reps get to know you by talking about what interests you--and not just about their school. While the schools want to see that you are a good fit for the school, they are also concerned that the school is a good fit for you. "A lot of people see us in a sales sort of role," said Storer. "In the end, you want people to choose you because they want to go to you."

Not just booths

Take advantage of the other opportunities at the MBA fair. Many fairs will have panels, lectures and other information sessions in addition to the meet-and-greet at individual school booths. If there is a certain school that you are interested in and they are participating in a panel, go to it! This can help answer many general questions you many have come in with, and can help tailor your conversation to more specific attributes of the school before you meet with them. Professors, admissions officers and other field experts, including Vault, participate in the seminars, panels and workshops; and discuss admissions processes, provide GMAT advice and financing options. Exclusive scholarship opportunities, personal invites to future events and relevant newsletters and career guides are also available when you register for these events.

Follow up

Contact with schools doesn't have to end when the fair is over. When you are visiting with school reps, ask for information on any upcoming diversity or admissions events at their school. Attending these events can provide you with greater insight on the school's culture and help forge a relationship with the officers. Within a day or so after the event, shoot your contact a quick e-mail to thank them and keep you at the front of mind. "You would be surprised at the number of people who don’t follow up," said Chris Storer, director of admission at Boston University. "We live in a data-controlled world, everything is tracked internally. If there was a unique conversation, recite [it] in an e-mail within the next few days." Not only are MBA fairs a great opportunity to connect with an admissions officer at your dream school, they're also a great way to maintain contact so you stay in the front of the admissions officer's mind--exactly where you want to be when they're sending out acceptance letters!

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