Getting the Most from an Idealist Grad School Fair

Dr. Don Martin

A "thank you" note, a graduation cap, and the Idealist logo
Illustration by Marian Blair

For most prospective master’s and doctoral students, there is both a sense of excitement and a degree of apprehension associated with the graduate school application process. 

The biggest mistake grad school candidates make

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in your search for the right graduate program is not doing adequate research before submitting your application.

While word of mouth or a ranking can help to inform our decisions, these resources should never be the only criteria that we use to determine where to apply.

If you’re just getting started, and trying to determine where your research journey should begin, you’ve got options! Great starting points include visiting campuses in person or virtually, speaking with current and students and recent graduates, researching the curriculum and faculty, and doing an online search to find news coverage of each program. 

Pro Tip: If you’re looking for news coverage, for the most balanced point of view, find something that wasn’t written by the school or program. 

The right way to do your research

Another way to kick off your comprehensive research is to attend an Idealist Grad School Fair. Each year, Idealist holds Idealist Grad Schools Fairs in cities across the United States. An average of 500 institutions have admissions representatives ready to meet with candidates, answer questions and provide information. 

How to get the most out of an Idealist Grad School Fair

1. Try to arrive as close to the official start of the event as possible While a several hour-long event may sound like more than enough time to make your rounds, you’d be surprised at how many of our attendees get wrapped up in enthusiastic and energetic conversations with program reps and never quite get to connect with all of the schools on their list. Showing up on time (or early) if you can will pay off in dividends! And of course, don't’ forget your preferred method for note taking and contact organization. This will allow you to track which reps provided what information.

2. Be mindful of your appearance and etiquette. Remember: Just as you are evaluating the appearance and manners of admissions representatives, so they are evaluating you in those areas, too.

The adage “first impressions are lasting ones” is as true today as it was two centuries ago. When I was Dean of Admissions at Columbia, University of Chicago, and Northwestern, I made notes on candidates I met at grad fairs, for better or for worse. 

3. Visit with as many representatives as possible. While it’s important to do your advance research prior to attending a grad fair, try to avoid being too set on exactly which programs you want to connect with. You would be wise to meet with every individual representing a program in which you are interested. Remember: An informed opinion and perception of a program is where you end up after doing all of your research (and making connections), not where you start out.

 4. Have some questions ready. Just as you would for a job interview, come prepared with a least a few questions. While you do want to make an impression and prepare questions that cast you in a good light, the main goal of your questions should be to collect whatever information you need to make an informed decision (or perhaps, allay any concerns that you may have). questions.

a. How do you make decisions on applications? Do not help the representative by, for example, asking about the specific importance of grades, test scores, or extracurricular activities. Just let them tell you how applicants are evaluated. For example, if you are told that you need a certain GPA or test score to be admitted, do you really want to apply to an institution that evaluates you primarily based on numbers?

b. May I see the results of a recent student satisfaction survey? If the answer is that they do not conduct surveys, or that you are not permitted to see the results of surveys they do conduct, put that in your notes. You’ll want to ask yourself if you want to attend an institution that does not task their students for feedback, or that does not release survey data. 

5. Say “thank you” and request a business card from each representative you meet. This is just plain common courtesy. 

6. Send a thank-you note to those who left a positive impression. ThisSending a follow-up note to share your gratitude and reaffirm your interest offers you an “in” for future communication (beyond the generic admissions office’s email address) should you decide to apply. 

7. Create a spreadsheet and record your impressions. One of the best ways to remember all that you learn at the fair is to record that information on a spreadsheet. You can list your program options in alphabetical order, thereby reducing the temptation to rank them too soon, and then record responses to the two questions you asked each representative along with other information you gather about your program options. 

By utilizing these tips, you will be able to maximize your experience at an Idealist Grad School Fair, dramatically increase your chances of finding the best graduate program for you, and enjoying one of the greatest experiences of your life. 

Dr. Don Martin

Dr. Don Martin is Founder and CEO of Grad School Road Map (GSRM). He is former Dean of Admissions and Dean of Students at Columbia University (Teachers College), The University of Chicago (Booth School of Business), and Northwestern University (Medill School of Journalism). Check out his weekly blog series on the GSRM website (, including “COVID-19’s implications on grad school: 5 things to consider.” Also check out Dr. Don’s book, “Road Map for Graduate Study, A Guide for Prospective Graduate Students.” For a reduced price, scroll down and click on the “Order Now” box, and use discount code GSRM