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On Sunday night, Fair Oaks Mall will host an unusual shopping spree. Thousands of teenagers will flock to the mall hunting not for clothes but for colleges.

The 38th annual College Fair and College Night, organized by Fairfax County Public Schools, will take place this Sunday and Monday. First comes the College Fair at Fair Oaks Mall on Sunday from 7:30-9:30 p.m. College Night follows on Monday from 7-9 p.m. at Hayfield Secondary School.

Admissions representatives from more than 360 schools will attend the College Fair, decorating tables spread throughout the mall with colorful brochures and college paraphernalia. The College Night features representatives from more than 300 schools, as well as workshops relating to the college admissions process.

With the extensive selection of schools and large crowds - the College Fair typically draws more than 10,000 people, College Night between 6,000 and 8,000 people - students can feel overwhelmed and intimidated upon entering into the fray.

However, students can take simple steps to prepare for these events and get the most out of the experience, according to Judy Hingle, the Career Connections specialist for the Fairfax County school system.

First, students should register for the events online at www.fcpscollegefairs.com, Hingle said. While they do not need to do this to gain admittance to the fair, registration provides each student with a printable barcode to scan at the college booths he or she visits. By scanning the barcode, the student automatically provide their information to the schools without the hassle (or hand cramps) of filling out information card after information card.

Yet with great power comes great responsibility. Diane Villars, the Career Center specialist at Westfield High School in Chantilly, does recommend that all her students register online. But she cautions against scanning the barcode at every booth in sight. Their mailboxes and minds will be flooded.

Hingle agrees. “The process has a lot of moving parts and a lot of information out there, and that information overload gets to people,” she said.

Students should target the schools in which they have particular interest, Hingle and Villars advised. The lists of colleges attending each event are available online. The attendees range from traditional four-year schools to professional training institutions, from close-to-home - George Mason University in Fairfax - to oceans away - University of Navarra in Spain.

However, Hingle also says students, particularly those in the early stages of their college search, give themselves time to look at a few colleges currently off their radar.

“It’s not just the list of five highly known colleges that you see on everybody’s sweatshirts,” Hingle said. “Just because it’s a familiar name doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best place for you.”

Once students arrive at the College Fair or College Night, they will have their chance not only to nab brochures and sign up for mailing lists but also to speak with the admissions representatives one-on-one. Doug Hartog, the senior associate dean of admissions for the University of Virginia, encourages students to ask questions beyond those that can be answered on a website.

“Try to get beyond just the numbers that are a part of this process and think about what it’s going to be like to actually live there,” Hartog said. “What is life like on a daily basis? Think a little deeper than admissions statistics and try to get at the pulse of the university.”

Having guided students through the college admissions process for more than 20 years, Hingle knows that approaching college representatives may give students the jitters. But she said the key thing to remember is that they are just people, not an embodiment of your future.

“It’s not going to be like there’s a black checkmark next to your name if you didn’t have just the right question or just the right approach,” Hingle said. “If you’re nervous, that’s fine, that’s not a problem. They don’t expect every student that walks up to suddenly have this insightful question that nobody has ever asked before about their college.”

Students should see themselves, not the colleges, as the stars of the process, according to Hartog. He said he got into this field because he enjoys working with young people and helping them to find the right fit, and he believes that most representatives at the college fair would say the same.

“You’ve got folks there that want to talk to you,” Hartog said. “The admissions professionals are there to help you. Help you navigate the process, find the right schools and communities to live and learn in. So just realize we’re there as a resource for you. Come up with some confidence and engage in conversation.”

kyanchulis@fairfaxtimes.com