The Mystery Fair

by Barbara Chen

In 1998, every Friday a mystery guest would come and read a book to my daughter’s entire kindergarten class. This ritual was the source of great excitement as each week, students would try to figure out who would be coming in to read, and what type of book they’d chose. The mystery guest was usually a parent, aunt, uncle or grandparent of one of the students. The teachers loved this tradition because it exposed students to a variety of styles of books from multiple English-speaking countries. Books and authors previously unheard of were now sought after in the weekly library visit, and given as birthday gifts. In a nutshell, this was story-time on steroids.

Flash forward to 2013, when a branding agency removed the labels from black t shirts to observe consumer behavior in discerning the quality of t shirts ranging from $5-$280. From Hanes to Prada, fashionistas examined the label-free shirts and decided which they liked best.

In hopes that this method of introducing colleges with a surprise element could reinvigorate the way students and parents engage with college representatives during high school visits and college fairs, I proposed the idea of a “mystery college fair” to several colleagues.

When it comes to college fairs in China, admission officers report that rankings and location are among the most frequent questions asked by parents and students. These, and other general questions, are easily found on a university’s website and seldom provide deeper insight in to how a college or university will suit a student’s individual needs. This can be frustrating as college representatives spend considerable resources to visit high schools around the world in hopes of engaging in deep conversations with prospective students.

Six months after our initial conversations, The Mystery College Fair came to Beijing! Stripped of their respective names, rankings, location, and logos, admissions officers sat on a panel and answered questions about their programs, their community, and what makes them unique.

The goals of The Mystery College Fair were simple:

  • To get students and parents to cast a wider net when considering colleges

  • To remove the baggage of rankings and preconceived ideas about certain locations

  • Empower students to ask deeper, more relevant questions when given the opportunity to meet with a college representative.

The first mystery fair was on October 16th at The Western Academy of Beijing. Approximately 20 students and a dozen parents asked questions to the panel of eight unnamed admissions officers.

Like my daughter’s kindergarten class, the anticipation about the identity of the colleges coming to visit spiked the curiosity of students and parents alike. "There was a good deal of curiosity about the Mystery Fair; we had several students attend who I haven't seen at other visits that we've had of college and university visitors,” recounted Tim Stokes, Western Academy of Beijing’s College Counselor.

Once underway, questions focused on activities, traditions, and special majors and programs. At times there were giggles, as university representatives tried to not say their school name or let slip a revealing detail. Instead of “what is” and “do you have” questions, inquisitive students asked open ended questions such as “describe the importance of sports on your campus” and “tell me about the research opportunities at your school.”  

 Mystery colleges on the panel at Western Academy of Beijing

One of the most impactful questions was “What type of student does well on your campus?” Through this question, participants learned that for example, at (later revealed to be) The University of Tulsa, students who do well are not only strong in academics, but they are students who chose to engage in the community. Barbara Chen added, “This engagement happens in the classroom, in the dormitories, on campus, and in the city of [Tulsa]. Students who seek the fun school spirit of a NCAA DI sports school and deep community connections will do well at this school.”

A small liberal arts college (later revealed to be Bard College) is located in rural New York, just upstate from NYC in the beautiful Hudson valley. Shawn Moore, the representative continued, “A student who is comfortable spending time reading a good book, enjoying nature, and engaging in deep conversations with classmates would do well here.”  

With clear examples like this, students understood the concepts of fit and campus culture without hearing a school’s name or ranking. Then, the colleges revealed their identities. Like my daughter’s kindergarten classmates who flocked to the library and book stores to find their new favorite authors, students and parents met with university representatives at their respective tables and had more detailed, one on one conversations.

After “the reveal” college representatives moved to their tables for one on one conversations.

The second mystery fair was on October 18th at The Affiliated High School of Peking University's Dalton Academy. Over 50 parents and a dozen students came to ask questions. This group, speaking mostly Chinese, asked more questions about admissions policies and requirements. However, our college panel shifted the conversation to student success and support services on campus. This topic made a deep impact on the parents. They realized it was important not just to “get in” but rather to “stay in.”

Although in the black t shirt experiment, where price and name brand were removed from evaluating quality, price remains an important part of determining “financial fit” in the college search. Questions regarding scholarships, particularly for international students, lead to conversations on cost of living in different areas, and other factors that determine the total cost of attendance.

Surveys were conducted at each mystery fair, before and after “the reveal.” Students and parents both reported that they learned important details about several universities that they had previously never heard of.

College admissions representatives on the panel at PKU

Colleges reported meaningful conversations with students who were previously unfamiliar with their institution. Most importantly, all student participants reported that they were likely to think differently about how they engaged with college representatives at school visits and high school fairs.

The participating universities are grateful to the high school counselors at WAB and PKU for their collaboration. Are you a high school looking to host a mystery college panel? Contact me for some tips on what went well, and for adjustments for improving the experience next time.

Bard College (Shawn Moore)
Indiana University- Purdue University, Indianapolis (Peter Wen)
Loyola Marymount University (Paul Kim)
San Jose State University (Bob Arcangel)
Susquehanna University (Adam Guo)
The University of California, Davis (San Lee)
The University of California, Irvine (Karen Tong)
The University of Tulsa (Barbara Chen)
Trinity College (Lukman Arsalan)
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (Jess Strong)
University of Tennessee, Knoxville (Katie King)


 Barbara Chen is the China Admissions Representative for the University of Tulsa 

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Comments on "The Mystery Fair"

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Berta Liao - Saturday, December 29, 2018

What a fantastic idea!

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