The Ultimate Guide to Student Affairs Conferences

It’s conference season in the world of student affairs and we’re excited to bring you some of the best information for navigating them this year.

Between NACA, ACPA, NASPA, and ACUI (just to name a few) there are endless opportunities for new connections and communicating best practices in the world of higher education. For students, this is the season to be applying for graduate programs, waiting to hear back on internships, or full time jobs. For career switchers, it’s applying and re-preparing resumes, cover letters, and chatting about transferable skills.

Whether you’re looking to build your network, looking for a new job, or practicing those presentation skills – preparation is key! We’ve compiled the ultimate conference guide to prepare you for any conference you attend.

Create the best conference schedule

Be proactive.

Choosing sessions ahead of time will help you and your student affairs team from scrambling the first day of the conference. Divide up sessions among your team so you’re not doubling up on efforts, unless you’re looking to implement a new initiative.


Plan your days about the sessions you’re most excited for and prepare to be flexible. Sometimes sessions are cancelled last minute, so make sure to select backup sessions. Research the speakers or presenters ahead of time – if you have the opportunity to connect with them before the session you’ll avoid the long line of trying to connect with them after their presentation.

Don’t assume you’ll have time when you arrive to the conference to plan your whole schedule. Take time to scoop up pre-conference swag, get in on the early networking scene, and meet up with past colleagues or co-workers. And of course, use any app to your advantage.

Carve out time for self-care

Large conferences can be overwhelming. Take a break. Realistically check-in with yourself about your needs during the conference. If you’re not attending a session that interests you, here are ideas as to how to spend your time:

Get room service.

Get some fresh air.

Take a power nap.

Go for a run or check out the workout area.

Check out the hotel lobby, snack area, or outside territory.

Catch up on e-mails, network, or do homework.

Here’s what #SApro’s have to say about conference self-care:

You’re an adult and you’re not breaking the rules, you’re taking care of yourself. The world won’t end if you miss a mixer or a session. Bring conference snacks and stay hydrated. You’d be surprised how a diet change can totally throw off productivity levels. You’re in a new environment with shared energy, do what you need to do to get yourself on your A game.

Try not to stress about work during the conference. Set realistic expectations about what work you can actually accomplish (or not accomplish) during the conference. You won’t be able to respond in the same time frame so make sure students and staff know your availability will be limited. Don’t forget to write your best out-of-office reply e-mail

Are you a conference first-time attendee? Check out this awesome article outlining self-care tips from #SAGrad Samantha Perrin called 5 Tips for Navigating Conference Season as a First-Time Attendee.


Spend time connecting with people on social media via the conference hashtag before the conference. If you’re going to the conference solo, reach out to conference attendees who may be nearby to get to know someone before the conference. That way you won’t feel completely lost especially if it’s you’re a first time attendee.

Update your business cards and don’t forget to bring ’em! They can be a conversation lead, too, if you find yourself stuck mid-conversation.

Prepare an elevator pitch. It doesn’t have to be more than 30 – 60 seconds long. Write it down and add your own flair to it. It’s your introduction to other attendees and should highlight two to three skills you believe are critical to your career path that also may set you apart from competition (if you’re job searching). Use elevator pitches to describe ourselves with new people and prospective employers. It’s great to have a pitch ready to go in your pocket so it can be delivered at any time.

Here’s an example:

“This May I’ll be graduating from University of South Carolina with a master’s degree in Higher Education Administration. Last summer, I had a great ACUHO-I internship at Macalester College where I had the opportunity to put what I learned in the classroom into practice. I was responsible for supervising 10 undergrads while co-organizing a diversity course for the fall. Right now, I’m looking for an entry level position where I can further develop my skills in living-learning communities focused around issues of social justice.”

Instead of trying to be witty or interesting all the time – try to genuinely listen, exchange business cards, and remember conversations. What are people looking for out of your new relationship/connection? Ask and write it down on the back of the business card!

Do your online homework. Lookup speakers, try and find out more about their background – what if you run into them in the bathroom or elevator? If that happens, you’ll be able to pick their brain a bit while making a meaningful connection. Find out if you share common ground with other conference attendees in advance. Try to work these things into the conversation without having a “I-already-know-everything-about-you-because-of-social-media” vibe.

Be in the present moment. Balance the time you’re looking at your phone to check social media or schedule updates with being mindful of whose around you. Some people connect with others better in person. If you’re not like that, try to connect online first and follow up later. Your phone or technology should not become between you and a new connection, it should only help deepen a potential relationship!


Make plans with 1 “expert” or role model you have in the field. Reach out to someone in the field you’ve always wanted to connect with via e-mail, Twitter or LinkedIn. Prepare for an engaging conversation with a list of a few questions or things you’d like to learn from them. It could grow into a great relationship and at the least a connection in the student affairs field. It’s okay to be nervous – and remember – they were probably in your position one day too. People will certainly think you’re a mover and a shaker if you’ve pre-planned meetings with mentors or other people in the field.

Engage on social media

Interact on Twitter and use the conference hashtag. Typically these are listed on the website or on the conference’s main twitter handle. Start using it well in advance:

“Who’s going to #ACPA16?! It’s my first time in Montreal!”

Try to get your avatar or profile picture to match what you actually look like as best as you can. Don’t make it hard for other people to find you when you’re trying to connect in person after an awesome online conversation.

Craig Bidiman, an SA pro at UMass Boston, and teamed up to bring some awesome conference videos, one of which Craig chatted about Twitter and Tweetups!

If you’re a top tweeter – tweet out presenters best points during sessions, it will be hard for people to ignore you. Optimize the Twitter network at conferences by reading other people’s tweets, re-tweeting what you agree with or enjoy reading, and connect afterwards in person.

If you’re not one to put yourself out there during sessions or would rather take notes on paper and tweet later, tweet something like,

“Taking notes now on Sierra’s presentation at #NASPA16. Will post later!”

You’d be surprised how many people will follow you or direct message you to chat about the session you attended. You don’t have to be extremely extroverted to incept yourself into people’s memories at the conference. As long as you’re genuine, people will remember you for who you in-person and will think of those interactions when communicating online.

Learn more about the impact of social media, technology, and utilizing it at conferences from Paul Brown:

Get to know vendors

“Vendors are just going to try to sell me stuff.”

True and not true. Of course they’re looking for new clients, but they’re people and professionals who want to attend the conference. In fact, a good portion of them attend sessions to stay up-to-date with student affairs and higher education trends.

Vendors can be a great resource if you network with them the right way. Think about this: vendors have access to a mountain of information about institutions just like yours. Get to know them and ask questions about trends, challenges, and obstacles they see in the field. A lot of vendors also had awesome undergraduate involvement experiences or were past student affairs professionals who found their niche in the corporate higher ed field. Who knows, they may be hiring, like us.

Here are some questions the next to you swing by an exhibitor hall:

What problem does your company solve? Why was it started?

What is your most popular product or service? What does it provide to [type of institution]?

What is one of the most interesting ways you’ve seen an institution use your product/service?

What made you choose to work with your company?

What other conferences do you plan to attend? What’s your favorite part about attending conferences like these?

Be an authentic (and prepared) presenter

You’ve received the amazing opportunity to present at an upcoming conference, congrats! This is the kind of moment that can really propel your career along in student affairs. Your presentation is scheduled for a few weeks or a month out and you’re getting sweaty thinking about speaking in front of a room full of peers and industry leaders.

You’ve given presentations before, but you want to feel great after presenting this one. Here are a few ways to make your conference presentation you’re best one yet:

Before you read or do anything else, you need to dive into this resource from the ACPA 2016 Convention by Kevlo Ren and Lisa Endersby. It includes design resources, presentation skills, how to utilize technology, and examples of presentations.

Even if you think you’re an awesome presenter, you can always learn something new or tweak your speaking skills to capture your audience. Don’t let your hard work go to waste by delivering a less than interesting presentation.

Involve your audience. Start with talking about something that is going on at the conference, have them introduce themselves to the person sitting next to them, or ask an engaging question. Try to keep the energy high or connect people within your presentation. For example, if someone makes a comment during the presentation say something like,

“Thanks so much! That is a great comment! I’ve had that happen to me too. Who else has had that happen?”

Keep your presentation positive and encourage people to participate. It creates for a dynamic and memorable presentation. During the presentation, encourage live tweeting to share information past the walls of your presentation room.

Entertain your audience but not at the risk of communicating your content. Use humor, have fun and get people moving – but remember the people are going to connect most with the content overall.

Look to develop more confidence in your public speaking skills this year. Check out this TED Talk from Caroline Goyder on the surprising secret to speaking with confidence:

Optimize conference learning

There can be a ton of interesting sessions at a conference and it can be hard to choose the right one for you.

Divide and conquer. If there’s multiple sessions offered at the same time you don’t want to miss, try finding a conference buddy and attending sessions you’re mutually interested in. Find people on the session hashtag, make an introduction, and set up a time to converse later.

Be an attentive attendee. Before you attend a session, take a good look at the session description and target audience. If you’re a graduate student attending a session directed towards Senior Student Affairs Officers, you may want to learn about a future career path. However, don’t attend a session just to fill free time. Make sure you’re invested in learning and listening.

Introduce yourself to the people sitting around you. Most likely they are from an institution different from yours and will offer a diverse perspective on the topic at hand. It’s an easy way to network and introduce yourself to new people. At the end of the session, compare conference notes and ask them about their biggest session takeaway.

Adapt, don’t adopt. We couldn’t have said it better in 140 characters, Dan Taylor. A program may look nice and shiny at another institution, but it may not be the right fit for yours. Campus culture, institutional layout, and professional partnerships look different at every institution. Before creating a dream, bring it back to your team and ask if and how a program can be implemented. Create a realistic plan of what it might (or might not) look like at your institution.

Connect post-conference

Take some time to decompress and relax when you arrive back home, but don’t forget all the magical knowledge sharing that just happened!

The few days after the conference is prime time to follow up with people you’ve met and information you’ve gathered.

Take time for some networking housekeeping.

You may have already connected with some folks via Twitter, so make sure to follow up with people via email, snail mail, or LinkedIn requests. Include a personal message with each one. Make sure you highlight something you chatted about what you discussed (those notes on the back of the business card will be helpful right about now). 

If the conference has a LinkedIn group try to post relevant content after the conference to continue any missed conversations with attendees.

The insights and information you’ve gained from the conference will most likely be valuable to your team. Make sure to ask your supervisor for the best time to pass on everything you’ve learned. It could be a quick session at a meeting in-person or information available on a Google doc to have team members follow up with you later. 

We hope you make the most of your conference experience and teach others about your time there. Be the best version of yourself you can be and have fun with it all! 

If you’re a conference expert, you probably have a short list of your own conference tactics or tips.

Share your conference tips, tricks and tactics with us on Twitter @CheckImHere!

Kayley Robsham

About the author: Kayley Robsham is the former Community Engagement Manager at Presence, the complete student engagement platform. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

Check I'm Here is now Presence. Learn more about this change in our blog post here.