My very first professional conference was a joint meeting of two associations of higher education administrators in New Orleans. I was completing my master’s degree, and my primary goal was to network my way to a job.

Back on campus, my description of the various receptions for our state delegation, graduate students and alumni of our institution, plus various complimentary buffets (my cohorts and I were on a graduate student budget, after all, and free or cheap food was near the top of our list of priorities), led our program director to beg the question, “Well, did you attend any educational sessions?” Later that spring, I was presented with the dubious award, “Most Accurate Perception of a Professional Conference by a Graduate Student” at the Women in Student Affairs Annual Luncheon. (In my defense, one of my interviews in New Orleans led to my first professional position, so my goal was met.)

With that confession out of the way, here are some tips to prepare yourself for the American Counseling Association Convention in Detroit.

Set your goals

People attend professional conferences for a number of reasons. Whether you’re attending your first convention or your 30th, goals are important. Professional growth and renewal through educational sessions and networking opportunities are desired outcomes for all of us (the free food is just an attractive side benefit). It’s easy to get sidetracked, however, if you haven’t defined what you want to accomplish.

Gather your tools 

Bring plenty of business cards for networking purposes. If you don’t have a job that supplies these, most office supply stores and copy centers can print them for you. Some good online services can also provide professional business cards in high volume fairly inexpensively.

Update your résumé or curriculum vitae, even if you aren’t planning to participate in the onsite interview program. (And if you are, bring plenty of copies with you!) You never know when a chance meeting could turn into an interesting opportunity. If you have your résumé, research papers, syllabi and pictures of the kids (in case you run into a long lost friend from graduate school) copied onto a thumb drive that you can slip into your pocket or briefcase, you won’t have to scramble to locate someone back home who can access and e-mail you a copy over the weekend.

Good walking shoes are essential, and planning your wardrobe in layers for too warm or too cold meeting rooms will add to your personal comfort. In addition, pack some protein bars or other healthy snacks, something to write on, something to write with and a couple of highlighters.

Spend time with the Program Guide

After arriving at the conference site, check in at the registration desk. Be sure to pick up your complimentary tote bag and take some time to look through it.

Pay particular attention to the Program Guide, and look for the addendum, as well. There are always additions and changes to the program after printing deadlines have passed. You’ll also want to watch for the Convention Daily, which is distributed every morning of the convention.

Plan your time

On your first run through the Program Guide, put a check mark next to any of the programs that sound interesting and a star next to anything you think is a “must-attend” session. The second time through, you can prioritize your choices. It’s a good idea to have a second choice in mind, just in case the session you plan to attend is too crowded or canceled. After identifying the sessions and other activities you want to attend, you can put together a schedule.

Get the lay of the land

Time your route from your hotel room to the convention site, and be sure to add a little extra time for congested elevators. Find all the amenities you might need: coffee carts, restrooms, business center, restaurants, etc. Hop on the shuttle bus and figure out how to get from place to place.

Head over to the Exhibit Hall and check out products and services specially designed for counselors. The ACA Bookstore, Career Center, Professional Affairs and Member Services all have dedicated areas within the Exhibit Hall, and this is also where Poster Sessions are presented.

Take notes

One of the best suggestions I’ve ever heard for professional meetings is to use a two-page note-taking technique. The right-hand page is for keeping notes from what is said; the left-hand page is for jotting down ideas for implementation after you’ve returned to normal life.

Have fun!

Don’t plan every minute. Pace yourself, and enjoy the experience. Treat yourself to a nice dinner with colleagues.

Summarize and follow up

At the end of the convention, it’s helpful to prepare a personal summary for your files. What did you take away that was personally or professionally stimulating? Who did you meet? With whom would you like to maintain contact? Where did you stay? Where did you have a great dinner? How much did you spend? (This is particularly helpful when budgeting for next year’s convention.)

Professional conventions are among the best venues for networking and professional growth if you are prepared for the opportunity. (And sometimes the free food is pretty good, too!)