Standing out—in a positive way—is no easy task. When you’re piled into a packed auditorium and competing with hundreds of other job seekers for just a few minutes of a recruiter’s attention, it’s crucial to show up prepared, ready to face the day, and knowing what it takes to distinguish yourself from the crowd.
So our guide to acing the career fair covers everything you need to know—from getting ready for the event to making a great impression and following up afterward. Follow these eight steps, and you’ll be on your way to landing interviews in no time.
Before the Event
1. Find Out Who Will Be There
Look—or ask—for a list of all the companies who will be attending prior to the event, and prioritize the ones you want to approach. This way, if you run out of time to meet everyone, you’ll at least be sure you’ve hit your top choices.
And while a career fair is a good time learn about companies, you should know a little about them before showing up. You’ll be able to ask deeper questions and get better information if you already have some background to work with.
So before you go, do some research about each company on your priority list and be prepared to tailor your conversations specifically to each recruiter.
2. Pack Your (Small) Bag
What should you bring to a career fair? Not much. Don’t carry a bulky briefcase or handbag—you want to be able to easily make your way across the room, have your hands free for handshaking, and not look disheveled. All you need is a small purse, plus a dark, plain folder to hold your resumes and any information you pick up at the event.
Bring at least 20 copies of your resume (more if there are more companies than that you’d like to meet with), a pen and paper for taking notes, and business cards (if you have them).
3. Dress for Success (and Comfort)
As with any interview, it’s important to dress professionally—but at a career fair, you want to be comfortable, too. Wear a lightweight outfit that won’t get too hot, and check your coat or leave it behind. And make sure your shoes are extra comfortable—you might be on your feet for several hours!
During the Event
4. Don’t Be Shy
As you approach each table, be friendly, be confident, and be prepared with something to say. Introduce yourself with a smile, eye contact, and a brief, firm handshake. Often, the recruiter will take the lead and ask you questions, but you should also have your elevator pitch ready—a 30-second soundbite of what you want the company to know about you. (Here’s how to craft one if you’re unsure.) To really use your time wisely, you should be able to concisely convey why you’re interested in the particular company and how your skills or qualifications suit the position.
But at the same time—don’t go too fast! Job seekers have a tendency to speak quickly, which comes across as rushed or nervous. You want to speak slowly and with interest.
5. Get Your Resume in Their Hands
One of the biggest mistakes job seekers make is not giving out their resume until the end of the meeting—at this point, the recruiter may have gotten interrupted or moved on to someone else. Instead, as you speak about yourself, hand your resume to the recruiter, and point out the places that substantiate what you’re saying.
This will draw her attention to your resume and make you stand out from the other faces at the table, too.
6. Give a Memorable Goodbye
You want the person you’re speaking with to know you’re interested in his or her company. So ask relevant questions—and also be sure to ask about next steps. You should also offer to come by the recruiter’s office for a longer conversation in person.
When the conversation is wrapping up, make sure to thank the person you’re speaking with for her time. Most importantly, request a business card! Believe me, there’s no way you’ll remember everyone’s names at the end of the event. Plus, you’ll want to have her email address so you can follow up.
After the Event
7. Follow Up
Within 24-48 hours of the career fair, send a thank you note to each person you met with, whether you’re interested in the company or not. Who knows—the next time you go to one of these things, the recruiter at that dull software company could be working for Google!
If you think the recruiter would appreciate a handwritten note, send one, but also send emails to everyone. And don’t copy and paste—it’s OK for your messages to be short, but you’ll want to personalize them to each company and recruiter.
8. Take Action
For the companies you are interested in, follow the recruiter’s instructions about applying for a position. If you need to submit your resume online, do so within a few days of the event so that you’re still fresh in the company’s mind.
And if there’s not a position available right now that’s a good fit, ask the recruiter if you can come in for an informational interview (asking is as easy as following this guide). Getting even more face time with the company is always a good thing!
It’s not always easy to stand out at a career fair, but if you arrive prepared and organized, approach the tables politely and well-practiced, and follow up the right way—you’ll already be ahead of the pack.
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Posting your resume online should be part of your job search strategy but only one part. Face-to-face interaction is still very important. And there’s no better way to see lots of faces from different companies than a job fair.
“Students can get in contact with and talk to many people from their field, give out resumes and practice interview skills,” says Jean Riordan, career counselor at the University of Chicago. Brief informational interviews—where YOU interview the recruiter—can help you learn more about what you want to do.
If the thought of meeting a room full of eager recruiters terrifies you, relax. You’ll never have an easier time during your job hunt. “Students feel like [a job fair] has all the pressure of an interview, but it’s probably one of the least stressful job searching activities you can do,” Riordan says. “For the most part, recruiters are nice perky people who want to talk to you and have good people come into their organizations.”
A job fair contact can lead to an offer right away. In addition, many companies are also looking to hire part-time workers during the school year. Northwestern University graduate Julie Piotrowski landed a three-year part-time job at University Wire after meeting the recruiter at a job fair in her freshman year.
Convinced? Then try some of these tips:
- Make a game plan. Find out what companies are attending and choose the ones you want to speak with. Prepare questions for each.
- Do your homework. Find out who the company is and what it does by checking their Web site. Knowing about the company will give you an edge over students who’ve never heard of it.
- Doublecheck your resume. Reread your resume for typos and make sure all the information is current.
- Know who you are. Rehearse two or three sentences to sum up who you are, what experience you have and what kind of job you want. “I’m not interested in what they want to do five years from now, but I want to know if [the students are] interested in a specific area,” says Miles Merwin, recruiter for publishing company Gruner & Jahr.
At the Job Fair
- Dress to impress. Dress as if you were going to an interview. “Don’t wear or do anything that represents a radical personal style,” Riordan says. Leave the tongue ring at home.
- Go early. “If the job fair ends at 4:00, by 3:00 some of the employers are starting to pack up,” she says. So start early and consider revisiting some recruiters later in the day to remind them of who you are.
- Bring lots of resumes. Give your resume out whenever possible, even if you’re not interested in that particular company. Spreading the word can lead to future contacts.
- Use your body language. A firm handshake, ready smile and steady eye contact make a better impression than sidling up to a recruiter looking anxious.
- Keep it short. On average, students spend five to 10 minutes with each recruiter. The less you stumble through your introduction, the better.
- Talk to as many people as possible. “You’ll never know what opportunities are out there unless you open up,” Piotrowski says. “Sometimes a company will create a position for you if they like you.”
- Eavesdrop. If you hear a recruiter describing a company’s work culture to another student, follow up with a question about hiring policies instead of asking the same question.
After the job fair, send thank-you letters with copies of your resume to all the recruiters you met. List a permanent address in case an employer decides to contact you a year or two down the road.
Relax, do some pre-fair prepwork and put your name out for companies to see. In a few weeks, those handshakes and handed-out resumes might come back as job offers.
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