Career fairs remain a common way for college students to meet employers, practice their value propositions, sharpen their presentation and communication skills, and explore available opportunities (internships and full-time positions). They may take place at your institution, at affinity conferences or in a specific geographical area. As a student, you may have several options, and I encourage you to attend as many as you can. If you choose to do so, here are seven ways you can maximize your experience.
Once you decide to attend a career fair, find and carefully review the list of confirmed employers. Pay attention to those aligned with your interests and identify your top five. As much as you may want to, you probably cannot visit every table and speak to all representatives. Coming up with a top-tier list can help you focus as you research them thoroughly: peruse their website; read their mission, values and goals; take note of their needs or projects; review any openings they may have; and think about how your elevator pitch can show them you are a worthy candidate.
Consider using flash cards to jot down a few keywords for each target employer. At the career fair, consult the flash card before speaking with that employer, thus making sure you grab their attention with a focused introduction that shows them you know what they do and need. Once you have your top-tier targets, take note of possible second- and third-tier targets. You may not have time to research them, but you could get some information to help you initiate a conversation.
Once you have a target list, create an introduction that highlights your background, strengths and abilities, demonstrates knowledge of the industry and employer, and reveals your enthusiasm. At a career fair, recruiters speak with hundreds of students, and if you want to stand out and be remembered, prepare a pitch and questions that reveal a genuine interest in the company and position. Do not rely on recruiters to keep the conversation going. Most of them will be outgoing and ready to lead, but you want to be prepared to initiate conversations by asking meaningful questions. The questions you choose should not have answers easily found on the company website. It seems obvious to say this but please listen when recruiters speak. Take notes as they share information about the company, opportunities or the candidates they look for. These could become a springboard for additional questions.
Depending on the industry focus of the career fair, you may need to dress in business professional, business casual or casual attire. Keep in mind that even if you are targeting an industry that allows for casual attire on the job, at the career fair, you want to look polished and professional. It's better to be overdressed than underdressed, and if you are attending a fair that features employers from different industries, you want to be dressed for the most conservative one. Whatever style you choose to wear, pick an outfit that fits well and is not revealing. If you haven't worn that outfit in a while, try it on to make sure it looks and fits as it should. If you are not sure about your outfit, consult with your career center for feedback. Pay attention also to your shoes, accessories, face and hair. Comfortable shoes are key if you plan to spend hours at the fair. Accessories work great to show personality -- but don't overdo it. Be sure your face is washed and clean-shaven and your teeth are brushed.
“Prepare to bring extra copies of your resume on resume paper in a padfolio, and a PDF copy on a USB with a professional name (First Name_Last Name_Resume.pdf)," says Michelle Jones, associate director of coaching and education at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. You may want to work with a career counselor prior to the career fair to make sure your resume is polished and focused. While employers may not take or keep your resume, it's good to have a copy for you to point to as you speak about your background. In addition to resumes, “pack a lint brush, stain remover pen, and mints (not gum)," says Jones. Consider fitting all items in a padfolio or a small bag and avoid large backpacks or purses.
Career fairs can be overwhelming: Rows of employers waiting to speak with you and hundreds of other students competing for their attention. So when you arrive, take your time. Spend a few minutes walking around and mapping out the locations of your target employers. Observe the representatives of your top targets and note their body language. Some tables will be more crowded than others so don't pass opportunities to chat with representatives who are more available to interact, even if they are not your target. In fact, you want to visit at least one non-target employer first so you can practice your introduction and get the nerves out of the way.
All tables will have materials and displays so look at them as you wait to chat with recruiters. These could give you ideas for additional questions. Give each recruiter a firm handshake, smile and look them in the eye when speaking with them. After each conversation, take a few minutes to jot down any reflections, notes, insights, and reminders for a follow-up. If there is a line of students waiting to speak to a specific employer, avoid monopolizing their time. Be respectful, acknowledge their situation and inquire about a business card to continue the conversation after the career fair. Say thank you!
“Like any networking event, there are no guarantees of interviews or job leads when attending a career fair," Jones says. As such, you want to manage your expectations as you prepare and think beyond securing a position. “Think of the event as a great opportunity to practice pitching yourself to a variety of employers in a low-risk environment," adds Jones. “And if you make a connection that continues after the event, bonus!" Your experience at a career fair depends largely on your mindset going in. If you attend with the intention of speaking to all employers and leaving with an offer or two, you will probably be disappointed. Be realistic about the event's value beyond an on-the-spot offer.
This is the step many job seekers completely skip or ignore. Within 24 to 48 hours of the career fair, send a thank you note to recruiters you spoke with and consider connecting with them on LinkedIn. In your note, mention something memorable you learned during your conversation -- that's when the notes you took come in handy! Even if the company is not a target, gratitude looks good on everyone -- yourself and your institution. If the employer is one of your top targets, reiterate what makes you a good fit for a position in their organization. If they told you to upload your resume to their website, do so as quickly as possible and notify them that you have done so in your thank you email.
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