Updated on 01.22.15

Make the Most of a College Job Fair

job fair

Having a plan ahead of time will help you navigate a job fair. Photo: Georgia Institute of Technology

If your main goal after college is to land a job, attending a college career fair has to feel somewhat like visiting Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Maybe not quite that cool. But it’s a great way to land or line up a job after graduation. The U.S. Department of Labor says that approximately 18% of all job seekers find their jobs at career fairs, according to Monster.com.

And the nice thing is that companies are there because they are specifically looking for recent college graduates. So they’re quite aware that you probably don’t have a ton of job experience, but they value that degree you’ve been working so hard to get, and that can take some of the pressure off.

Besides increasing your chances of landing a job, attending a career fair can help you hone your interview skills, highlight strengths and weaknesses on your resume, and let you explore the opportunities that are out there.

But you can’t just stroll in and walk away with a job. You need to be prepared. Here’s what you need to know to ace that job fair:

Before the Fair

Update your resume and portfolio. Even if your work experience doesn’t exactly match what you’re looking to do, add it. You can always spin that experience into working well with people, showing your responsibility, or whatever other attributes you can display. Add academic accomplishments or relevant coursework, along with any clubs you’re involved in or volunteer work.

If your college’s career services department offers resume help, take advantage of their input. If they don’t, consider turning to an academic advisor, a professor, or someone you know and trust already working in the industry who would be willing to give their input.

Not to throw a curveball, but you might want to create a few different versions of your resume, since not all jobs are created equal. For example, as a journalism major, you might have a good deal of experience in writing and editing, but you could also have experience in public relations and social-media management, too.

Make a list of the companies you want to visit. Your college will most likely post which companies have registered to attend the fair. You’re not going to have time to visit every company, and there are probably companies that wouldn’t be a good fit for you. Virginia Tech Career Services recommends making A and B lists since you might not have time to speak with everyone.

Research the companies you want to talk to. The School of Engineering at Dartmouth says that not conducting preliminary research is one of the most common mistakes at a career fair. At the very least, you’ll want to know exactly what the company does, what types of positions they offer, any awards and accomplishments they have, and essentially, anything that’s on their website. See if they’ve been in the news lately as well.

See what open positions are available. Take your research further by knowing what positions are currently open. This can allow you to tailor your pitch and conversation to positions you’re best qualified for. If you mention you saw that position, the recruiter will know you’ve done your homework and are eager. However, don’t close yourself off from other potential positions.

Find out who you know there. You might have heard the saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” There could be an element of truth to that. Log into your LinkedIn account (you’ve got one, right?) to see if any of your connections are employed by these companies. If they are, you might ask if you could mention them, depending on your relationship. It can also be a good chance to learn more about the company, if they’re a reliable source.

Take notes. You can reference these before you approach an interviewer so you’ll know what you want to say.

Follow the companies on social media. If you’re on Twitter and Facebook anyway, follow these companies for a while before the fair. In addition to spending time on their websites and reading about any news articles they’ve appeared in, you can get a good sense of the company’s message and what’s going on by their social media accounts. If they have a company page on LinkedIn, be sure to follow that as well.

Prepare what you’re going to say. You’ll want to make your solid elevator pitch, a minutelong summary of your accomplishments — why you’re a great candidate, and essentially, why someone should hire you. Since you’re doing your research, you’ll want to tailor that pitch to include why you want to work for the company you’re talking with.

See if your college requires anything to attend. You might need to sign up in advance to attend the fair. Also, some fairs might only be open to specific majors or seniors and/or juniors.

Check what resources career services are offering. Visit your career services office to see what resources they have that could help you with the job fair. They could offer prep sessions, answer your questions, provide reading materials to help you prepare, and more.

Dress the part. It only takes 15 seconds for a hiring manager to determine if they’re going to hire you, according to studies by the San Jose Mercury News. Be sure your attire is appropriate – think business suit, dress pants, and blazers. But besides impressing your potential employer, keep your personal comfort in mind when you’re choosing an outfit. This could be a long, stressful day. Skip shoes that make your feet hurt, something you can’t sit down in, or clothes that you’ll be pulling on or constantly readjusting.

Pack for the event. You’ll need a little more than just yourself the day of the job fair. For one, you’ll want many copies of your resume, more than you think you’ll need. Depending on the type of job you’re looking for, it may also be appropriate to bring a portfolio with examples of your graphic design, photography, clothing sketches, or any other type of visual component. Other items you might want to bring include references or copies of your transcripts. Bring pen and paper for taking notes as well as your student ID in case you need it to enter. Some optional items include mints to freshen your breath and a bottle of water. You’ll want a bag big enough to carry not only your belongings but any business cards, brochures, or other items you might receive at the fair.

During the Job Fair

Arrive early. This is going to allow you to familiarize yourself with the layout, and scope out where your high-priority companies are. Also, some companies might leave early or come late, so coming early increases your chances of talking to all the people you want. If, during your initial walk-through, you see a company you overlooked or wasn’t on the list, now is the time to do a quick search of what the company is all about and what positions they have available.

Review your notes. Before you walk up to the recruiter, go over your notes on that company and its available job openings.

Be confident. If asked a question, don’t babble. Simply answer the question in a thorough but concise way. Avoid nervous rambling. An article in U.S. News points out to watch your “ums” and “ahs.”

Be present and attentive. Has someone ever been talking to you and you realize you haven’t heard a word they’ve said? That’s not uncommon during a job fair. Besides the noise and distractions around you, you might be focusing on what you want to say next or if you forgot to grab that last guy’s business card.

Before you approach anyone, take a breath and stay in the moment. Listen to what the employer is saying so you can give a great response or ask an appropriate question. But it’s not only while you’re speaking one on one with an employer that you should be all ears. The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay recommends listening to the employer while you’re waiting in line — you might pick up some valuable information.

Don’t dwell on bad interactions. Just because you didn’t do so hot at one meeting doesn’t mean that’s the end. Take a breath and a minute to recoup. What did you do wrong? Odds are, you were just nervous. Don’t get discouraged – each interview is a fresh start.

Ask for a business card. Now you have a direct contact with the company, as the University of California at Berkley’s Career Services Department points out. Plus, you have the correct spelling of their name, along with their email address, so you can follow up and thank them.

Take notes. After you speak with a recruiter, take some time to step away and take notes. You’ll want to remember any pertinent information, like if they asked you to fill out an application online or contact a specific person other than them. It’s also a good time to note what you spoke about that could make you stand out in a follow-up email. For example, if you spoke about your volunteer work with a specific organization that the interviewer also was passionate about, that might be a nice little additive in the email to thank them.

Sneak away to research, if need be. You might have overlooked a company in your initial research or had a company show up that wasn’t on the list. Before you go, sneak away for a few minutes to do some research on the company and the positions available.

Ask the right questions and avoid the wrong ones. Recruiters want to hear well-researched, good questions that show you know the company. Oklahoma University’s Career Services suggests questions like, “What are the characteristics of your ideal candidate?” or “What is the overall structure of the department where the position is located?” Avoid the wrong questions, such as asking about salary, benefits, and vacation time. Don’t ask questions to which you should already have the answers, including anything that could be found on their website or with a little research.

Don’t overlook the basics. Simple job-interview and professional etiquette is the foundation for your behavior. Silence your phone and keep it in your bag during any interactions. Make eye contact, and be attentive while you’re speaking to an interviewer. Be friendly and polite. Don’t approach a company with your buddy or in a group.

Network with other students. Make this day count. Don’t limit yourself to taking time to speak to companies. You never know where your peers are going to end up, and they just might be in a position to help you down the road.

After the Fair

Follow up. Take the time to send a thank-you email to whoever you spoke with at the fair. If you’re applying for a specific job on their website, mention that in the email. It could also be a good opportunity to link to an online portfolio or examples of work.

Apply for a job, if applicable. If the recruiter instructed you to go online to submit a resume or fill out an application, do so now. Glance back at your notes to get an idea of what to put in your cover letter.

Consider connecting on LinkedIn. If you felt your interaction went well, consider asking the recruiter to connect on LinkedIn after you send a personal email thanking him or her. This could be a good way to not only keep in touch, but also stay in touch if there isn’t an opening right now but may be in the future.

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