The art of attending career fairs

Students attending career fairs and handing out resume

Print your resume and practice your handshake: Here’s how to make the most of your school’s career fair.

Career fairs can be a prime opportunity to learn about employers, make connections, and most importantly, present yourself professionally. Even as virtual career fairs become more popular in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, you can still make an impression. The best-case scenario is you walk away with a few interviews lined up. But even if you don’t, you can walk away with a day of professional networking experience and fresh industry contacts. It’s really a win all around.

If your school is advertising a career fair and you want to attend, don’t just roll out of bed and show up. Being prepared can give you an advantage over your classmates. Here’s some guidance on how to make your best impression.

Do come prepared.

Look at the career fair website and familiarize yourself with the employers that will be there. By simply knowing what their company does, you can ask focused questions — meaning you’ll come across as prepared and capable.

Preparation can go a long way. Be sure to research opportunities in advance, come prepared with questions, and be mindful about the amount of time you have — and the line behind you.

Be sure to research opportunities in advance, come prepared with questions, and be mindful about the amount of time you have.

Don’t wear your school clothes.

The old adage of “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” goes for career fairs: This is a professional event, and you should wear professional attire. First impressions matter — in fact, researchers found evidence that a single glance was sufficient to form a first impression — and your clothes are one of the first things people observe about you.

Also keep comfort in mind: Check your coat so you’re not dragging it through the event, and wear shoes that look professional but won’t hurt your feet from walking around all afternoon.

Do create a game plan.

When you walk into the event, you’ll likely get a map of the employers’ booths. Figure out where the employers you’d most like to work for are located and decide in what order to visit them.

Instead of trying to get to every booth to maximize your exposure, narrow down your visits to the top three to five to really spend more time with these opportunities.

Don’t forget to properly introduce yourself.

State your name, major, career interests, and what kind of job or internship you’re looking for. Smile, have a good handshake (firm but not a death grip!), and maintain eye contact — studies show you’re more attuned to faces whose eyes are focused on you than faces whose eyes are looking elsewhere.

Do ask thoughtful questions.

Don’t show up expecting the recruiter to drive the conversation. Asking questions can demonstrate your interest. You can make a great impression by knowing what you’re looking for and what you offer, and by having your elevator pitch ready.

You’ve done research on these employers, so you should have some specific questions in mind. Some basic open-ended questions include:

  • What does a typical day look like for the open position?
  • What training do you provide?
  • What are the skills and experiences you’re looking for in an ideal candidate?
  • What is the office culture like?
  • What are the next steps in the recruitment process?
You can make a great impression by knowing what you’re looking for and what you offer, and by having your elevator pitch ready. 

Don’t hold on to your resume until the end.

Too many times students wait until the very end of their time at a booth to hand over their resume. Give your resume to recruiters as you introduce yourself — this allows them to skim it and better absorb your qualifications as you speak to them.

Come prepared with a hard copy of your resume, but still follow up in email with a digital version. This way, it’s easier for recruiters to share your resume with others involved in the hiring decision. And speaking of following up…

Do follow up.

Recruiters meet many students at career fairs. Keep yourself top-of-mind beyond the day of the fair by asking for a business card and then sending a follow-up email after the event. In the email, remind them of the conversation you had at the career fair and attach your resume. And remember, giving a resume is not considered an application. Make sure you’re also applying via the appropriate channel, like a company’s website.

Don’t get frustrated.

First career fair didn’t work out exactly the way you wanted? Were the employers and open positions a mismatch to your goals? Don’t fret. Start by leveraging your school’s career services office. They may be able to reach out to alumni or other contacts and companies that you’re interested in and help you network.

And look online for other opportunities — if not at your school, at other schools nearby or elsewhere in your city, such as through the chamber of commerce or other networking organizations.

Get more career and financial advice through our Beyond College Webinar series.

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