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How to Succeed at a Career Fair

Five things employers wish you knew before attending a fair.

It’s the season for career and job fairs. Whether sponsored by a local college or university, a Chamber of Commerce or city, career fairs are a great way to connect with a lot of organizations in a short amount of time and interact with representatives from companies you might not otherwise encounter. While sometimes frustrating (lots of people and lots of lines) just the chance to have face-to-face encounters in this day of internet communications is a great thing. But preparing for a career fair involves more than printing a stack of resumes. A few hours of preparation can make all the difference in your experience.

It’s not likely you will receive a job offer at the event; rather you will have a chance to meet representatives of organizations, have a short conversation, demonstrate your talents, and learn more about what they have to offer. So you want to prepare for short conversations, practice selling yourself in a few sentences (maybe even a few words), and study the organizations attending the event. When you’re dealing with a large number of organizations, it’s tempting to just select two or three to focus on. While it’s good to select your “key” employers, be sure to research all organizations and speak with as many representatives as you can at the event. You never know what opportunity might be lurking behind an otherwise unknown organization. Try not to pre-judge organizations based on their name and preconceived notion you might have about them—you might be surprised at what a company might have to offer you.

So what do employers wish you knew about attending a job fair? What would place you at the top of their candidate list? Well, Wake Forest University has held several career fairs this year, and we regularly survey our employers to find out their perspective on career fair participants. And here are five key things to consider before you just show up at a fair.

1. Do your research. This is the #1 complaint from employers: candidates simply didn’t take the time to learn about the company and its opportunities in advance. How did they know that candidates didn’t do their research? By the questions they asked. Just because there will be a number of employers at the event does not mean you can’t research them ahead of time. The more you know about an organization and the types of positions they hire for, the better you will come across to the employer. You will be able to ask more intelligent questions, demonstrate your knowledge of the company, and appear very professional if you’ve done your research in advance. And it’s not that hard—just review the list of companies attending the job fair (most announcements and advertisements list the participating companies) and read their websites. If you don’t have time to research every company, select the top 5-10 companies you’d like to work for and research those.

2. Dress properly. What you wear is important. It’s a large event with lots of people and you will stand out by your well-chosen wardrobe. If you’re not dressed professionally, that’s just one more hurdle you’ll have to overcome. Sometimes candidates mistakenly think that since they are just there to collect information or look for an internship or summer job they don’t need to dress professionally. Big mistake—you never know who you’re going to meet or what they might be able to offer you. Better to arrive at the fair a little overdressed than underdressed. Some job fairs advertise that "business casual" is fine. But it’s almost always better to dress conservatively. For men this means a suit or a jacket and slacks. For women, a suit, pantsuit or an attractive jacket and pants (or skirt). Employers notice details: some complain about wrinkled ties or scuffed shoes, inappropriate jewelry, so pay attention. If money is an issue, check Goodwill, thrift or second-hand shops where you can find very nice suits and business-wear for much less money. No one is expecting you to have this year’s latest fashion item: a conservative business-type suit can be worn for several years.

3. Be prepared to answer questions. Many employers open the conversation with: “Tell me about yourself.” Have a short and to-the-point response to that. You don’t want to stumble around on this. Be prepared to state your name, a brief statement about yourself, and why you’re interested in the organization you’re talking to. For instance, “My name is Bill Smith, and I have about 5 years experience in marketing, and I’m very interested in what your company is doing with their new product line in...” Or, “My name is Susan Smith and I’m finishing a course in design thinking and I’m fascinated with how your company…” Be concise—you don’t have much time to make your impression before the recruiter is on to the next person. And if you’ve had a rough time recently (maybe you’ve been unemployed or had a difficult family situation for awhile) the representative doesn’t need to know that right now. If an employer asks where you’re currently working (and you’re not) just say, “My most recent employment was with...” and move along with describing your skills or what you learned on that job.

4. Ask good questions. This correlates with #1, doing your research. Be prepared to ask questions of the company representatives. Never walk up to a company and say “So what do you do?” or “What are you hiring for?” You should know that before you ever approach them. Ask about information you’ve learned about the company from their website. Mention something you read online about a new product or a new initiative. You can learn more about their positions by asking, “Who succeeds in the position you’re hiring for?” or “What would you say is a key characteristic for success in your organization?” Then, when the representative tells you, find a way to link your skills or background to what they say.

5. Be enthusiastic. This is not the time to be laid back, casual, and cool. Demonstrate your interest with a firm handshake, good eye contact, a smile, and a good conversation with the company representative. You want to appear very interested but at the same time, not desperate. Talk about the company and the positions (and yourself) very professionally. Even if you’re not sure you want to work for this particular company, keep your enthusiasm level up. You have plenty of time later to determine if the company is the right fit—but if you don’t seem interested to the employer, you’re toast. Just keep the conversation positive, on the prospective position, and explain why you believe you’d be a good candidate for it. Always remember that a company recruiter is not a career counselor—no need to discuss anything about your job search with them. Focus on your talents and link them to the organization.

OK, I promised 5, but I’m going to add one final tip: Follow the rules. If an employer asks you to bring a resume, do that. If the employer offers an extra information session, attend it. Employers take note of who shows up at programs or workshops they offer. If they tell you that you need to submit a writing sample, do that. If they ask you to apply online, do that. Get the gist here? If you don’t pay attention to or follow the instructions in the application process, the employer assumes that you’re not really interested—or that you won’t be able to follow instructions if you worked for them. So whatever they ask you to do (as long as it’s ethical and legal, of course) do it.

Job fairs offer an unprecedented opportunity to get your credentials in front of a large number of employers in a short amount of time. Take advantage of them even if you’re “sure” they don’t have anything to offer you. Just the practice of going up and talking to a company representative can be a great experience and prepare you for when you do meet the representative from the “dream” company you do want to work for.

©2014 Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo Credit: US Dept of Education Career Fair from Flickr Creative Commons.