Conquering the Career Fair

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Posted by Cara Scharf on June 19, 2011
Conquering the Career Fair

Career fairs are the ultimate job bazaars-bustling rooms crawling with dozens, or even hundreds of employers looking to deepen their talent pool. For job seekers, this means a golden opportunity to meet receptive recruiters face to face, gather a ton of information in a short time, and hopefully line up some interviews along the way.

In today's crowded job market, companies are hiring very selectively, and you'll have to do a lot more than just show up to succeed at a job fair. That's why we've compiled some advice to help you locate the right job fairs and make sure you give a memorable performance while you're there.

Finding the fair
When you're in college, you can easily check with career services to see when the next round of employers will descend upon your school. Off campus, you'll have to be more active. Job search engines like Monster.com, CareerBuilder.com, and Idealist.org (for nonprofit jobs), organize their own fairs. Other sites, such as NationalCareerFairs.com and CareerFairs.com let you join for free to see calendars, plus there are companies that frequently host fairs, such as CarouselExpo.com and JobCircle.com.

Your state employment office is a good local resource (find a list here), as are newspapers and events guides. And even if you're not a student, check out career center calendars at local schools because they sometimes allow alumni or members of the community to attend fairs.

Preparing like a pro
To make the most of your loop around the booths, you'll have to spend time beforehand defining your goals and gathering the right tools to wow recruiters. You can start by answering these questions:

  • What do I want to achieve? Knowing what you want gives you focus and something to work toward-just be realistic. You may be able to score two interviews, or make ten new contacts, or have conversations with four target companies. On the other hand, an on-the-spot offer isn't too likely.       
  • What can I find out about the companies that will be at the fair? First, find out which companies will be attending and flag the ones that interest you most. Then find out all you can about them-their mission, opportunities they have, recent news about them, etc. Recruiters are more drawn to candidates who've done their homework and demonstrate a genuine interest.
  • What position am I looking for and why? If you can give an employer a clear idea of how you'll fit in at the company, you've done most of the work for them. This is your elevator pitch: tell them who you are and where you're going.
  • What questions will I ask? You only have a short time with recruiters, and you want to get the best information possible. Don't waste your time with info you could easily find online (hence researching beforehand). Instead, ask questions like "Can you describe the workplace culture?" or "What do you like best about working for Company Z?"
  • What will I wear? There may not be a job on the line, but you should still dress like you're at an interview. Wear something conservative, professional, and clean, and remember it's better to appear overdressed than lazy.
  • What will I bring? Make sure you bring resumes geared toward the employers you want to meet with, but also bring several more general copies for those chance encounters with other employers. Remember: your resume helps employers identify you later, but a good in-person impression will put your resume on top of the pile.

Once you've figured that all out, it's also a good idea to rehearse your interactions and your pitch-the short introduction that sums up who you are and why you're worth hiring. You might feel silly talking to a mirror, but when you're in front of a recruiter, a little practice will build your confidence.

Making your Rounds
If you've prepared well, the actual career fair should be a walk in the park. But there are a few small steps that will maximize your experience. First, be patient. Career fairs are busy places, so wait your turn and when you get it, respect the recruiter's time.

Keep track of everyone you speak to. Most people at career fairs are HR representatives or hiring managers-the former have information, the latter are the decision-makers. Either way, get the person's name and ask if you can follow up. This opens the door to further interaction. You should also ask what the next steps are, and how you can go about getting a formal interview if they're not conducting any at the career fair itself. 

After Thoughts
The career fair may be over, but your work isn't. You should have gathered a list of contacts from the companies you're targeting, and if they were open to further correspondence, take advantage of that. Writing a thank-you note is a great way to get your name in front of a recruiter again, and it will make you stand out.

Recruiters say it's also a good idea to get as much exposure to a company as you can, so try to make continuing connections with companies you liked. Find out if anyone in your network works there and ask for an informational interview, or find another career fair where the company will be in attendance. The more a company sees you, the less of a stranger you are and the easier it will be to get an interview.

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