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How to prepare for a career fair

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Should I go?

Why go?

Before you go

At the job fair

How can I be successful at a job fair?

What if I'm not ready to look for a job?


Should I go to a career fair?

- View each career fair website (list/links), read about attending employers.
- Employers are not just limited to "companies."
- Some are government agencies; some are non-profits.
- Determine if any match your career interests and you match their needs.
- If you find a fit with even one attending employer, you have a reason to go!
- Know that the employment world is not divided by major or college!
- Understand that not all types of employers attend career fairs.
- Discover that many varied ones do! Research each in advance.


Why go?

To make a good (or great) impression in person (especially important if your resume doesn't necessarily stand out from the crowd).

To see that the real world is not organized by major: you don't necessarily have to be a business major to go to Business Horizons, and you don't necessarily have to be an engineering major to go to Engineering Expo. You DO have to look at the list of employers attending in advance (see each fair's website linked from the career fair list), and see what kinds of jobs each employer has.

To learn more about employers than you can learn from their websites. You learn about the culture of an organization when you meet their people, and you can ask questions.

Much of the job search process — before you can even get an interview — for both you, the job seeker, and for the employer in trying to find good candidates, is not done in person. It involves employers screening resumes and cover letters, and you reading about employers and viewing their websites, and the like. Take advantage of opportunities to meet employers face-to-face.

Some fairs include follow-up interviewing as part of the fair, for a full or half day. Each fair's website should tell you if they do this. If that is a possibility, prepare to have interview skills in advance!

Some of the employers who attend career fairs also participate in the On-Campus Interviewing (OCI) Program — which is not the same thing as interviews that might occur as part of a career fair. OCI occurs during 8-10 weeks in fall and 7-9 weeks in spring semester. For OCI, in advance of the interview date, students apply and employers screen applicants to choose whom to interview. Meeting students in person at fairs gives employers another way of observing candidates in addition to the resume you submit for On-Campus Interviewing.

Regardless of the extent to which technology makes it easier and faster to share information between job seekers and employers, nothing replaces in-person contact for making an impression.

To be effective at a career fair, you need to be ready to make a good impression in person (just as you will be evaluating organizations by the way their representatives behave in person). To do this...


Before you go

Know which employers are attending.
See the career fair list that links to each event web site.
The sponsor of each fair is listed.
(Career Services sponsors the Fall Focus and Connection fairs; other fairs are sponsored by other colleges or departments or student organizations).
Read the website for each fair; it should have a list of the attending employers with other relevant information — like positions for which they are hiring and majors sought. If there's no information within a month of the fair, contact the sponsor and ask.

If the fair is open to all students: Go to any fair where the employers and their jobs are a match for your qualifications, regardless of your major and who is sponsoring the fair. (You don't necessarily have to be in the college that is sponsoring the fair; just see if the employers attending are looking for people with your qualifications and interests.)

Do enough research to make "A" &"B" lists of employers to meet.
Depending on the fair and how many employers interest you, you might not have time to speak with every employer (and every employer may not be offering what you seek). You don't need to study employers' financial reports to prepare, but you do need to have some sense of what the organization does, and if there is a fit between your skills and interests and the employer's needs. Also, if you're looking for more than one type of job — like technical sales or production management — you'll need to know which employers are looking for what so you can give each employer an appropriate resume....

Have plenty of copies of your resume ready. You might need to prepare more than one version.
Use resume guidelines to prepare. Always take print copies of your resume to a career / job fair, even if you submitted your resume in advance online. Make it easy for the employer to glance at your resume while speaking to you. S/he might want to remember you for a later contact.

If you're looking for more than one type of position, each being significantly different (like marketing or human resources), you might need two different versions of your resume, each tailored to support the different objective. This doesn't mean you need an individualized resume for each employer at a fair. It simply means when you speak to an employer and say you're interested in a certain kind of work, don't hand the employer a resume that has nothing to do with that kind of work. (Nothing wrong with an employer giving you a new idea on the spot — be flexible and respond appropriately.)

Be prepared that some employers cannot accept hard copy resumes and will ask you to apply online. This is to comply with federal regulations about the way employers keep data on applicants, and to manage applicant data efficiently.
Federal regulations have an impact on employers, online job hunters, and how status as a job candidate is determined. In order to comply with these regulations, and to manage the volume of applications efficiently, many employers require all job applicants to apply online on the employer's web site.
This does not mean the employer is giving you the brush-off, and it does not mean the employer is wasting time by attending the fair and talking with you. The employer reps may well be taking note of candidates — you and others — in whom they are interested, but they have to follow certain procedures to comply with law and be efficient.

Prepare a 20 to 30 second introduction to use with employers. You don't want to sound like a telephone solicitor reading a script; you do want to sound like you thought about why you're there. It might be something like, "Hello. I'm Daria Henderson, a junior in Communication Studies and Marketing. I'm looking for an internship related to marketing for next summer. I read on your web site that (name of company) has an internship program in your corporate marketing department, and I've done some project work that I believe gave me skills related to the internship work. I'm very interested in your program." Get the idea? Keep in mind that some employer representatives may take control of the conversation quickly and you may do more listening than speaking, but you do want to be prepared to be proactive rather than passive.

Prepare questions in advance:
Employers want employees who are proactive, thoughtful, and listen well. Make yourself stand out with smart questions.

Don't ask about:
- DON'T ask "what does your company do?" This is a major annoyance to employers; you should know this in advance. Also, not all employers are "companies." Some are government agencies or non-profits.
- Don't ask for information you could have easily learned on the employer's website.
- Don't ask about salary and benefits. (The employer should initiate discussion of those topics. A job/career fair is not the place for a job seeker to initiate this.)

Do ask for information you could not find on the employer's website.
- What kind of person are you seeking for the(se) position(s)?
- What particular skills do you value most?
- What do you like about working for your organization?
(Remember that some employers have employee testimonials on their website. Check those out in advance.)
- What are current issues that your organization is facing that would have an impact on new hires?

Show what you know, and ask for more:
- I read about about xyz project on your website. Is your department involved in that work?
- Several graduates of my major have gone to work for your organization and they speak highly about their experience. What are the career paths for new hires over the first few years on the job?

Know the dress code. Each fair has its own styles and traditions. Some are business casual; some suggest or require interview attire. (Club/date attire is not appropriate.) Again, see what the fair sponsor says about attire on their website or other promotional materials. If they don't tell, contact the fair sponsor and ask.


At the career / job fair

Watch your manners and mannerisms — all those things your parents drilled into you when you were a child (and a few more). Stand up straight, don't hang your mouth open, don't fidget, don't chew gum or smell like smoke.

Handshakes are critical. Have a good handshake and make good eye contact.

Be clear and engaging when you speak:
Be friendly and conversational, have a positive attitude. Stay on topic. Fairs are sometimes noisy, so speak clearly and confidently.

Don't be misled into thinking of the fair as a social event. Employers often send recently-hired new graduates to career fairs. Don't fall into the mistake of interacting on a social level and forgetting that you are being judged on your potential to function in the work environment.

Carry a simple padfolio to keep your resumes organized and ready. Some fairs have you check your bags at the door because the event is crowded. Be ready to hand employers the appropriate resume (see You might need to prepare more than one version, above). Be prepared for employers to give you literature and give-away items (pens, cups, t-shirts, etc.) — this is typical at fairs (sometimes they give you a bag to carry the give-aways). Bottom line is that you want to look like an organized person because that's an asset in an employee.

Have an open mind. You may have 12 employers on your target list to speak with. If you have extra time, or have to wait to speak with an employer, take advantage of the opportunity to chat with other employers who aren't busy. You might learn something to your advantage to your surprise. At the least, you'll be practicing initiating a conversation in a less formal business environment — and this is an essential skill in any work environment.

This is your opportunity to be evaluated on more than just your resume. In many aspects of the job search, your resume (and cover letter) is (are) all the employer sees to determine whether to interview you. At a fair, you have an opportunity to stand out in person in a way that you might not on your resume. Interpersonal skills, communication skills and work-place-appropriate social skills are critical. Many employers evaluate these skills heavily, because they want to hire people who can make a good impression on their clients and customers.



How can I be successful at a job or career fair?
What VT students told us:

Prepare well. Here's what our research told us:
We asked Virginia Tech students
who attended a fair to rate their own advance preparation and their experience at the fair.

Of students who put a lot of time and energy into planning an introduction of themselves, 66% strongly agreed they had an appropriate introduction of themselves.

Of the students who attended the fair but did not plan an introduction, only 18% strongly agreed they had an appropriate introduction of themselves.

Of students who put a lot of time and energy into reading about the attending employers in advance to determine a match with qualifications, 74% strongly agreed they knew which employers to approach at the fair.

Of students who attended the fair but did not read about the attending employers in advance, only 16% strongly agreed that they know which employers to approach.

Wouldn't you be happier being in the prepared group?

Of students who put a lot of time and energy into reading about the attending employers in advance to determine a match with qualifications, 65% strongly agreed they used their time effectively at the fair.

Of students who attended the fair but did not read about the attending employers in advance, only 29% strongly agreed that they used their time effectively at the fair. Your time is valuable; use it wisely.

Best strategy: Be prepared. Don't just wing it!


What if I'm not ready to look for a job?

Go to learn more about jobs. Employers are impressed when freshmen and sophomores introduce themselves at career fairs. Part of the point is to learn more about what employers have to offer. Fairs are rare opportunities to talk with lots of people and learn about jobs straight from the source.

You still need to do some research (see before you go, above) and have good interpersonal skills (see at the job fair, above). The difference is that your goal is to get career information, not get a job (yet).

Eavesdrop. Listen to the conversations between students and employers. Get the idea of how things go.

Better yet: Volunteer to help with the fair. Many fairs need lots of student volunteers. Check the fair website and contact the point person. Student volunteers often help employers with their gear, deliver water, do whatever helps things run smoothly. That puts you in the fair, with a purpose, and allows you to observe and learn, experience the environment without pressure, and see employers as human beings, just like you.

More advice from other sources on career fair prep:

Navigating a career fair
On Graduating Engineer website. [Have a plan of action...]

Making the Most of a Job Fair [Plan, proofread, research, attire, follow up...]


Related topics:

Guidelines for correspondence in your job search

Email guidelines and business etiquette

Researching employers — why and how

Cover letter types and samples

After your interviews | thank you & follow up letters



5 steps to job fair success (3:18) (Psssst: college students typically need a 1-page resume!)



Q: What's the key to success at a fair?


One: Research in advance the employers expected at the fair. Research enables you to decide which employers you should approach, and to plan your approach to each employer.

Note each employer is different. You can't have a generic sell of yourself that will work for everyone. Target your message to each employer. What Virginia Tech students told us about this....

Two: Know yourself, know the employer, show the fit.
Of course that means research and preparation before you go.

Three: Be flexible and prepared for the unexpected. Unfortunately it's not a perfect world. The person who registered the organization for the fair (several weeks or months prior) may have said they needed to hire xyz. You show up at the fair and the rep says they're not hiring xyz. That's frustrating for you. Be prepared to engage in a conversation and show that you did your research. If the employer gave information that is no longer accurate, perhaps the rep can explain how their hiring needs change and what influences those needs (lost a contract? got a new contract?)