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Navigating a Career Fair

Tricks of the trade to make your career fair experience a success

By Roseanne R. Bensley

Attending a career fair can be a frightening experience.

There may be hundreds of employers and hordes of other students in attendance. If you have no clue where to begin, you could wind up milling around, picking up free candy and key chains. But if you have a plan of action before you go to a career fair, you can make important contacts that may lead to formal interviews and maybe even a job. A good place to begin is to make an appointment with a staff member at your school's career services office-they can help you make the career fair experience as productive as possible. Here are some other important factors to keep in mind for career fair success:

When Should You Attend a Career Fair?

The best time of day to attend is first thing in the morning when the employers are fresh, alert and have not yet heard the same questions over and over. Arriving early also ensures that the employers will have enough time to spend with you.

If you think only juniors or seniors should attend fairs, you're incorrect. Freshman through alumni can benefit from attending, and reasons for attending can vary from gathering career information to looking for co-ops, internships, summer or permanent full-time employment.

Not only can younger students find internship employment at career fairs, but they can also gain insight into what employers will expect of them upon graduation. Many times the career fair tables are staffed by recent grads offering insights like, "If I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently my freshman and sophomore years."

Understanding the Recruiters

Exactly who are those people working the booths at career fairs? Recruiters have a unique position within their company. They are seldom the actual hiring managers, instead their job is to review candidates and find those who meet the company's basic qualifications. Those qualified candidates are then referred to hiring managers for further consideration.

Dress for Success

Image is crucial at a career fair-maybe even more important than at a normal interview since decisions are made much more quickly. Students wearing t-shirts and shorts are not taken as seriously as those dressed professionally. As for your accessories, leave the backpack at home and opt for a briefcase instead. A briefcase gives you a mini-office from which to operate. It will provide storage for your resumes, cover letters and transcripts. It also provides a cleaner look for carrying the brochures you collect at each table, rather than the typical plastic career fair bag.

Men should typically wear dress slacks, a white or blue collared shirt, a tie and dress shoes. Similarly, women should wear a suit (skirt or pants), with nylons and closed toe shoes.

What to do Before You Arrive

  • View a list of the participating career fair employers before you go-this will help you devise a "game" plan for the fair and will reduce your chances of becoming overwhelmed. Find the employers that you are interested in and do preliminary research on them before you visit their booth.

  • Print an adequate number of resumes on quality paper.

  • Make sure you have several hours allotted to the fair so you'll have ample time to visit with all the booths you're interested in.

  • Clean and press your clothing.

  • Remember to bring along some blank paper and writing utensils for notes.

  • It's also smart to design your own business card. This is a professional way to leave behind something that will set you apart from your peers.

What to do When You First Arrive

  • Pick up a map of the booths.

  • Identify the location of the booths you wish to visit.

  • Walk around the room to become comfortable with each of the booths and their locations.

  • Gather information on the employers prior to talking with a recruiter. This can be achieved by viewing their Web site in advance or by walking by a booth that may be busy and picking up their literature. If the booths are quiet you may want to work the room with a friend. Have the friend pick up information for you so you won't be caught off guard and unprepared to respond to the recruiter's questions. Listen to what the recruiters are asking the other candidates; these same questions may be asked of you.

  • Start by going to a few tables that are not at the top of your list so you can get used to talking with the recruiters. When you are ready, head over to one of the employers scheduling campus interviews. If you have done your homework, you'll be able to determine what employers' needs are and what you can offer to fill those needs.

  • The amount of time you will have with the recruiter can vary from mere seconds to minutes. Use the short time you have to provide the employer with a clear and succinct description of exactly what you are looking for and what you can offer their organization. Establish common interests based on the information you have read in advance.

Before You Leave

  • Ask, "What is the next step?"

  • Request the recruiter's business card for future correspondence.

  • In closing, shake hands and thank them for their time. Tell the recruiter that you look forward to hearing from them in the near future. If they are one of your top choices, let them know you have a strong interest in their company and hope to be part of their team.


Stay in touch with the employers that interest you most. It's extremely important to keep the lines of communication open. Send a thank you letter to the recruiter within a week of meeting them to ensure they will remember you.

In the letter:

  • Thank them for taking the time to meet with you.

  • Review key points that were discussed during your conversation.

  • Explain how you would be an asset to the employer (address the keys points discussed in your conversation or from employer literature).

  • Add new information that may not have been addressed during your quick meeting.

  • Send a resume that reflects the skills you have that meet the needs of the employer.

  • Check back after a few weeks to see if opportunities are available for you with their organization.

Career Fair Advice From Employers

"The biggest turn off is the students that zoom by just grabbing the giveaways! And students don't need a suit, but they should dress nicely.

"Get a list of the companies attending and do some research in advance. If [a student] knows something about the company it says that they are genuinely interested. A lot of students ask the same questions. The ones with good eye contact who speak about something specific are noticed."

-Laurie J. Motz, senior personnel representative, Eastman Chemical

"I don't like students who are seeking a job unrelated to anything we hire for, are disorganized, or have typographical errors in resumes or resumes without key information. We don't have the same expectations for freshman and sophomores, but juniors and seniors are expected to be more polished and know what type of jobs they are interested in. Students also need to follow directions. If procedures are provided to the student and they don't follow them exactly that can be a problem in the hiring process. On the other hand I am impressed when students show enthusiasm and preparedness, are neatly dressed and articulate."

-Dr. Patricia D. Lopez, imaging scientist at Hewlett-Packard Co., Greeley, Colo.

"Career Fairs are an important part of the recruiting process. They allow employers to talk about their companies and employment opportunities and also give us a chance to gather information from the resumes of the students. Most employers have quite a bit of information on their Web site, so students should do their homework and make sure their resumes are relevant to the job they are seeking. Younger students should take advantage of career fairs so they know what to expect down the road. There are several key attributes that I look for in making a recommendation of a student: interest in my company, good grades, work experience, leadership skills and ability to communicate."

-Jeff Ray, TAPS coordinator with ExxonMobil Pipeline Company

The Student Perspective

Do you have special techniques for introducing yourself to employer reps at a career fair?

  • Big smile, direct greeting and handshake.

  • Prepare a 30 second introduction speech.

  • Give them my name, major, year, grad date, interests; ask a question about the company.

  • Firm handshake, eye contact and genuine interest in the company.

    -Students, University of Texas-Austin, College of Engineering

  • I walk up, very politely, and introduce myself with confidence.

  • Firm handshake and a smile while stating my name.

  • Be positive and outgoing; smile.

  • Display a good attitude.

    -Students, New Mexico State University

  • I immediately get the rep's name and introduce myself. I use their name in the conversation and that makes them use mine. That helps them remember me. After the introduction I immediately relate something about their company to experience I've had.

  • Be polite, have a firm handshake and know something about the company.

    -Students, Oklahoma State University

What would you do differently in the future the next time you attend a career fair?

  • More research.

  • I would go alone so I could spend more time with the employers.

  • I would set aside more time.

  • Write a different resume to meet the needs of the employers better.

    -Students, University of Texas-Austin, College of Engineering

  • Write a different resume for each company.

  • Do more research.

  • Allocate more time.

  • Attend earlier in the day.

    -Students, New Mexico State University

  • Send thank-you notes to the representatives.

  • Get more sleep the night before so I have more energy.

  • I found that knowing something about the company before talking to them at the fair really helped me sound more enthusiastic and earnest.

    -Students, Oklahoma State University

Do You Have Any Questions?

The recruiter may ask you, "Do you have any questions?" Don't let this golden opportunity slip past you. Here's your chance to show you're interested in the company and are serious about your career plans. Here are some examples of questions that help you stay focused on the position you are seeking.

  • What kinds of people do you hire to fill your entry-level positions?

  • What skills, work experience or educational background do you look for when you recruit for these jobs, internships, co-ops or summer positions?

  • What are the primary results a person in this position would be expected to achieve?

  • What is the typical career path in this area of specialization?

  • How do you see the jobs in this field changing over the next five years? What can I do to prepare myself for such changes?

Your questions should be related to your career interests and goals. Show that you have done your homework and now need to learn more about the career opportunities available.

Roseanne R. Bensley is assistant director of Placement and Career Services at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, N.M.

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