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Tips for Making a Career Fair Work for You

Career fairs can be your first step to occupational success.

By Molly Joss

My favorite outfit in college was a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans, but when the spring of my senior year rolled around it became obvious that I needed a new wardrobe. Specifically, I needed clothes that were appropriate for job interviews. Soon there was a new blue suit hanging in my dorm room closet, symbolizing my transition from the laid-back days of college to the serious work of finding a job. College life wasn't going to last forever!

Like new suits, job fairs are another clear sign that school isn't going to last forever, and finding a job is the next item on life's agenda. To get the most out of the fair, however, you'll have to do some prep work in advance, as well as some follow-up in the week after the fair.

Advance Planning

If you attend a large university, there will be at least one career fair on your campus during the academic year. Some institutions have a career day in the fall where you learn about different types of jobs and then have a big job fair in the spring semester. Smaller colleges and universities may or may not have career events on campus. You can find out when and where events are held by staying in touch with your university's career planning office and by keeping an eye on campus event announcements online or in the school paper.

Even if you're still a freshman, it's worth going to career events held on campus. Job fairs and other career events are a great way to gather information and keep an eye on industries that interest you. They are also a great opportunity to inquire about internships and summer jobs. If you're in your senior year, fall semester is the best time to start looking for a permanent job. The fall semester is not considered too early, especially in today's hiring market, because top entry-level jobs go quickly.

If you don't have a job fair on your campus, you can go to a public one held on another campus or in a communal facility such as a convention center. Most of these events are free for students to attend, so plan on attending as many as possible! Keep an eye on the community bulletin boards for notices, and check the National Association of Colleges and Employer's extensive list of upcoming job fairs ( Keep in mind that information technology trade associations often have job fairs at their annual conferences; these can be worth attending, too.

If you can only go to a few events each academic year, attend the job fairs that target information technology students, but don't ignore the ones that don't have tech titles. Every major corporation needs IT skills. Remember that you're probably not going to walk out with a job offer, but you will leave knowing more about companies that interest you. Career fairs are a great way to get the job ball rolling.

The Week Before

Before the event is the time to get prepared: Take your suit out of the closet and make sure it's wrinkle free. Buff up your comfortable, suitable shoes. (No athletic shoes, please). Go to the event dressed as though you were going to an interview. In fact, that's what you're doing—going to preliminary interviews. Companies send their human resources and management staff to these events, so they are screening prospective hires.

Make sure your resume is up-to-date and free of grammar and spelling errors. If you don't have a resume, put that at the top of your to-do list, and get the career planning staff to help you create one. Take along plenty of good, clean copies of your resume to the event. Stash them in a smart looking briefcase and leave your backpack at home.

Plan your time at the event beforehand by getting a list of the companies that will be present. Arrange to see two or three per hour because you're going to have to wait in line to speak to someone. Pick at least five companies from the list and spend some time online reviewing the Web sites of these companies. You're looking for general information about what the company does, how many employees they have, where their branch offices are, and so forth. Don't ask questions about the company during your meeting with the representative at the fair, but if they volunteer the information, don't interrupt their spiel to tell them you already know the information.

You should also write and rehearse a short speech about yourself. Make sure it's no more than a few sentences in length. Practice saying this "commercial" about yourself until you're comfortable with it. This speech should be short summary of important details about you. Start with your name and then move on to where you go to school (if you're off campus), your major, year and interests.

The Big Day

On the day of the career fair, grab your briefcase filled with resumes and head out the door. Try to be one of the first people at the event so you won't have to wait in long lines to speak with top companies.

From your online research, three to five companies should have quickly climbed to the top of your must-see list. Rank that list in order of the most interesting down to the least interesting. Make a beeline for the company at the top of your list.

Eye contact, upright posture, energy and enthusiasm are a must for every encounter with a recruiter. They will forgive you for being nervous, but not if they can't hear what you're saying and see your face. Shake hands and say thank you before you leave. Be prepared for awkward moments; no one is going to expect perfection, but signs of a good effort are sufficient.

Taking notes is okay if you do it with paper and pen, but don't use a digital recording device. Get the business card of every person you've spoken to during the day. You'll need the information on the cards for the important follow-up you will do the week after the event.

Follow up!

After you attend a career fair, you should always write a brief, personalize thank-you letter and send it to everyone with whom you've had a conversation with during the event. Within a few days of the event, you should have your thank-you letters in the mail.

Don't rely on email even if there is an email address on the recruiter's business card. Between assistants and email spam filters, the person might never receive your email. You can also follow up with a phone call to anyone you felt you made a genuine connection with, or had an extended conversation with during the event, even if it occurred in the lunch line. You never know who is going to open that important first job door for you.

Molly Joss is an IT veteran who writes about career and job issues, among other topics of note.

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