I attended my first career fair on a sunny spring day in April 2005. Armed with professional printouts of my resume (albeit rather light on experience as I was a freshman in college) and the fanciest attire I owned (which was a mishmash of business casual separates at the time), I was ready to wow the recruiters and land a summer internship.
Two hours later, I left the business school with no prospects. Most of the companies were looking for full-time hires, not interns. And I was the epitome of a "green" freshman who made a lot of first-time mistakes; not exactly desirable intern material.
That said, what I remember most about the day was a recruiter congratulating me on putting myself out there as a freshman - better to make mistakes when it doesn't matter than during crunch time my junior and senior years! Or, to put it in baseball terms, I was utilizing my "spring training" well to practice for the World Series.
Career Fairs were an integral part of my early success in finding internships and a full-time job. I attended every fair when I was an undergrad at Miami (Ohio) as a way to practice and perfect my elevator pitch and to learn about different companies and opportunities. I found that a personal connection with a person, rather than an email or online application, made the difference between my resume being put in the "yes" pile over the "no" or the "we'll get to it later" piles.
After graduating, I had the opportunity to attend Career Fairs as a company representative rather than a job seeker, and learned what "the other side of the desk" is looking for in their ideal candidate. With fall college Career Fairs coming up this month and next, it's a great time to refresh yourself on the elements for success in landing that dream internship or job.
Before the Career Fair
Research the companies and jobs that will be in attendance: Many (if not all) schools publish a list of the companies and jobs/majors they are recruiting in advance for students to reference. As a student, I studied this and only visited companies where I fit what they needed. I also created research packets on each organization so I knew basic information like locations, size, services/products, financial information (if publicly traded), and career information from their website. All this information was accessible online and allowed me to showcase my ability to prepare in advance. It also allowed me to avoid wasting time asking basic questions that I should already know the answer to if I am truly interested in the job. When I was on the other side, it drove me crazy when someone asked what our company did or where we were located. Those are basic facts you should know if you want to come talk to anyone about a job; otherwise, you are wasting your time and theirs.
Game plan your route: At Miami, there would often be 200 - 300 organizations with tables set up around Millet Hall, and I tried to visit 5 - 7 during a two hour block of time. I used a few criteria to determine which order I would visit each table. First, I wanted to start with a few "warm ups" - companies I liked but were not my "dream jobs" so I could get any nervousness out in a less stressful environment but still being productive with the recruiter and my time. I never went to a table where, after research, I was not at least open to working/interning there. I also considered wait times for the most popular companies and made sure I didn't wait too long to visit them and risk running out of time. Finally, I did not want to trek back and forth around the building ten times, so I looked for natural groupings by location as I developed the order of my visits.
Plan your attire: I mentioned above that I showed up in business casual to my first Career Fair. I did not own a suit, and as a 19-year-old I could not imagine spending hundreds of dollars on something I would wear once or twice a year. Looking back, I now see the importance of investing in a good suit - it is a necessary purchase in order to secure a job (that will pay off the suit and then some)! Even on a tight budget, there are good suiting options available for men and women. J. Crew Factory is a personal favorite of mine for inexpensive, high quality suits. Look for navy or charcoal; they will be the most versatile and prevent you from looking like you are going to a funeral.
Practice your elevator speech: Think through what you are going to say to each company you talk to. You should have a 30-second summary of who you are (name, major, what you are looking for as far as an internship/job, noteworthy/unique item about yourself, and how you could add value for Company X). Stand in front of a mirror in your suit and practice saying this over and over until it feels comfortable. And then practice it five more times!
Print your resume at a copy shop: Nothing screams professional quite like a resume on heavy white or cream paper. The converse is the resume that is printed on standard white copy paper from a personal printer, and the differences are shocking. Make a good first impression, take an extra 15 minutes (and probably $10), and have your resume professionally printed!
During the Career Fair
Limit the swag: Other than a pen (blue or black) and the portfolio you are bringing with copies of your resume, your game plan, and questions for each company, you should not carry anything around with you. Leave your phone at home (shocking, I know) and gracefully decline the "swag" that companies want to hand out. I was never impressed with candidates who showed up with bags of water bottles, pens, coasters...the list goes on. Besides, everyone ends up tossing those things out at home anyways. A polite "thank you but no thank you" should suffice.
Execute your game plan: You are ready! Go up to each table, share your elevator speech, have a few questions prepared for each company (take notes on the answers), and ask for clear information on next steps in the recruiting process.
After the Career Fair
Send follow up notes: In my experience, we went through and made decisions on our "yes" and "no" piles the night of the Career Fair to determine which candidates would move forward. Candidates who sent follow up notes immediately were looked upon with favor. After all, it only takes a few minutes to send a thank you email, and today you can send it from your smartphone (we weren't so lucky back in 2006). Take five minutes, set yourself apart, and send a thank you note.
Attending company receptions/events: Oftentimes, companies will have receptions or open houses the night of the career fair or shortly thereafter. If people have already traveled for the event (especially to a small college town in the middle of nowhere like Oxford, OH), it makes sense to couple a few events together. If you are invited to attend, do everything you can to do so. When you do, wear a suit or dressy business casual, come prepared with questions, arrive early, and sit in the front. Take notes (on paper, not on your laptop or tablet). Do not bring your dinner - especially something that smells. Do not look at your phone. This is an important opportunity to impress the company and move your resume up on the "yes" list. We always consider every interaction, not just the resume or the career fair conversation or an interview, when determining which candidates to offer jobs. While we understood that things come up or there are unique circumstances (e.g. you are coming straight from football practice and are five minutes late/in athletic apparel), these are things you want to be proactive in sharing ahead of time. For the most part, these events are just as important as a job interview and should be treated as such.
From here, it's time to start preparing for the interview process! For assistance with this, visit my post on interviewing here or pick up a copy of my book, The Savvy Young Professional: A Twenty-Somethings Essential Career Guide, here.