How to prepare for career fairs, both in-person and virtual
In the 2022-2023 academic year, VT-affiliated career fairs include both in-person and virtual events.
For VIRTUAL career fairs:
- Career fairs sponsored by CPD, and some of the other VT-affiliated career fairs are on the Brazen platform.
- For each fair in which you want to participate, go to its website (VT-affiliated career fairs) and register in advance. Include your resume and a professional photo (free photos for VT students using the iris photo booth). (Only the employers you chat with will see your resume.)
- Read about the employers in advance.
- Most interaction will be text chat, but some employers could invite you to video chat, so dress professionally, and have good lighting and an appropriate background, to the best of your ability. Be ready to have your laptop camera directly in front of, not under, your face.
- Plan ahead, to the extent possible, to be in a quiet place with good internet connection at the time you enter the event.
- Don't stress if everything isn't perfect. There is no such thing as perfect. Employers have experience working remotely, and they understand that not everything is in your control. You might not be able to control if someone is noisy outside your room or space. You can control your manners and mannerisms, and your prep. Do your best with what is in your control.
- Virtual fairs use terminology parallel to in-person fairs; when you participate in a virtual fair, you'll start in the lobby, and each employer has a booth.
- You can get in line to chat with multiple employer booths.
- Just like at an in-person fair, you might not know how long you'll wait. You might see an estimate of your wait time.
- To hold your place in line, set your status to "away" (while you chat with another employer).
- Have your intro / elevator pitch in writing so you can cut and paste it into a chat.
- You can have notes handy about your talking points, and about your advance prep on each employer.
- Most employers will do text chat. Use correct spelling and grammar.
- There is a set time for each chat (probably ten minutes), and you'll see a count-down timer.
- As stated above, some employers could invite you to video chat, so be ready. Keep your visual focus on the camera when you speak to employers.
Read info below applicable to BOTH VIRTUAL and in-person fairs.
For BOTH VIRTUAL and in-person career fairs:
These are applicable to BOTH in-person AND VIRTUAL career fairs!
DON'T ask an employer "what does your company do?" This is a serious DON'T from the employer's perspective!
What's the key to success at a fair?
First: Research in advance the employers registered to participate in the fair. This enables you to decide which employers to connect with, and to plan what to say to each employer. Tailor your message to each employer by stating why you wanted to speak with them (their internship program, their projects, whatever attracted you).
Second: Know yourself, know the employer, show the fit. Be prepared to talk to the employer about what you can do for them, not what they can do for you. (We know you really want an internship, and that it would be great experience for you! Tell the employer why you would be an asset to them!)
Third: Be flexible and prepared for the unexpected. Typical scenario: Many weeks, or even months, before the fair, an employer (the organization) registers for the fair; this means a human being (employee of the organization) does the registration and indicates the organization's hiring needs for students to read. Move forward in time to the fair day, when different human beings attend the fair as employer representatives, and they do not know or give the same information about hiring needs. Before the fair, you, as a student, read the employer's information; then the rep at the fair tells you something different. This can be confusing and 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 can tell you whom to contact about the hiring needs that match your qualifications and interests.
This is applicable to BOTH in-person AND VIRTUAL career fairs!
- View each career fair website and read about participating 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 employer, you have a reason to participate!
- Know that the employment world is not divided by major or college! It's not the job of employers to memorize hundreds of different college majors (which often have different names at different universities). Be prepared to explain how your major connects to the world of work, if needed. And when explaining your career interests, don't just state your major. Add more about your own interests and skills.
- Understand that not all types of employers participate in career fairs.
- Discover that many varied ones do! Research each in advance.
This is applicable to BOTH in-person AND VIRTUAL career fairs!
- To make a good (or great!) impression in person, or by chat or video; 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 participate in Business Horizons, and you don't necessarily have to be an engineering major to participate in Engineering Expo. You DO need to look, in advance, at the list of employers participating, 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, whether virtually or in person, and you can ask in-depth questions (again, NOT, "what does your company do?).
- 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 interact face-to-face, even if by video.
- Some fairs include follow-up interviewing. Each fair's website should tell you if they do this. If that is a possibility, prepare your interview skills in advance!
- Some of the employers who attend career fairs also participate in the On-Campus Interviewing (OCI) Program, which is different from interviews that could be part of a career fair. OCI interviews take place typically over a nine-week period in fall semester, and a seven-week period in spring semester, and the scheduling is coordinated in Handshake. For OCI, in advance of the interview date, students apply and employers screen applicants to choose whom to interview. Connecting in advance at fairs gives employers another way of interacting with candidates in addition to the resume you submit when you apply for interviews.
This is applicable to BOTH in-person AND VIRTUAL career fairs! (unless otherwise stated.)
- Know which employers are participating! See the career fair list that links to each event website. The sponsor of each fair is listed. Read the website for each fair. It should give you a way to see participating employers with other relevant information — like positions for which they are hiring and majors sought. If there's no information within a week of the fair, contact the sponsor and ask.
- Participate in 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 participating are looking for people with your qualifications and interests.
- Do enough research to make "A" and "B" lists of employers with whom to connect. Depending on the fair and how many employers interest you, you might not have time to connect with every employer, and not every employer may be a fit for you. 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 tailor your introduction and chat with each employer.
- For an in-person fair, have plenty of copies of your updated resume ready. Use our resume guidelines to prepare. Always take print copies of your resume to an in-person career 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. They might want to remember you for a later contact. Also be aware that many employers must require applicants to submit resumes online to their Applicant Tracking System (ATS) in order to be an official job candidate as explained below; if you think about, you understand that hiring cannot be managed with physical paper; but physical paper is helpful during an in-person conversation.
- For a virtual fair, be ready to share your updated resume, whether by submitting in advance, or sharing in real time.
- If you're looking for more than one type of position, each being significantly different (like marketing or human resources), you might decide to create two 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. Additionally, there is nothing wrong with an employer giving you a new idea on the spot — be flexible and respond appropriately.
- For an in-person fair, be prepared that some employers might not accept hard copy resumes and will ask you to apply online in their Applicant Tracking System (ATS). 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 submit your materials to the employer's Applicant Tracking System (ATS) online. 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 in whom they are interested, but hiring cannot be managed by relying on hard copy documents.
- Prepare a 20 to 30 second introduction to use with employers. Be conversational so that you don't sound like a you're reading a script. You don't have to rush when speaking. Practice so you sound like you thought about why you wanted to speak with that employer (whether virtual or in-person). It might be something like:
- "Hello. I'm Jordan Ramon, a junior in Communication and Marketing."
- (If in person, you might pause here to shake hands with the recruiter. Listen when the recruiter states their name. You can say, "Very nice to meet you," and/or "Thank you for speaking with me."
- "I'm seeking an internship related to marketing for next summer. I read on your website that (name of employer organization) has an internship program with your corporate marketing department. I have done some project work that I believe gave me skills related to your internship requirements. I'm very interested in your program."
- 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.
- For a virtual fair, you can have your intro (elevator pitch) ready to copy and paste into the chat for your introduction. Just don't repeat "hello" and anything else you already entered in the chat. Be careful not to sound canned.
- 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 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. Examples of good questions IF you could not find this information 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?
- 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. For a virtual fair, you might be invited to video chat, so dress professionally! Be prepared to be seen from head to toe; you never know.) Each fair has its own styles and traditions. Some are business casual, while some suggest or require interview attire. 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.
Applicable to BOTH in-person and VIRTUAL career fairs (unless otherwise noted)!
- Watch your manners and mannerisms: Your body language is applicable to virtual fairs where you have a video chat. Be ready. Sit/stand up straight, don't hang your mouth open, don't fidget, make good eye contact, don't chew gum (or smell like smoke in person). Don't touch your face. If you gesture with your hands, keep your movements small and not in front of your face.
- Handshakes are critical in the in-person world. For in-person contact, have a good handshake with good eye contact.
- For video chat and in person: Be clear and engaging when you speak. Be friendly and conversational, have a positive attitude. Stay on topic. In-person fairs could sometimes be noisy, and Zoom or other video connections can sometimes be unclear, so speak clearly and confidently.
- Don't be misled into thinking of the fair as a social event. Employers often have recently-hired new graduates as representatives for 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.
- Virtual fair chat isn't like texting friends. Use correct spelling and grammar.
- For an in-person event, carry a simple padfolio to keep your resumes organized and ready. Some in-person fairs have you check your bags at the door because the event is crowded. Be ready to hand employers the appropriate resume. Be prepared for employers to offer you literature and give-away items like pens, cups, t-shirts, etc. This is common at in-person fairs. Sometimes they give bags 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.
- For a virtual fair, you can have notes and reference materials with you. Just don't look as though you are distracted by these if you're on a video chat.
- Have an open mind. You may have 12 employers on your target list to speak or chat with. If you have extra time, or have to wait to speak or chat 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 are all the employer sees to determine whether or not to interview you. At a fair, you have an opportunity to stand out through text chat or video chat, or your in-person communication, 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.
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.
- 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.
- The best strategy is: Be prepared!
- Participate to learn more about jobs and careers. Employers are impressed when first-year and sophomore students introduce themselves at career fairs. Part of the point is to learn more about what employers have to offer. Fairs are rare opportunities to chat or talk with multiple representatives and learn about jobs straight from the source.
- You still need to do some research and have good interpersonal skills. The difference is that your goal for the fair is to get career information to be prepared, and not necessarily to find a job or internship yet.
- At in-person fairs, or open chats, you can eavesdrop. Listen to the conversations between other students and employers. Virtual fairs might not have open chat; it might be one-on-one chat only.
- Volunteer to help with the fair. Many fairs use student volunteers. Check the fair website. During in-person fairs, student volunteers often help employers with their gear, deliver water, do whatever helps things run smoothly. Students also play leadership roles in virtual fairs; ask how you can get involved. That gives you a role in the fair, with a purpose, allows you to observe, learn, and experience the event without pressure, and see employers as human beings.
The mix of in-person and virtual career fairs offers the best of both worlds: Many of us naturally value the connection of in-person fairs. Virtual fairs also extend access and equity for both employers and students. Not all employers can physically travel to all campuses. Virtual fairs offer access unbound by physical location.
Scenes from in-person fairs: