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How to Prepare for a Career Fair

DON'T walk up to an employer booth and ask "what does your company do?" This is a serious DON'T! 

What's the key to success at a fair?

First: Research in advance the employers registered to attend the fair. This enables you to decide which employers to approach, 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.

Third: Be flexible and prepared for the unexpected. It's not uncommon that the person who registered the organization for the fair (several weeks or months prior) indicated hiring needs, but the reps who actually attend the fair tell you something different. 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 can tell you who to contact about the hiring needs that match your qualifications and interests.

  • View each career fair website and 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.
  • 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 the Engineering Expo. You DO have to look at the list of employers attending in advance, 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 your 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 interviews take place for 10 weeks in the fall and eight weeks in the 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.
  • Know which employers are attending! See the career fair list that links to each event website. The sponsor of each fair is listed. Career and Professional Development sponsors the Connection fairs, while other fairs are sponsored by other colleges, 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.
  • 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" and "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 our resume guidelines to prepare. Always take print copies of your resume to a career or 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. They 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. Additionally, there is 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 website. 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 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 and Marketing. I'm looking for an internship related to marketing for next summer. I read on your website 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." 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.
  • 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. 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. 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.
  • Watch your manners and mannerisms: All those things your parents drilled into you when you were a child. 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. Be prepared for employers to give you literature and give-away items like 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 are all the employer sees to determine whether or not 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.

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!
  • Go to learn more about jobs and careers. 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 and have good interpersonal skills. The difference is that your goal for the fair is to get career information, not get a job.
  • Eavesdrop. Listen to the conversations between students and employers. Get an idea of how things go.
  • Volunteer to help with the fair. Many fairs use student volunteers. Check the fair website. 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, allows you to observe, learn, and experience the event without pressure, and see employers as human beings.