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How-To: Your First College Career Fair

Walking into a big room filled with rows and rows of possible future employers is a daunting (terrifying?) experience for many college students, but career fairs are a great way for to jumpstart our professional lives. Whether you’re a senior graduating soon and looking for a full-time job, a sophomore or junior seeking an internship, or someone just looking to practice your networking and interviewing skills, attending a career fair can be a wonderful opportunity.

Want to find out how to make the most of it? Read on! Learn how to calm your nerves and make a great impression on recruiters with tips on what to do before, during, and after the event.

Before: Prepare, prepare, prepare

Write your resume

This is (hopefully) a no brainer, but don’t forget to update your resume and print out at least 10-15 copies to bring to the fair. It’s best if you can have your resume reviewed beforehand, so at least have a roommate or friend read it over for typos. The even better option is to meet with a career advisor who can really get your resume into great shape.

 

Choose who to see

Most career fairs will offer a list of the employers attending for you to review ahead of time, so look through the list, decide which employers you are most interested in talking to, and write them down in priority order. For extra brownie points, do some research about the companies you are planning to talk to (this can be as simple as looking through their website, especially the “about us” section!). Taking this small amount of extra effort will show recruiters that you are actually interested in their company and will help you stand out.

 

Practice your elevator pitch

Your “elevator pitch” is the couple of sentences you say to introduce yourself to a recruiter after you approach their table and shake their hand. This involves stating your name, your major and year in school, and a little about your strengths and goals. Sounds easy enough to come up with on the fly, right? Maybe…but your brain might go blank when you actually get in front of someone who has the possibility to offer you a job. Take a few minutes to draft an elevator pitch and then practice saying it in front of a friend or roommate. Don’t over-practice or memorize a script, though--you don’t want to sound too rehearsed.

 

Prepare some questions

When your recruiter asks if you have any questions about their company, you should have some. If you think of questions during your conversation, that’s great; be sure to ask them. But it can be helpful to have a few general questions prepared in case you can’t think of anything on the spot.

 

Clarify your goals

Based on your interests and how far you are in school, you probably have a general idea of the reason you are attending a career fair, but make sure you have a clear understanding of what you are hoping to gain from the event. This could be something general like the type of employment you’re interested in and what type of qualities you are looking for in a company, or it could be more specific, like the exact industry you’d like to enter or where you’d like to live for a full-time job. Knowing what your personal goals are will make it much easier to figure out who you really want to talk to and what questions you want to ask.

 

During the fair: the real deal

Time it right

You may have classes throughout the same day of the fair, so make sure you know exactly when you’re planning to show up. Give yourself enough time beforehand to slow down, mentally prepare, stop in a bathroom, and do anything else you need to do to feel prepared. If possible, go earlier in the event. Some employers may leave early and others will simply get tired by the end of a long day of speaking to so many people, so you have an advantage if you can catch them early on.

 

Dress for success

Dressing professionally for the career fair is important, so make sure to carefully plan out your outfit. If you aren’t sure what to wear, research the type of dress that is typical for your industry—and when in doubt, air on the side of caution dress one step up from what you think. Remember that when you look good, you feel good! But also remember that you also need to be comfortable: for example, if you won’t be able to focus on the recruiter’s questions because your heels make your feet hurt so badly, you probably shouldn’t wear them.

 

Relax, stand tall, and smile

It’s normal to feel nervous during a career fair, but the more confident you look, the more confident you will feel. Think carefully about standing up straight and keeping and open body posture (avoid crossing your arms or slouching). And don’t forget to smile! These techniques will make you look powerful, confident, and friendly, even if you don’t exactly feel that way.

 

Prioritize

Remember that numbered list of employers you made before the fair? (Hint: if not, go back to the “prep” section). You might be tempted to start out by talking to your #1 company, but it’s not a bad idea to start a little lower on your list and get the nerves out first. If you’re really feeling anxious, stop at a booth you aren’t really interested in just to test drive your elevator pitch and get that first conversation out of the way.

 

Take notes

You will probably talk to a lot of people with a lot of different things to say, and remembering it all may be challenging after you walk away, so write down some notes! Bring a padfolio and a pen and carry it around from table to table. If it feels inappropriate to write during the middle of the conversation, step aside and write some things down after you’ve finished speaking.

 

Just talk

Recruiters don’t go to college career fairs expecting polished professionals with years of interviewing experience (if they did, they would often find themselves disappointed). They know that you are just starting out and might be a little anxious, so just have an honest conversation with them. If you are feeling nervous and misspeak, just let them know. If your age, nerves, or inexperience are considered disqualifying, that might not be a company you really want to work for anyway.

 

After the fair: make the most of it

First things first...BREATHE.

Like… loud, obnoxious, yoga breathing. Pat yourself on the back, buy yourself some ice cream, whatever. You conquered your first career fair, and that deserves some celebration. Then…

 

Send thank-you notes

Writing a simple thank-you is a small gesture that goes a long way. It is neglected by a surprising number of job seekers—so make yourself stand out by showing your gratitude. If you are really interested in a company, send them an email the day after the fair thanking them for taking the time to speak with you and letting them know you are still interested. If possible, mention something specific you talked about to help them remember who you are.

 

Take the next step

Depending on who you talked to and what your goals are, the career fair may be just a start in your career exploration. Recruiters may point you to an online application for a job you talked about, they may be expecting you to follow up, or they might be the one to contact you. Even if you are offered an interview for a job you don’t really want, never burn bridges; promptly and professionally decline. Be proactive and take your next step in a timely manner, whatever it is!

 

Reflect

After you’ve taken some time to relax and get rid of your career-induced anxiety, think over how the fair really went. Which conversations felt natural and which didn’t? Why did some go better than others? Did your nerves subside throughout the course of the event? Making an effort to reflect on how you did allows you to improve your skills for future fairs and interviews until you’re a pro (or until you land the job…whichever comes first!).