After attending several career fairs in Manhattan with only 14 employers, I'm starting to see small signs of a turn-around: longer (if not "2006 long") lists of employers attending career fairs. Nice. With that, and the impending arrival of fall career fairs come September, here are my suggestions for navigating a career fair.
1. Take it seriously. Unless you are a visual art major and it's a "casual career fair," dress well--no jeans, tight clothes or white sneakers. Think: Summer's over, even if it's still warm outside. Ties, jackets, dress pants, dark shoes and socks for men. Shirts that don't show the navel and skirts or pants that don't defy gravity for women. Err on the side of conservatism. "She wore WHAT?" is always a perennial discussion among recruiters.
(Also, breath mints are always in vogue. Chewing gum at the fair or smoking outside--bad idea.)
2. Bring copies of your resume, but don't be disappointed if the employer prefers not to take it. Companies have rules and internal procedures regarding applicants. Occasionally, these rules will dictate that they can't take resumes. (Did you know some employers are legally required to preseve any comments they write on your resume at a career fair?")
Most employers will require you to apply for positions online to be considered as an official applicant. So don't be turned off by the line, "To apply for a position, go to our website.
3. Know who you want to talk to in advance, and have something interesting to say. Chances are good that you've heard a lot about the elevator pitch, and for good reason: You'll have under 30 seconds to introduce yourself to employers.
Here's a cheat sheet to know what to say: Every good introductions should include two pieces of information:
- A summary of who you are and what you are looking for, and
- An ice breaker that shows you are familiar with the organization's project and services--and culture. (I often recommend searching Google News by organization name, reviewing websites, and reviewing employer profiles such as Hoover's, Vault, and WetFeet.) Many job seekers don't do this, and taking the time to read in advance can help you stand out.
Not sure what you want to say? Check out 15SecondPitch.com, and the site's pitch wizard. It will help you condense and revise your "stump speech."
4. Don't be afraid to spend time with the "lonely employer." Job fairs can feel like popularity contests with lots of candidates in one line, and other booths that are almost empty. Stop by and say hello to the quiet tables, too. You may be surprised at what they have to offer, and it can be a great time to get one-on-one advice from the employer's perspective.
5. Get to know other job seekers at the event--especially when you are in line. Your next lead could come from the person standing in front of you or behind you in line. Making friends with others interested in the same company may seem self-defeating, but it isn't--especially given that you may have different interests, skills, and experience in terms of job function. Remember the common job search rule of thumb that over 60% of job offers are the direct result of networking!
6. When you talk to employers, keep your conversation focused and brief. Introduce yourself with a small handshake. Job fairs often feature long lines of candidates, and can be daunting to employers. Keep your ears open as candidates before you talk to employers, and consider introducing the employer to the candidate behind you in line if the discussion veers along a path of mutual interest. You demonstrate you are a team player when you introduce your "competition" with ease and present their interests, "This is Ben and he's also interested in brand management." When you demonstrate a high level of cooperation and courtesy, you can make an employer more willing to share their own business card--which, in turn, gives you a great vehicle to follow-up after the event.
7. Come early or stay late--and help employers or event organizers out if they are interested. Career fairs can be an exhausting endeavor for employers and fair exhibitors: Volunteering to help someone out can be a very smart way to get your foot in the door later--and to stay top of the employer's mind later.
This is my career fair "short list." What is yours?