If your school hosts a career fair, don’t miss out. Not attending is a missed opportunity to advance your job search. We heard from three experts with years of experience advising and recruiting college students, and they shared deep insight into what impresses recruiters today, including what to say at a career fair, what to wear, the right attitude and what to do after the event.
You will learn more than you think by attending a career fair
Even if you see the list of attending employers and none of them interest you, you should still attend the career fair. At the event, you’ll gain more than just face time with recruiters. Bruce Soltys, Head of Talent Acquisition Sourcing Strategies at Travelers, says a career fair “is a great way to learn about the types of jobs that are available at different organizations, and students may be surprised at the opportunities that companies have to offer.” Just because a company is known for one thing doesn’t mean they don’t have a wide variety of jobs. For example, says Soltys, “Travelers is a leading provider of property and casualty insurance, so some students are surprised when they find out that an insurance company has career opportunities ranging from advanced analytics to business intelligence to forensics to drone operators, and everything in between.”
A career fair is also a great place for comparing organizational cultures. If your goal is to find a job where you will feel valued and respected, you need to get a sense of the organizational culture. Engage with more than one person at the booths, and know the difference between the recruiter and the hiring manager. The recruiter may be your main contact, but you’re unlikely to work with that person if you get hired. If you meet the hiring manager or anyone on your potential team, place more value on their comments and attitudes, as they would more directly affect your sense of belonging.
After you meet people at an organization you are interested in, look them up on LinkedIn and ask to connect. When they accept, you can ask them further questions about the culture. You can even ask them about their company’s most recent employee engagement survey. Even if they can’t share the full results with you, any kind of summary will reveal something about their workplace culture.
Related: A guide for entry-level job seekers to combat bias
How to prepare before going to the career fair
Don’t ever wing it when you go to a career fair. Recruiters speak with a lot of students throughout the day, so prepare by knowing how to explain “what differentiating qualities you have that will help you stand out,” according to Soltys. So how do you prepare?
First, put on your grownup hat and take this event seriously. Joanne Meehl, the “The Resume Queen”® and “The Job Search Queen”® at Joanne Meehl Career Services, says to “treat a career fair as if it’s one big interview room.” She recommends preparing by doing the following:
- Know which employers will be there by studying the attending company list in advance.
- Plan who you are going to see. Prioritize your top companies/organizations so you can be sure to see them first before there are long lines of others waiting to see the same reps.
- Have your resume ready to give representatives, and your business card if you have one from a current job. (If you don’t have a card, Soltys from Travelers suggests saving the paper because it has the same contact info as your resume.)
- Dress and look as if you’re going to an interview. Even if you don’t get an interview at the actual event, you want to make a great first impression.
Meehl recalls being disappointed to see one student who unfortunately didn’t follow her advice: “The student ‘dropped in’ on his way back from the gym! He was in sweats, his hands were in his pockets, and he floated around the room like he was checking out the latest shoes at DSW! He was not making any kind of good impression.”
Your career services offices will have details about the career fair and how you can prepare for each one specifically. Not all career fairs are created equal, and because the counselors at the career center have been in touch with the registered employers, they can give you clues for how to prepare. Soltys reminds students, “you’ll only get out of it what you put into it, so I always suggest students check in with their career services office.”
What to say at a career fair: Be respectful and confident (and how NOT to introduce yourself)
Don’t make the mistake of starting a conversation with “What opportunities do you offer?” Soltys of Travelers says it’s “more impressive when students have done their research in advance, visited our career site and approach us asking about a specific program that caught their eye. To me, that shows initiative and interest in the organization and is a great way to stand out from other students.”
But before you even say anything, put on a warm and friendly smile, and extend a firm and businesslike handshake, advises Marky Stein, Career Coach and author of books such as “Fearless Resumes: The Proven Method for Getting a Great Job Fast (McGraw-Hill 2009).
Remember that each representative you meet is like a door into their organization. So treat them all with respect, regardless of their age. “Their opinion is considered by others during the hiring process,” says Meehl, so “they could be pivotal to your candidacy. Plus, it’s just plain good manners.”
Stein suggests addressing recruiters formally, for example, say “Sir” or “Ms.” From almost 20 years of researching this topic, Stein knows “that the interviewer consciously or unconsciously wants to feel dominant to the job seeker. This dominance doesn’t mean that they want to necessarily control you or boss you around but it does mean that they expect respect.”
Your introduction to recruiters is an extremely important part of what to say at a career fair. Don’t expect recruiters to launch into their own spiel about their company. They are waiting for you. Start by stating your first and last name. Why both names? Stein offers this:
Research shows that people who introduce themselves by their first AND last names are perceived to be more confident and show higher self-esteem than those who use only their first names.
You need to quickly summarize three things, according to Soltys: your academic background, work experience, and why you are interested in their organization. In all the years Soltys has recruited college students, he believes students should expect to have only about five minutes total with a recruiter. So “iIt’s important to be succinct and to the point.”
Also read: Networking: A definitive guide for entry-level job seekers to succeed in the job search
Stein cites a study done by the San Jose (California) Mercury Newspaper. They surveyed 400 employers in Silicon Valley, including this question: “How long, in the back of your mind, does it take for you to know that you’re probably going to hire someone?”
The study reported that on average, recruiters make a snap judgement about whether to hire someone in about 15 seconds.
Stein says that while this may seem like bad news, “it actually good news because you are in control of everything that happens in those first 15 seconds – the way you’re dressed, the way you present yourself, your smile, your handshake and the respect and confidence that you show!”
Stein offers a nice sentence to wrap up your introduction: “I’d be very honored to interview with your company if you find that I qualify for any of your positions”.
Tips if you have a low GPA
While some employers do still request to see your GPA as part of the hiring process, this practice is f
ading. Employers are starting to realize that academic excellence does not predict success in the workplace. That said, if you have a low GPA, just be prepared to speak about it. Explain what got in your way during college to achieve better grades. If you held a job all through college, that is often explanation enough for employers to soften their judgment. (In fact, working while going to school is likely more impressive than a high GPA because you can demonstrate what you’ve learned from real work experience.)
When you ask around for advice regarding GPA, you’ll likely hear different answers from different recruiters and career counselors. At Travelers, Soltys says, “there is no one right or wrong answer. Some companies have programs with minimum GPA requirements or preferences, and some don’t, so students should be cognizant of that.”
The career fair is just the beginning. Follow-up is critical.
Follow up, follow up, follow up. And don’t wait to take action, either. Soltys has seen students make the same mistake over and over. That is:
Many students feel that simply dropping off their resume is considered their application, when in fact it is not.
“Students should follow up with the companies that have opportunities they have a genuine interest in pursuing,” says Soltys. “They should make sure to follow the application instructions that the companies provide.
In the end, you have to be your authentic self at a career fair. Soltys agrees. This may seem hard in the moment because you are nervous and under pressure, so you should practice talking about yourself in an authentic way. Not too phony, not too “sales-y”. Just your real self.