Standing out—in a positive way—is no easy task. When you’re piled into a packed auditorium and competing with hundreds of other job seekers for just a few minutes of a recruiter’s attention, it’s crucial to show up prepared, ready to face the day, and knowing what it takes to distinguish yourself from the crowd.
So our guide to acing the career fair covers everything you need to know—from getting ready for the event to making a great impression and following up afterward. Follow these eight steps, and you’ll be on your way to landing interviews in no time.
Before the Event
1. Find Out Who Will Be There
Look—or ask—for a list of all the companies who will be attending prior to the event, and prioritize the ones you want to approach. This way, if you run out of time to meet everyone, you’ll at least be sure you’ve hit your top choices.
And while a career fair is a good time learn about companies, you should know a little about them before showing up. You’ll be able to ask deeper questions and get better information if you already have some background to work with.
So before you go, do some research about each company on your priority list and be prepared to tailor your conversations specifically to each recruiter.
2. Pack Your (Small) Bag
What should you bring to a career fair? Not much. Don’t carry a bulky briefcase, backpack, or large bag—you want to be able to easily make your way across the room, have your hands free for handshaking, and not look disheveled. All you need is a small purse, plus a dark, plain folder to hold your resumes and any information you pick up at the event.
Bring at least 20 copies of your resume (more if there are more companies than that you’d like to meet with), a pen and paper for taking notes, and business cards (if you have them).
3. Dress for Success (and Comfort)
As with any interview, it’s important to dress professionally—but at a career fair, you want to be comfortable, too. Wear a lightweight outfit that won’t get too hot, and check your coat or leave it behind. And make sure your shoes are extra comfortable—you might be on your feet for several hours!
During the Event
4. Don’t Be Shy
As you approach each table, be friendly, be confident, and be prepared with something to say. Introduce yourself with a smile, eye contact, and a brief, firm handshake. Often, the recruiter will take the lead and ask you questions, but you should also have your elevator pitch ready—a 30-second soundbite of what you want the company to know about you. (Here’s how to craft one if you’re unsure.) To really use your time wisely, you should be able to concisely convey why you’re interested in the particular company and how your skills or qualifications suit the position.
But at the same time—don’t go too fast! Job seekers have a tendency to speak quickly, which comes across as rushed or nervous. You want to speak slowly and with interest.
5. Get Your Resume in Their Hands
One of the biggest mistakes job seekers make is not giving out their resume until the end of the meeting—at this point, the recruiter may have gotten interrupted or moved on to someone else. Instead, as you speak about yourself, hand your resume to the recruiter, and point out the places that substantiate what you’re saying.
This will draw her attention to your resume and make you stand out from the other faces at the table, too.
6. Give a Memorable Goodbye
You want the person you’re speaking with to know you’re interested in his or her company. So ask relevant questions—and also be sure to ask about next steps. You should also offer to come by the recruiter’s office for a longer conversation in person.
When the conversation is wrapping up, make sure to thank the person you’re speaking with for her time. Most importantly, request a business card! Believe me, there’s no way you’ll remember everyone’s names at the end of the event. Plus, you’ll want to have her email address so you can follow up.
After the Event
7. Follow Up
Within 24-48 hours of the career fair, send a thank you note to each person you met with, whether you’re interested in the company or not. Who knows—the next time you go to one of these things, the recruiter at that dull software company could be working for Google!
If you think the recruiter would appreciate a handwritten note, send one, but also send emails to everyone. And don’t copy and paste—it’s OK for your messages to be short, but you’ll want to personalize them to each company and recruiter.
8. Take Action
For the companies you are interested in, follow the recruiter’s instructions about applying for a position. If you need to submit your resume online, do so within a few days of the event so that you’re still fresh in the company’s mind.
And if there’s not a position available right now that’s a good fit, ask the recruiter if you can come in for an informational interview (asking is as easy as following this guide). Getting even more face time with the company is always a good thing!
It’s not always easy to stand out at a career fair, but if you arrive prepared and organized, approach the tables politely and well-practiced, and follow up the right way—you’ll already be ahead of the pack.
By Laura Katen
Laura Katen is President of Katen Consulting, a women-owned NY-based professional development training company. Katen Consulting facilitates soft skills workshops in the areas of First Impressions + Business Success, Personal Brand + Appearance, Effective Communication, Interactions + Building Rapport, Strategic Dining, Networking Savvy, and Presentation Skills—all geared to help employees, entrepreneurs, job seekers, and students appear polished, professional, and make a positive impression in the workplace. To email or tweet: www.katenconsulting.com or @katenconsulting.