Career fairs are a fantastic opportunity to get face time with prospective employers during the application process so that you can set yourself apart from the rest of the applicants. Sure, career fairs can be intimidating, however if you prepare properly you will improve your confidence and make a great first impression on a potential employer. During my years of attending career fairs as an employer representative, I have encountered students who have made lasting positive impressions as well as students who have underwhelmed me. It’s a good opportunity, one that you need to seize. Here’s how...
Step One: the warm-up
Most people believe that preparing to attend a career fair simply means writing your resume. Take note: there are other steps that you need to take. Preparation includes not only creating your resume, but also developing a self-summary, conducting company research, and assessing your appearance.
Preparing your resume can be a difficult task. If you have not yet prepared a resume, or need help refining the one you already have, your university or college’s career services department should be able to assist you. I know that you have heard this before, but it’s worth repeating: ensure that there are no spelling errors on your resume! When it happens, you lose the employer’s attention. Once you have completed your resume, proper presentation to the employer will help you in your quest to impress.
Take your resume to the career fair. Showing up without your resume not only conveys to the employer that you are not taking the opportunity seriously, but also makes it impossible for them to contact you. Taking a business card in lieu of a resume is not recommended. Employers do not have time to visit your website or call you and ask you to submit a resume.
If there is a specific opportunity that you are interested in at a company, preparing a targeted cover letter could set you apart from the rest of the applicants.
Be sure that your cover letter is addressed to the correct company; submitting a cover letter addressed to a different company shows a lack of attention to detail.
Attach the pages of your resume together. There is too much risk in submitting a multiple page resume without attaching the pages; you want your resume to stay in tact for the employer to review.
Step Two: pick-up lines
Your self summary is a 20 – 30 second speech that outlines your skills, experience and the types of opportunities that you are targeting. Developing this summary is an important step in the preparation process, so do not skip it. Approaching an employer and sharing your self summary shows the employer that you are confident and prepared, which are two key characteristics employers look for. Walking up to the employer and asking “What jobs does your company have open?” is not a good opening line. Chances are that the company has several openings, possibly in different fields. Starting off the conversation with your self summary will help the employer focus on the information that is relevant to you.
Most of the career fairs that you will attend will publish the names of the participating companies prior to the event. Take advantage of this information and research the companies that interest you. You do not have to memorize the companies’ websites; learn a little something about each employer and include it in your self summary — either at the beginning of your summary or the end. Employer representatives spend all day repeating what the company does and the opportunities that are available. One of the most common questions that I hear is “What does your company do?” If you can show the employer that you have taken the time to learn about their company and are focused on the type of opportunity that you are looking for, you will stand out from the many people that the employers will meet that day.
Appearance seems to be often overlooked. Each time you speak with an employer face to face you are having a mini-interview, so dress like you would dress for an interview. A business suit is not necessarily required, however, an overall professional appearance is required. Showing up in jeans and a hoodie and saying that you just found out about the career fair that day is not an excuse. You need to dress to impress.
Step Three: ditch your friends
Approaching an employer can be very intimidating, but resist the urge to approach an employer with your group of friends. I am often approached by a group of students who are all in the same program and one student does all of the talking for the group. At the end of the speech, all of the students pass me their resume. Which person in that group stands out to me? Of course it is the speaker. The other members of the group are not memorable. It is fine to walk around the career fair with your friends, but approach an employer alone.
Step Four: the approach
When you approach an employer, approach with confidence — even if you have to pretend you are confident. Make eye contact with the company representative and offer your hand. Your hand shake needs to be firm but not bone-crushing. Yes, breaking the hand of the employer representative will make a lasting impression, but not the one you are hoping for. You will only have a short time with the employer, so make it count. Introduce yourself and launch into the self summary that you prepared. When you have finished your summary, follow the employer representative’s lead. If he/she is engaging in a discussion with you and asking questions, then participate in the discussion. Feel free to ask questions about the company and the opportunities in the field that you are interested in pursuing. In fact, asking some well-thought-out questions is an excellent way to stand out from the crowd. When speaking with an employer representative, be aware of the fact that the employer representative is busy and will only be able to spend a short time with you. Thank him/her for their time and close the discussion with another handshake and a smile. Move on to the next company.
Remember, your goal is to stand out from the rest of the applicants and to make a positive, lasting impression on the employer. These tips may appear to be common sense, but you would be surprised at the number of people that I meet at career fairs that do not take the opportunity seriously. When are you going to another chance to get face time with several employers all on the same day? Ensuring that you fully prepared for the career fair and practicing your employer approach will give you an advantage; perhaps it will be the advantage that you need to get your foot in the door to start your career. Good luck! jp