9 Ways to Stand Out at a Career Fair

Career fairs can be convenient, one-stop shopping for your dream job or internship.

But with hundreds of students competing for the attention of fewer recruiters, you must have a plan to make the crucial good first impression that could get you hired.

“Failure to plan is truly planning to fail. Career fairs grant you the opportunity to be evaluated on more than just your resume,” says Veronica Montalvo, senior vice president of the Online Education Institute at Post University in Waterbury, Connecticut.

Take advantage of this opportunity to showcase in person what you can only say on a resume — that you are an effective communicator, critical thinker and team player.

Whether this is your first fair or you’ve attended many, these career fair tips will help you leave a lasting impression on the recruiters you meet.

1. Dress for the job you want.

Pretend that the career fair is your first interview for your dream job. And just as it does at a job interview, how you dress at the career fair speaks volumes about you.

“First impressions are very important, and one’s attire should be appropriate, conservative and simple,” advises Renee Mims Payne, career services associate at Central Penn College in Summerdale, Pennsylvania. For men, she recommends wearing a suit fit for a day at work, and slacks, a skirt, or dress and jacket for women. She also says “accessories, fragrances and makeup should be kept to a minimum.”

According to Rebecca Andrews, dean and associate professor of interior design at O’More College of Design in Franklin, Tennessee, “you can also take a ‘less-is-more’ approach to dress or consider adding an accessory that represents who you are. Employers will value your unique personality and be left with a memorable impression of who you are.”

Once you’ve prepared your outfit, you should ask yourself: “Do you look professional, confident, approachable?” says Jennifer Dillenger, director of career services for The Space in the Mungo Center at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. “Make sure you run your outfit, handshake and smile by a trusted friend,” she adds.

2. Do your research.

You’ll need to know a bit about the companies attending a career fair if you want to be perceived as interested. “It is important to know who will be attending the fair and to spend time researching those companies prior to meeting with them,” says Andrews. Doing so “will allow you to create a prioritized list of companies that have positions available that best match your skills, qualifications, and area of interest,” she explains.

Use the information you gather to tailor your resumes to the companies and, if possible, the open positions you’re interested in. That way, you’ll stand out as a serious applicant.

3. Don’t rush in. Rather, create a game plan.

Plan a strategy for whom you’ll speak to first. Before you walk into the fair, take a minute to observe the layout and assess which booths you should target first, Dillenger advises. “Create a strategy for the representatives you want to meet and stick with your plan. Don’t stand in line,” she says. Instead, “use your time to meet with less-crowded tables. If the attendees weren’t announced in advance, do a quick walk through the space and then use your smartphone to research the organizations you plan to target.”

4. Have your elevator pitch ready.

“To make a good impression, have a one-minute pitch that introduces yourself,” says Matt Caporale, executive director of career development at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. Include your name, major, career aspirations and how they all tie in to working for this company.

Your elevator pitch should make you stand out from the crowd as someone employers would love to hire. “Sell yourself,” Andrews says.

5. Make sure your body language conveys your interest.

Whether you’re naturally shy or outgoing, your body language can show how you feel without words. To look confident and assertive, “eye contact, a firm handshake, and a smile are key,” says Payne. “You will want to shake the recruiter’s hand before and after you speak with them.” Make sure to “maintain direct eye contact the entire time you are speaking. Don’t let your mind or your eyes wander,” she advises, as it may draw the recruiter’s attention away from your message. As an inside tip, Payne suggests using a bit of antiperspirant on your hands for a good, dry handshake.

6. Mix and mingle with as many recruiters as you can.

Career fairs are a great place to network and build strong relationships within your future industry. Talk with as many people as you can at a career fair, advises John Bradac, director of career services at Ithaca College in New York. “Even if a company does not offer what you are looking for, you never know who that company representative may know. You may be pleasantly surprised as to who knows whom and where someone may be able to refer you.”

Remember to connect with the recruiters you meet on LinkedIn. The online networking platform is a great way to maintain these relationships, even if you aren’t pursuing a job right away.

7. Ask thoughtful questions.

The right questions will show you’ve put thought into the company and are interested in learning more. Montalvo suggests asking about a “typical day for the position you are interested in. In addition, it’s a good idea to ask about the company’s culture and work environment to determine if the position would be a good fit for your personality,” she says. “Another great open-ended question that demonstrates your interest is to ask what initial training is like.”

But remember, don’t ask questions that you could answer with a quick look at the organization’s website. For instance, don’t ask, “What does your company do?” Montalvo advises.

8. Ask for business cards.

“Collecting a business card from a representative that you speak with can be a really important tool in helping you make progress in your search,” Bradac explains. “You have the opportunity to follow up with questions and, more importantly, you can send a ‘thank you’ to those you spoke with.”

9. Follow up with a ‘thank you’ note.

Just as you would after a job interview, you’ll make the best impression by following up after the fair. As Rachel Cirelli, director of the career development center at Manhattan College in New York, points out, “recruiters are meeting many potential candidates.” Stand out from the others by sending a follow-up note after the fair. “This is a great place to say thank you [and] reiterate your interest in the position and prove you are an ideal candidate. If you can, share something specific about your conversation that will trigger their memory,” she says.

Ultimately, success at a career fair is all about the impression you make. “Employers are [there] to find high-potential candidates for their organization,” says Caporale. “Leave them with the impression that you are that candidate.”

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