I have spent a lot of time in my life at career fairs, both as a recruiter and as a career counselor invited to attend the fair to assist job seekers. Often when job seekers are out of earshot, I have the opportunity to hear what recruiters think about these events. I think you should know, too, so here are career fair tips that recruiters would share if they were being completely candid:
1. Try to attend the career fair during the earlier part of the event rather than the later part. Toward the end, recruiters start to lose their voices and enthusiasm. In the last hour of the fair, I’ve found them hiding in the hospitality room or trying to sneak out early despite the protests of the event organizers who want recruiters to stay until the very end of the scheduled time. (Note to event organizers: shorter events are better than overly long events…even extraverted recruiters have their human limits).
2. If you are attending the fair with a friend or two, separate to make the rounds of employers. It is overwhelming for employers to interview two or more people at the same time, so be brave and approach them alone.
3. You start making a first impression the moment you walk up to a recruiter. Wear mainstream business attire, but it is OK if your outfit has a bit of individuality and color. Pantsuits on women are fine for all but the most traditional employers. If your budget is tight, there are nonprofits like Dress for Success and Career Gear that can help, or you can shop at a second hand clothing store. Avoid heavy perfumes or colognes because you don’t want to cause anyone to have an allergic or asthmatic reaction.
4. Don’t chew gum, suck on mints, or eat or drink anything in front of the recruiter. If you are worried about your breath, take care of it before you approach the table.
5. The absolute worst way to greet a recruiter is to ask, “So what does your company do?” or, “What jobs do you have open?” Just like with dating you wouldn’t ask a prospective date, “So do you want to go home with me tonight?” before you’ve even said your name, you need to have an introductory conversation with the recruiter so that the recruiter can decide whether to offer you an interview later. You might not always know in advance which employers will be attending a career fair, but sometimes the list is published in advance on the event website. If possible, consult this list to research what each employer does and what types of job openings they have. Using this info, create an introduction for yourself. See #6 below for an example.
6. Approach each recruiter with fresh enthusiasm and energy. Make eye contact and smile. Some recruiters expect to shake hands but others will have their hands full with a clipboard or other info and in that case, don’t worry about the handshake. If you do shake hands, do so firmly but not so much so that you crush the bones of the recruiter’s hands. Say an intro that includes your name, something about your background and/or skills, and what you want to do. For example, “I’m Jenny Brown. I have worked in marketing for the last five years, most recently at Hilton Hotels as a Marketing Manager. Your hotel is well-known for its customer service and I would love to talk about how my marketing communication and social media skills might fit well at your company.”
7. Practice your pitch on a few of your second choice employers before approaching your top choices. This way, your favorite prospects will be able to see you at your best. Don’t wait too long, though…remember Tip #1.
8. Don’t wear out your welcome. After a pleasant and short conversation, say, “It was nice to meet you,” and start to walk away. If the recruiter wants to know something else, he or she will stop you from leaving. It is better to end a conversation a bit early than to create an awkward situation where the recruiter is looking over your shoulder at the long line of job seekers forming and wondering how to get you to move on.
9. Be prepared with a targeted resume. You probably can’t be equally prepared for all employers at the Fair, just the ones that are the best fit for your interests, background, and skills. Recruiters are not impressed with “one size fits all” resumes that have no focus and seem irrelevant to the job opportunities being sought. Don’t be afraid to be specific about what you want as it will increase your marketability for the best career options for you.
10. Ask each recruiter for a business card but don’t take it personally if any recruiter doesn’t want to give you one. Recruiters have told me that they received literally 1000 emails after some career fairs so they stopped giving out their contact info. They just don’t have time to respond to that many people.
11. Career fair organizers are as annoyed as you are when a lazy recruiter seems like they have no interest in having a discussion and they just want to tell job seekers to go to the company website and apply online, but I have seen lots of recruiters do this. (If their companies knew what a poor impression this makes, I wonder if the recruiter would be the next one looking for a new job at a Career Fair?). It isn’t worth fighting with the recruiter about it…just seek out a more motivated recruiter.
12. To expand on #11 above, the recruiter may ask you some questions about your resume, or he/she may not. If a recruiter doesn’t seem interested, say, “It was nice to meet you,” and walk away. It is tough to know why you “click” with some recruiters and not others, but there is little to be gained from trying to win over someone who seems bored or aloof. Concentrate instead on talking to recruiters who seem to take a genuine interest in finding out more about you. Don’t gauge an employer’s interest in whether or not they will physically take your resume. Many companies want all applications to be done electronically and if you make a good impression, the recruiter has noted your name in some way to look you up later.
13. Many recruiters bring small gifts (SWAG aka “stuff we all get”) to career fairs. Feel free to ask to take one from each table, but don’t grab more than one and don’t ask if you can take one for your family member or friend. Don’t ask for stuff that is boxed up, as those items might be reserved for a different event. It is fine to carry a professional looking bag to carry these items, but don’t take so many things and stuff them all into such a huge bag that you look like you are a shopping adventure.
14. If you are given contact info by a recruiter, send a brief thank you note (or email) after the event. This is your opportunity to demonstrate excellent writing skills and to again call attention to the reasons why the company might want to interview you.
15. If you would rather have a root canal than attend a career fair, don’t despair! There are many other ways to land a job.
Some cynics believe that no one ever gets hired because of a career fair, but I know for sure this is not true because I know people who landed their jobs via career fairs. You have nothing to lose but some time by attending one, so follow the career fair tips above and give it your best shot. You may end up happily employed.