Job Fair Tips for Success on Your Job Search

Job Fair Tips for success

Job Fairs: Are They Really Worth the Trouble?

Job fairs can be valuable resources when searching for your first job, or even a new job. I wish that more people would prepare for career fairs. Too many candidates wander aimlessly around job fairs. To be honest, they often do not impress the recruiters that stand at information tables hoping to find new employees. When job seekers understand some job fair basics, they can leverage these basics to land a job.

In a previous blog post that I wrote on preparing for a job interview, I tell my secrets from an interviewer’s point of view. As a Fortune 500 executive with over 25 years of experience in hiring and managing employees, I want people to have the real, inside scoop on how to land a new job.

Often my perspective may differ from other authors or individuals involved in career development – and I don’t care. Too often advice on topics like job fairs and how to win at the interviewing game is provided by people involved on the fringes of hiring. Yes – I include human resources, recruiters, career counselors, and others in this category. One a candidate is in front of a hiring manager like me, the decision rests solely with me and my interviewing team as to whether you get hired or not. So – shouldn’t you pay attention to feedback from the decision maker?

I have attended many job fairs, looking to fill positions in my organization on behalf of companies such as Microsoft, Intuit, and many other well-known institutions. I have manned the booth looking for both entry-level positions as well as middle management positions. I share my insights here so they may enable you to get value, and a new job, out of attending a job fair.

What is a Job Fair

A job fair, in essence, is an event where employers, including private enterprises and government agencies, set up booths to attract and meet potential job candidates. The companies staff it with recruiters and, occasionally, hiring managers from their organizations. The purpose is to provide a centralized, organized event where employers can screen hundreds or thousands of potential employees in as short of a time as possible.

Job fairs come in various flavors and from several sources:

  • College Career Fairs
  • Veteran focused Career Fairs
  • Entry Level Career Fairs
  • Industry or skill focused fairs:
    • Technology
    • Health Care
    • Hospitality
    • Government
    • Customer Service
    • Seasonal
    • Retail

All job fairs share a similar format and purpose, which is to enable a company to fill as many positions as possible in as short of a time as possible. Often companies may have a large number of job openings and need to do “mass recruiting” to get people in these positions as fast as possible. Still others may have just a few openings, but are having trouble finding the right candidate through more traditional online job search sites, newspapers, and career offices.

For candidates like you, career fairs are a way to get in front of multiple recruiters in a single day. You can learn more about what they do, the culture of the company, and the positions they may have open. It is also a fantastic way to bypass the “HR Machine,” which is often referred to as a job application black hole. You know what I mean here – you send your resume in to a hiring department. You submit it to hundreds of company sites and never hear back. Your resume goes into an automated screening system. Human eyes may never see it, depending on how the system is assessing and matching skills to open positions. Job Fairs are a great way to bypass this system and dramatically increase your odds of getting in the door for real interviews.

Entry Level Job Fairs

If a company is looking to hire a handful or more of resources in entry-level positions, they may not have the budget to hire or fund intensive recruiting efforts. In situations like these, they want to rely on both online job search site submissions as well as career fairs to maximize the number of applicants. However, don’t assume they will hire everyone that walks into their booth at the job fair – quite the opposite. Instead, recruiters manning the booth will be doing quick assessments – often done within 5 minutes or less, to see if someone is worth interviewing further. These interviews may take place onsite at the career fair, or more likely scheduled later after the fair ends.

If you are fresh out of college, graduating soon, or early in your career or switching careers, entry-level job fairs can be a fantastic resource. Entry-level job fairs help you see what types of positions are available, whether you would want to work for a particular company, and — most important – you can move yourself to the front of the line for interviews. If you approach an entry-level job fair correctly, you can get a massive head start and be ahead of most people simply by applying online at a company website. More on this later.

One industry that often looks for large number of candidates is the customer service or “call center” industry. This can be a great career starting point. You can gain entry in your field of choice. Almost all industries (healthcare, technology, banking/finance, insurance, real estate, etc.) have customer service organizations. Many executives at these companies actually worked their way up from being “phone agents.”

I personally spent time at Intuit in a contact center management capacity, and helped drive learning and career development for brand new college graduates. The new hires started helping customers on the phone and rapidly progressed into management and specialists roles.

So your take away from this is a key job fair tip – do not overlook positions that may not look glamorous at first glance – they can get you in the door of the company, allow you to learn the business, and provide significant growth opportunities long term.

What to Do at Job Fairs

Okay, so we’ve covered what job fairs are, some basic job fair tips. Now it is time to dig into the meat of what to actually do at a job fair. I think you need to approach it as “working the job fair” – you have an objective, and you need to draw up your battle plan to maximize your benefit and get you to where you want to be job-wise.

Here are some basic job fair tips to start with:

  • Always pre-register if that is an option. Whether it is a college career center or a convention company putting on the career fair, this gives you the opportunity to submit your resume in advance, have your contact information made available to all companies, and often gives you additional access to what companies will be there and what positions they have open. This is a simple job fair tip and easy to do.
  • Research the companies that will be at the career fair. You do not want to be too selective. Remember: many companies have finance, technology, customer service, and other roles regardless of their focus. So review all companies, see what they do and what positions they have open on their web sites. You can make a list. List A contains your most desired employers and roles, List B are your second choices.
  • After your research, make sure you’ve jotted down a few key things about each company. You will want to remember the “A” list ones. I personally would recommend understanding what a company’s core products and services are Then be sure and look at recent news and press releases from the company. This is where you can identify some great talking points around new products, services, mergers/acquisitions, etc. to use when you visit their booth. Trust me – mentioning a recent news item will immediately differentiate you with the company recruiters versus every other visitor.
  • Plan your route around the “show floor.” Many “experts” recommend going to your top companies first, and second priority companies later in the day. I see the sense in that, but a counter argument would be this: By the end of the day most candidates have blended together in the recruiters minds, they are tired, have been on their feet all day, etc. At this point if you come in and distinguish yourself with your passion, attitude, questions, and energy, you will stand out like a shining star. You may have increased odds of getting into the “follow-up” pile of resumes.
  • Don’t go to adjacent booths right away. This is critical – when planning your job fair strategy, visit booths that are out of view of each other in sequence. That way, recruiters never see you leaving their booth and going right next door or across the aisle. Why? From personal experience, my colleagues and I always notice this action when we speak to a candidate. A candidate – possibly someone even very promising – often leaves us and goes right next door (eight feet over) and has the same conversation with another company. My impression is they were not that interested in us, and are simply throwing mud against a wall and hoping it sticks. My recruiters and I have even gone so far as to move their resume from the follow-up pile to the “circular file” pile. Don’t do it. The impression should always be you came directly to my booth, and when you leave you have no interest in other companies.
  • Don’t overdress. Others will disagree with me here, but don’t put on your best suit and tie, pants suit, dress, etc. for the event. It makes you look desperate, and honestly how many people are really acting normally when dressed to the nines? Remember – you have 2-5 minutes max to make a good enough impression to be put into the follow-up pile. You want to me relaxed, yet passionate, professional, and personable – all at once. I personally prefer business casual – for men dress slacks/Dockers and a dress shirt, but no tie, and possibly a sports coat. For women, a nice slacks/blouse, or dress, or simply pants suit combo – but not full interview attire. I can’t entirely rationalize it, but being a little more business casual at a career fair causes a more interactive and less stiff dialogue with the booth staff, which is what you want.
  • Make sure you have your elevator pitch ready, and tailored to the company you are visiting. This is your 30 seconds to explain who you are, your skills, background, education, and interests. It is your walking commercial of what makes you unique, and what you are looking for in your next job (or first job). I would work on this and refine it a week or so before the event, as you will use it over and over again beyond just the job fair.
  • Ask the right questions at the job fair. This may seem obvious, but ask good questions. I have literally had so many people come into the booth and ask about benefits, work from home, site amenities, and all manner of things completely unrelated to roles we have open, culture, growth, etc. Here are some starting questions to think about – research more especially based on your interests and recent news you have read about the company:
    • I noticed you advertised this role (fill in from your research on their web site), and wanted to see if you could fill in a few more details for me on the position and where it sits in the organization?
    • Can you tell me about the culture of the company?
    • What originally brought you to the company, and what do you like best about working there?
    • What timeline is the team looking at relative to follow-up interviews and goals to have the right person hired?
    • Ask about recent news events you researched.
    • Always ask about follow-up after the career fair, and express your strong interest in the role and company.
  • Body language. Be confident, but not arrogant. Do not come across as too laid back, strolling into the booth without purpose, or there to simply browse their brochures. Enter the booth with a purpose, immediately engage a recruiter if not with other people, and if they are then hang out browsing the booth and reading literature. DO NOT default to taking out your cell phone and doing anything with it. It comes across as disrespectful. Your smart phone should stay in your pocket any time you are near a booth.
  • Don’t ramble. Remember – you have a short window here to convey passion, interest, knowledge, and impress the recruiter that you are someone they want to get in front of the hiring manager quickly. So be brief, concise, and do not speak for more than 2-3 sentences in response to questions/answers. I can guarantee you that people that ramble on incessantly almost never get called in for follow-up interviews.
  • Have fun and be excited. This is your chance to go out and make your mark on the world. Treat it that way.
  • Follow up. Always make sure you get some kind of contact information for the companies and roles that interest you. Send an email that night. In the message, thank them for spending time with you. Reiterate your interest in the company and specific role, if known. Say that you are looking forward to the next steps. Trust me, a follow-up email to the recruiter can factor into the assessment of resumes after the career fair.

What Happens At a Job Fair

So what goes on behind the scenes at a job fair? Knowing this sets the right context, your frame of mind, and expectations. So buckle in.

  • More often than not, hiring managers are not at the job fair. Their time is too valuable. They are too busy, so they brief recruiters on what they are looking for. I would not expect to have in-depth interviews happen on the spot at most job fairs. Nevertheless, you can prepare yourself for the one in a thousand chance it happens. I’ve never personally conducted a full interview at a job fair – I have always followed up with candidates once they were scheduled by HR for a normal interview at my office.
  • The system we use is simple. We have two piles – one pile is resumes that we have no interest in doing anything with, and the second pile are ones we want to potentially call back in for an interview. In the career fairs I’ve been involved with, we use a rating system of 1-4 in the second pile, with 1 being “stellar candidate” and 4 being “worth interviewing further”. Stellar candidates get called first after the job fair to schedule more formal interviews.
  • Most companies use similar approaches – candidates are labeled potential or no potential, and then the potential ones have a score written on their resume for later sorting and evaluation.
  • If a candidate drags out the conversation in the booth and doesn’t pay attention to others waiting, this is a black mark and should be avoided. Always be aware of if people are waiting, be courteous and respectful of the recruiters time knowing they have other people to speak to.
  • If you have made it to the “potential” stack, you can likely expect a call from HR within 2 days after the job fair. What happens is the day after the job fair the recruiters sit with the hiring manager and quickly go through the potential pile, assess ratings assigned in the booth, make adjustments based on the managers review, and then are ready the next day to start bringing in a small number of candidates for interviews.
  • If I have 5 open positions as an example, typically the recruiters will review 25-30 strong candidates from the job fair, and I will narrow it down through discussion with them to about 12 people to schedule for interviews. The ratios I have seen in my career is typically we may get 40-50 people interested in a position, 5-10 of these are qualified or worth looking at further based on their resume and presence in the booth, and we will schedule and have in-person interviews with 3-4.

I will tell you that the following types of behavior almost always routed a resume to the “no follow-up” pile – so don’t do these at a job fair:

  • Too talkative
  • Knows nothing about the company
  • Knows nothing about open roles
  • More interested in benefits than role
  • Can’t speak to why they would be a fit for the role or company
  • Searching for any job versus having keen interest in mine
  • Comes across as lazy and not motivated
  • Comes across as arrogant
  • Communication style and body language not professional

At the end of the day, there is a way to work a job fair to your advantage – and to truly get follow-up interviews and job offers out of them. Hopefully this article has given you some job fair tips and enough background that you can make it work for you.