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Find More Success by Knowing What to Expect at a Job Fair

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You may think a job or internship fair is all about walking away with a job offer or internships in hand. But while these fairs are an important part of your job search, they're even more valuable as vehicles to expand your professional network and learn more about your industry. You can increase your odds of making valuable connections by knowing what to expect at a job fair before you arrive.

Marisa Crowley, a former career advisor at Southern New Hampshire University, hosted a webinar recently and covered what she called the top myths about career and internship fairs, as well as the best ways to get the most out of a fair as possible. "Networking and information gathering are the primary features of career and internship fairs. The fair itself rarely involves a job offer but don't be discouraged," Crowley said. "It's best to be aware of this from the start so that you can have realistic expectations for the fair and know how to approach it strategically and make the most of the opportunities that it provides."

Top Career Fair Myths

If you're new to the job search game, you may have some misconceptions about career and internship fairs that it would behoove you to correct.

  • That most people leave a fair with a job offer. In addition to networking and learning more about companies in your field, career fairs give you the chance to have a series of mini-job interviews, which gives you lots of chances to practice your interview skills, deliver your elevator speech and more. "You can expect to leave the career fair with a better understanding of your career options in your area or within a particular field, an increased confidence in your ability to speak professionally with a potential employer, and with several new professional contacts who may be helpful in the future," Crowley said.
  • You should focus only on a few companies you're interested in working for. If you restrict yourself to a handful of companies you think have a position for you, you run the risk of missing out on opportunities you don't know are there. You might be surprised at the companies that need accountants, for instance, even if it isn't an accounting firm, or companies that need writers, even if they're not a publishing house. "You should speak with as many people as you can at a career fair and be careful not to limit yourself, or you might miss out on some really great hidden opportunities," Crowley said.
  • You can show up without any advanced preparation. Arriving at a job or internship fair with having done your homework first would be a mistake. It's vital you learn what companies will be at the fair ahead of time and do some basic research on them. You should also update your resume and practice your elevator speech. Finally, use your research to prepare specific questions for individual employers. "You can think of a career or internship fairs as actually a series of mini-job interviews, so you have to prepare for them just as you would for a regular interview," Crowley said.
  • That a career fair isn't worth the effort. If nothing else, job fairs are efficient. If you are looking to either begin your career or to switch careers, it makes sense to go where the employers are. It's hard to find an event that offers more employers in one spot at the same time as a career or internship fair.     

"Career fairs provide a wealth of opportunity for professional exploration and development all in one place within a short amount of time," Crowley said. "There are very few other ways that you can build your network, practice interviewing and learn about potential job opportunities all at once and in the space of an hour or two all in one place."

Other Purposes of a Career Fair: Networking and Knowledge

Career fairs are not just a hotspot for people looking for a job or switching careers. Even if you love your job and never want to leave, these fairs are also a good place to learn about other companies in your field and meet other professionals in the industry. "If you're not actively seeking work or an internship ... these fairs can still be a great source of information and networking potential," Crowley said.

  • Learn about new companies in your field. Fidelity isn't the only company in finance, and H&R Block isn't the only place to work as an accountant. There are so many much smaller companies in every industry that can be difficult to find through an online job search. "What people often forget is that there are innumerable small businesses and organizations that may be hiring workers or seeking interns," Crowley said. "A career fair is a good opportunity to learn about these companies with the added benefit that participants in a career are probably local to your area."
  • Make personal contacts with professionals in your field. Hiring managers and HR executives consistently cite strong networking as the single biggest factor in a successful job search. A career fair is a great place to network. "Having these conversations (with potential employers) will all you to make new professional contacts," Crowley said. "We like to say, 'It's not who you know, but who knows you that's important."

How to Prepare and What to Bring

Going to a career or internship fair unprepared will not position you to have the most success. A little work ahead of time will pay dividends later. Before you go, you should:

  • Research the companies that will be at the fair and prioritize your favorites. Prepare a list of questions based on your research to ask the company representative. For your top priorities, you should have specific questions about positions they have available and how you can become a strong candidate. For other companies your questions can be more general.
  • Make sure your resume is up-to-date and professional. Review your resume to reacquaint yourself with your professional and educational background. Employers are likely to ask questions about your resume, so make sure you have specific examples of how you used the skills you have listed.
  • Prepare an elevator speech. On the day of the career fair, this preparation will pay off, as will bringing a few things along with you. You may want to bring a written copy and refer to it before talking to employers, especially your top priorities. You should avoid referring to it when you're talking with employers, though. The same goes for any notes you made when researching the companies. A short list of questions is fine to refer to, though.
  • Your resume, and lots of them. There may be more than one person at some booths, and you don't want to run out of copies.
  • A smile, a strong handshake and a positive attitude.
  • Plenty of energy. Large career fairs mean you're going to spend a long time on your feet and do a lot of talking.

You also shouldn't leave the job fair empty handed. When you head home, you should have a better sense of your career options, a fist full of business cards and brochures and, hopefully, more confidence talking to potential employers in a professional setting.

"After doing this over and over you'll feel more confident in your ability to handle professional situations and conversations and hopefully better prepared for future career fairs, networking events and job interviews," Crowley said.

What Not to Ask

There are certain signals employers are likely to pick up on that tell them you're not an ideal candidate. A short list of questions to avoid includes:

  • What does your company do? "Asking a question like this shows a company that you haven't really prepared," Crowley said. "You won't come across very interested in them or very serious about your job or internship search. Make sure you already know what each company does before you approach them."
  • What can your company do for me? "Remember, you're there to show the employers what you can do for them, what you have to offer," Crowley said. "You want to avoid coming off as disrespectful or kind of entitled. That's just going to turn an employer off."
  • How much does your company pay? This is never a good thing to ask at the start of a job search, whether it's at a career fair or not. Salary negotiations should be left to the end of the hiring process, probably after an offer has been extended. You can do your own research to get general salary ranges by industry.
  • Does your company have any jobs available? This is another question you should already know the answer to. But it is appropriate to ask if they plan to have any openings soon or if they plan to offer internships over the summer.

Minding Your Ps and Qs

Lastly, you should use all the notes you jot down during your conversations to write thank you notes to each of the people you speak with at the fair. Email or regular mail are fine, but they should be sent out within a couple of days of the event, Crowley said. Writing your notes on the back of each person's business card makes it easy to keep track of who is who. Crowley said each note should thank the person for their time, reassert your interest in the field and their company and mention at least one specific part of your conversation. Then include your contact information and express an interest in talking to them again in the future.

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