[ The Money Side of Life™ ]

Opportunity Talks: Get the most out of a job fair

By Vanessa Ciccone on February 1st, 2011 •

After finishing up high school, you have to make some tough decisions. The one at the top of every graduate's to-do list is whether to head out into the workforce or go to college. But how do you figure out what you want to do? It might make it easier if there were a way to talk with people already set in their careers and ask them how they did it. Luckily, we have the job fair.


Job or career fairs are gatherings where companies, nonprofits, and other organizations get together to meet with prospective employees. From our side of the table, it's a great opportunity to look at career options and prospects, and ask a lot of questions. You might not be looking for work just yet, but seeing what's available and making contacts in the professional world is a step in the right direction.

There's also the possibility of scoring a sweet internship. It might not pay well (or at all), but what it lacks in pay it makes up for with real world experience and résumé cred.

Pre-fair homework

With many job fairs, finding out beforehand which companies will attend is as simple as checking attendance online; this makes it easy to pick out which companies you're most interested in. Then do a little research about them, because nothing will make a good impression like being able to talk about their organization with confidence.

Also, prepare some questions so when you actually meet a representative you'll have something to reference if you get nervous. For example, you might want to learn more about turnover rates, opportunities for advancement, and what's expected of employees (duties, restrictions on body art, education, etc.). If you're interested in joining the military, ask about benefits; for an internship, inquire about earning college credit. Don't be afraid to ask the representatives how they got their position or their feelings about their job and the company; the answers to those ques¬tions might say more than their cookie-cutter, prefabricated responses.

Last and most importantly, remember to print out résumés--lots of them. While one half of working a job fair is pounding pavement and chatting it up, the other is turning in résumés and job applications. A typical job fair can have dozens of organizations, so be prepared to hand out nearly as many résumés.

The big day

On a first date, you'll obsess over your clothes. While you may not want to take job fair style that seriously, you still want to dress to impress--without going overboard. Dressing business casual is a great way to go, and if the need to accessorize is just too strong to ignore, keep it simple. People should remember your personality--not your large chandelier earrings or blingblinging watch.

When you get there, take a second to scope out the surroundings. With dozens of booths and hundreds of people, it can be a little overwhelming. Look for a map, if one is available, that can show which areas are worth slogging toward. Bring a small notebook (the same notebook used to write questions beforehand), and jot down numbers, job specs, and any other notes that might be useful. Also, bring a folder. This way you'll have a place to stash all the business cards you'll score, and keep all those résumés organized. Finally, bring a pen. It may seem like "no-duh" advice, but you don't want to scramble when a rep gives out a much-coveted personal email or phone number.

After the rush

When your folder is bulging with business cards and devoid of résumés, it's time to call it a day--but the work doesn't end there. Going through all those business cards and sending follow-up emails is a great way to set yourself apart from less considerate applicants, and possibly get a foot in the door. If some representatives were too busy to answer all your questions, call or send a message later--just don't be too pushy about it. After all, they have a job to do, and you may end up working right next to them.


The Bottom Line

Job fairs are awesome, and with the national unemployment rate still above 9%, you might be able to benefit from a little face time… if you can stand apart from the masses.

Sources: google.com; career.vt.edu; career.berkeley.edu; pcc.edu; career.vt.edu; clacareer.umn.edu; quintcareers.com; luc.edu