How to Make the Most out of Career Fairs
A career fair organised by your university or an industry-linked organisation is an opportunity to make contacts with potential employers directly. True to the common refrain “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”, these are events which you cannot afford to miss. While there are other ways to get grad jobs, face to face meetings are always more effective than sending out online applications which will end up straight on the pile with 300 others.
While you need to make the most of career fairs, some people flourish in these kinds of environments, and others find it challenging to introduce themselves to strangers and promote themselves. This guide will go through the ins and outs of how to approach a fair to get the most out of it and give yourself the best opportunity to go home with contacts and opportunities that will jumpstart your career.
Get the little things right
Emily Dickinson said, “take care of the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves”. Who knows if 19th-century American poets really know a lot about 21st-century career fairs, but in this case, it’s sound advice. Taking care of the little things in your approach to the day and preparation will help your confidence, your organisation and your overall success rate.
Organisation is a big part of it. The fair will be busy, and you’ll have to take advantage of limited time. You should check out a map of the fair, so you can orient yourself when you enter. Another thing is to make sure you have reliable transport, so you don’t get there late. If you’re using public transport, and you know it’s unreliable - for example, if you live in Auckland - take the earlier bus to make sure.
Dressing smartly is also important. You don’t need to go all out like you’re attending a fancy dress party, but making yourself tidy and presentable will help you appear professional. Lastly, make sure your CV is up to date, and you have enough copies on you.
Research your potential employers
If the fair is properly organised, you should be able to access a list of which companies and organisations will be there. The best way to prepare is to research the companies that interest you the most and form specific questions about projects they’re working on or their organisational values.
Here’s the thing - they’ll be seeing hundreds of students like you over the course of the day. They won’t remember all the people who come up to them unprepared and go through the same conversation - asking “what does your company do?” forces them to go back to their prepared spiel and won’t make you stick out in their memory.
If you arrive with some knowledge about their company, you’ll be able to instantly engage them about a more interesting aspect of their work, which both helps you get a better idea of whether you’d like to work with them and makes you appear more switched on and interested than other candidates - a win-win.
Prepare to have productive conversations
Your conversations will be short and sweet - that’s the nature of a career fair. With a little bit of preparation, you can make an impact in these windows. The first step is to prepare a little self-pitch which is short enough not to be irritating, but covers the key points you want them to take away about you and what you do.
It’s good to mention what you study and what work experience you have, but people tend to remember client-based language better. That means you should talk about who exactly is affected by what you do (or what you want to do). For example, instead of saying “I’d like to work as a consultant”, you could talk about how you want to help small family businesses stay afloat so ordinary Kiwis can keep a hold of their dreams - it’s much more memorable to have people-oriented goals and motivations.
You should also aim to balance your spiel with questions. This keeps them engaged in the conversation, and stops them from switching off. As mentioned above, specific questions are the goal here.
Go with goals, come out with results
Arrive with a clear set of goals in mind. This could be to talk to X number of employers, talking to a specific company you’re particularly interested in, delivering your self-pitch X number of times, or anything else you feel is a good challenge for you.
First of all, achieving a goal you consider challenging means it will be a rewarding experience no matter the outcome. Even if none of your leads go anywhere, you will have gained confidence and skills that will help you in the next networking event.
Good goals for career fairs focus on how to generate leads that you can follow up on to create job opportunities. If you feel like a conversation is going well and there is mutual interest, you have a couple of options on how to do this.
You could give them a CV or business card, and this isn’t a bad idea, but then you are relying on them contacting you to follow up. The downside to this is that fundamentally, you will always have a lot more to gain from them than they do from you. You’ll have a better chance of a follow up if you put things in your hands - take their contact details, or ask to schedule a meeting at a later date.
Put yourself out there
Preparation and foresight are important, but at the end of the day it’s all about putting yourself out there. You are young and inexperienced - you will always make mistakes along the way of getting involved in a professional career. It doesn’t matter if you say the wrong thing or fail to make an impact on an employer - there will be more opportunities as long as you keep putting yourself out there.
Being as prepared as you can be will help you have the best shot at getting something productive out of a career fair, so take it seriously and plan ahead. But don’t take it too seriously - as long as you learn something and practise your networking, you’re already getting benefits out of the event, and will continue to do so in the future.
By Jack Buckley, Wellington, New Zealand.