How to Stand Out (the Right Way) at a Job Fair

For years, I held onto the notion that job fairs were a complete waste of time for everyone involved. For job seekers it was a waste because you get to meet a bunch of companies that you probably don’t want to work for, and have to suffer through your “elevator pitch” and your whole dog-and-pony show for each one. Then as a reward for your efforts you get to go home with more company-logo pens and flash drives than you know what to do with, never to hear from anyone again.

For employers, job fairs were a chance to meet candidates who were either not qualified for anything, or at least not qualified for anything you were hiring, and who probably don’t know what they’re looking for and are generally clueless about how to get a job in the first place – I mean, why else would they be at a job fair in the first place?

Yes, to me job fairs were something that companies felt obligated to attend and that job seekers felt were a legitimate way to feel like they were taking action on their job searches.

I don’t feel that way anymore. I did some real thinking about the few job fairs that I’ve attended as an employer/recruiter, and what I’ve discovered is that if I thought they were a waste of time I wouldn’t have been there in the first place. I’m sure that there are some that are still a complete waste of time and energy for everyone involved, but I’ve gotten some great candidates from job fairs.

What made them so great? What allowed the good ones to stand out from the crowd? It’s actually pretty simple. So job seeker, here are some things you can do to ensure that you’re making a good impression at a job fair. Be warned in advance, this isn’t rocket science.

  1. Dress appropriately. This doesn’t always mean a suit, and it never means a suit that looks like you borrowed it from your mom or dad (splurge on a good tailor – it’s so worth it). It means know the field. If it’s a general job fair, a suit never hurts. But if it’s for a more casual industry such as technology, you can still look nice. Don’t look like you just rolled out of bed. And don’t smell like the bar from last night.
  2. Focus your efforts. I’ve seen job seekers go from table to table at a job fair, talking to all kinds of companies that are all looking for something different. Do yourself a favor and skip the ones that aren’t right for you. Not looking for an overly corporate environment? Stay away from the big banks. Want to work at a startup company? Just talk to the startups. Each time you give your pitch to a new table, you lose some energy and enthusiasm. Don’t waste it on the companies you don’t really want. Save it for when you want to be your best self.
  3. Know what you want to say. Have your pitch rehearsed and ready to go. Be able to talk what you do and what you’re looking for quickly and effectively. Know what you want to ask (hint: it’s more along the lines of “as an employer, what differentiates you from Competitor X” than “So, um, what do you guys do?”) This isn’t an interview, it’s an in-person cover letter.
  4. Bring your resume. You’d be shocked by how many people don’t do this. Shocked.
  5. Follow up, but not too much. Recruiters at job fairs are inundated with faces and names, and generally will be pretty judicious about giving their contact information/business cards out. If you get someone’s email address or phone number, it probably means they wouldn’t mind hearing from you. Once, or twice at the outside. Before you call or email, make sure you’ve gone through the appropriate steps with the company. Check out their job openings on the corporate site, apply through the right channels, and THEN you can contact whomever you met at the job fair, let them know you’ve applied and thank them for their time at the event. If they were truly interested, they’ll remember you and will get back to you. If they don’t get back to you after 1 or 2 communications, they were never that into you in the first place.

Job fairs can be great tools in your job search arsenal. But like any tool, they’re only as effective as their user. Following these basic but often overlooked tips can help you to make sure you don’t get lost in the crowd at your next job fair. So before you head out to your next one, just do yourself a favor and think for a minute. Recruiters remember the best and the worst, and forget most of the middle. So think about whether, and how, you want to be remembered.


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