Swag, Lines, and Noise: How to Make it Through a Career Fair

One of the older ways of recruiting endures to this day: The Career Fair. Dozens, even hundreds of employers come with tablecloths, displays, pamphlets, mugs, pens, toys and other free stuff. They send recruiters and hiring managers, who come and sit at a table where they think lots of qualified people are going to come to ask them about their various opportunities. These employers are spending a lot of money – the MIIS TILM Career Fair employers are paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars (if they’re sponsoring) and in some cases flying their staff from abroad, in order to find the qualified candidates that our students are to them.

I have been a recruiter three times and I’ve attended dozens of career fairs, at universities and for other various conferences. I’ve been behind the table, so I have a lot of advice to help make this a better experience for everyone. Students need to keep a few things in mind before walking into the recruiting hall. Follow these tips and your career fair experience will be a productive one.

  1. Dress appropriately

Even in California, you want to make sure you’re in at least a business casual, if not business formal outfit. For men, this means a blazer, button-down shirt, slacks/belt with relatively formal shoes. A suit is better and looks classier – ties are optional unless you’re in DC.  For women – generally a pants-suit, a professional dress, or a blazer and pants or skirt, comfortable yet formal shoes work – nice ballet flats. Heals are okay but not necessary.

2. Do your research

You will know which employers will be there, it’s always published in advance. Prioritize your target employers and make sure you know A) their open positions, B) their overall mission, objectives, priorities, where they operate, etc, and C) their financial situation. For nonprofits you can go to Guidestar.com and look at most 501C3’s IRS Form 990, where you can see their sources of funding, expenditures, board members/compensation, as well as their top-10 paid staff. For publicly traded companies, you can check their websites and sites like Yahoo Finance or E-Trade for more detailed information. The priority is to figure out what their priorities are, and to understand a little about the market or industry they’re working in.

3. Ask good questions

When you get to the career fair, be prepared to ask a handful of questions to the recruiters. Informed questions always make a good impression. “Hi, I’m Jung Whan, I’m a Korean-English Localization Management Student here in my 2nd semester. I noticed that you have a summer internship position available right now. Would you be able to tell me a little more about the internship program and what you’re looking for in the best candidates?”

Never go up to a recruiting table, glance up at the name of the company, and say, “Huh, WiPo… so what do you guys do?” That’s the worst first impression ever. Of course if there are 50 employers at a career fair, you can’t work to be an expert about all of them – you made your list and did your research, you got it all done and now you’re just walking around hoping for serendipity and to learn about companies you hadn’t considered. Sometimes those can be pleasant surprises. The way you should approach, when you haven’t done as much research, is to introduce yourself, which includes asking the recruiters their names, and ask them what their priorities are. “What positions are you recruiting for today?” That’s a much better question and it allows the recruiters to be more direct about their priorities.

4.  Careful about the SWAG

Recruiters will come with all kinds of cool stuff to give away: SWAG, or “Stuff We All Get” – Pens, cups, frisbees, squishy stress balls, notebooks, travel mugs, last year Ebay was giving away little travel charger packs. This is all designed to draw you to their tables. You are welcome to take these items, but not without paying for them through giving the recruiters your attention. Walking by a table and taking something without talking to the recruiters is rude and makes a terrible impression. If you’re feeling introverted, a way to start a conversation with a recruiter could be, “Wow, that’s a great mug! How is it going for you today?” and the recruiter can then talk about what they’re looking for, and you go from there. The SWAG was brought to be given away, and the more the recruiter gives away, the less they have to drag away on their way home – so please do help yourselves, after a conversation.

5.  Manage your time

There is always an initial rush, in particular if it’s at a conference and you’re between sessions with limited time. If there is a scrum of people around a recruiter and the recruiter is generally answering questions, it’s OK to eavesdrop – it’s not fair to monopolize a recruiters’ time when there is a long line of people. So if you’re not directly in front of the recruiter, you listen and absorb what the person is saying. Then when things die down you go back and ask more detailed, personalized questions. Recruiters can get bored at these events during slow periods when nobody is visiting their tables, this is your opportunity to engage them and make a good impression.

6.  Follow up

You’ll collect lots of business cards. Write down what you remember from your conversations on the backs of the business cards. Then afterwards you can write an email thanking the recruiter for their time and you look forward to applying or being considered for whatever positions you spoke about. You can wait 1-2 days before sending. If a career fair is on a Friday, you make sure it’s in their inbox by Monday.

Do these 6 things and the career fair will have been worth your time, and you will have made such a great impression that the recruiters will feel good about their experience and want to come back!

Scott Webb

Career Advisor