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Making the most of career fairs

Don’t squander a golden opportunity to connect with companies; a career fair may be the place you meet your future employer.

Career fairs are one of the best ways to get out there and find out what jobs are available, particularly in today’s uncertain market. But not everyone approaches them with the correct attitude. If you fail to adequately prepare and end up just trailing from one exhibitor’s stand to another you’ll be squandering a golden opportunity to connect with companies and people who could be highly influential in your career both now and in the future. So the first big thought to take on board is that this could be the day you meet your new employer and as with an actual job interview you need to make a good impression.

“The thing to remember is that the interview starts as soon as you start meeting people at the fair,” says Steve Huxham, chairman of the Recruitment Society.

Forward planning

Do your research on the event beforehand to find out which employers are going to be there and decide which ones are of most interest. Ideally, get hold of a floor plan to familiarise yourself with the layout of the venue and where they’re located. Plan your route so you don’t overlook anyone and try not to overreach yourself.

“Part of your preparation should be to set realistic targets on how many people you are going to talk to and how long you are going to talk to them,” says Huxham, who adds that it is also important to leave enough time for the unexpected or so-called “happy surprise”. “Planning is important but don’t over plan it to the extent that you are not ready for some new idea to be presented that you hadn’t thought of before.”

On the day

Dress appropriately as you would for an actual interview. In terms of house-keeping, be sure to take water and food to keep yourself hydrated and nourished as career fairs can be exhausting and you’ll need to stay on top form. Arrive sufficiently early on the day to beat the crowds and also to avoid getting in a flap. Take a few minutes to orientate yourself and review your schedule. When introducing yourself on an exhibitor’s stand create a good initial impression with a firm handshake and by maintaining good eye contact with the representative. If you feel nervous about what you are going to say, practice a short two or three minute introduction in the lead up to the event.

Find out more

Companies often deliberately select staff to be present on the stand performing the job roles they think graduates might be interested in and with whom they can relate to. If this is the case, quiz them on what it’s like to work at the company, what their role entails as well as on opportunities for career progression. Don’t waste their time or yours by asking about something you could glean from corporate literature or the website. Make sure you have some salient points ready to discuss with them and that you come across as informed, enthusiastic and interested in what they have to say.

“They’ll be interested in someone who has a bit of personality, conversation and who asks pertinent questions,” says Huxham. He also advises being up to speed on current events, particularly if the news has some direct relevance to the company.

Jog your memory

Requesting a business card from every exhibitor that you talk to means that you could find yourself the next day with a stack of contacts and no way of matching individuals to companies or remembering the precise details of the follow up you arranged. The best way to refresh your memory is to jot down a few notes, including a description of the person, immediately after the discussion. Alternatively, Huxham suggests finding a quiet corner nearby and using the voice recording facility on your mobile phone to make a few notes.

Follow up

What you do when the career fair is over is equally important as the preceding stages. Send an email or note of thanks within 24 hours of attending. As well as conveying your enthusiasm for the potential opening, Huxham underlines the importance of personalising it, perhaps recapping on something that was said rather than sending out a generic response to everyone. Even if a company doesn’t tick all the right boxes for you and it’s not somewhere you think would be a great place to work, he still recommends keeping your options open and thanking them.

“Even if you are not convinced their graduate programme is for you, it’s better to have an interview and receive a job offer and then make a decision in what is still a tough market,” he says.

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