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The Importance of Preparation Before the Career Fair
By Ashley Collins, AgCareers.com Education & Marketing Manager
Attending your campus career fair is a foundational component of securing your first career or internship. Unlike emailing or submitting your application online, this is your chance to meet face to face with representatives from the company and make a great first impression. Unfortunately, too many of today’s students skip this critical opportunity and find themselves playing catch up, potentially well beyond graduation. Those who do attend are one step ahead of their absent peers, but if they’ve not adequately prepared, they will find their resumes at the bottom of the recruiter’s stack at the end of the day.
A student who has taken the time to complete a few small tasks to prepare before hitting the career fair floor can be spotted quickly. A prepared student has dressed appropriately for the occasion. They understand that the way you’re dressed says so much about you before you even mutter a word. Their clothes are professional and well fitting. Even if not wearing a full suit, their attire doesn’t look like they picked it up off their apartment or dorm floor that morning. These students have given thought to the fact that they’ve got a lot of ground to cover and they’ll be on their feet for a while, so their shoes are professional but also comfortable.
A prepared student has made a few notes, we’ll discuss the how and why of those notes momentarily, but it adds one last element to their wardrobe. The finishing touch is a discrete folder or padfolio. Inside are a few copies of their generic resume, along with any customized resumes for specific employers – just be sure you keep them organized into separate groups inside the folder. A big pet peeve of recruiters is receiving a resume with a competitors’ name or job title referenced in the objective statement. Additionally, your padfolio should include notes about the companies you hope to meet, with plenty of space to add a few more following each interaction. Then, if they’ve really gone the extra mile, a handful of their personal but professional business cards. This level of preparation is visible to employers before you even visit their booth and will tell the employer that you mean business when it comes to securing an internship or career with their company.
Ok, so how do you prepare your magical notes locked away inside the portfolio? An unprepared student is a student who walks up to the company booth and asks, ‘what does your company do?’ ‘where are you located?’ ‘what kind of jobs do you have available?’ Those are questions you should already have answered before the career fair, but sadly nine out of ten students with whom I’ve interacted with at career fairs use these as their starting questions. That tells the representative that you’ve not given a lot of thought to your future and/or you aren’t going to be a self-starter on the job if you didn’t have enough initiative to do a little homework before the career fair. It’s not a deal-breaker but it is a differentiator in a competitive market. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll make a much stronger first impression because your knowledge will help the conversation flow much smoother and allow time for deeper conversation regarding specifics of the company culture and career opportunities.
Every career fair publishes a list of companies in attendance prior to the event, many of those lists also include company bio information, a link to their corporate website and often titles of the roles they are recruiting at the career fair. Through the registration process, companies took the time to input this information so it would demonstrate resourcefulness on your part to invest the time to read that information and dig a little deeper. Beyond the basics of the where the company is located and what they do, additional items to research include what is the company’s mission, who are their major competitors, who are the organization's clients/customers, have they been in the news lately, and if so why? Having your answers, thoughts and additional questions based on your research jotted down to quickly review before approaching a booth will also give you an ice breaker to start the conversation. Then you won’t be asking repetitive or tedious questions like many of your peers and you won’t have to rely on off-the-wall, uncomfortable jokes to help you ‘break the ice.’ Preparation will set you apart in a professional manner versus being remembered for being awkward.
Keep your strong first impression going by asking your questions in a strategic manner. Preparing and practicing your questions in advance will make this part much easier. Ease your way into the conversation. Start with a firm handshake, eye contact, and professional greeting. Have an elevator pitch prepared about yourself. Your name, major, graduation timeline and career objective should suffice. Practice this in the mirror, with your roommate, and in your head– you’d be surprised how quickly basic information about yourself can just disappear from your vocabulary when you're nervous. Then begin by referencing the open roles they are recruiting for, ask questions about the specific requirements, and how the position fits into the overall goals of the company. Follow that with any questions you have about recent news regarding the company; try to focus on positive media and not hearsay or un-reputable facts you’ve seen on the web. Ask about the future of the company, or where do they see the company in the next two/five/ten years? If you’ve found any news regarding recent awards or recognition the company has received, ask more about those. If you have an interest in community service work, ask if the company provides those opportunities for employees. Depending on how the conversation is going and being conscious of your time and the representative’s, you may ask a few more questions or it may be time to move on to the next booth.
Before you walk away, ask what the next steps are in the process. If your conversation has gone well and you think you would like to further explore employment, then this is a critical step that you’ve been preparing for, so don’t let it slip away. Offer a copy of your resume, but understand that the representative may not be able to accept it and may direct you to their website to submit a copy. This is where those personal business cards come into action. Tuck your resume back inside your padfolio and say ‘can I offer you my card instead?’ which also gives you a chance to ask for their card. Their card will be nice-to-have when it comes to following up after you’ve completed the online application or other instructions they’ve given you. There could also be a possibility that the representatives are staying on campus to conduct interviews the next day and you can sign up on the spot for an interview slot.
This is the point where you say your goodbyes, accept any material or swag item the company is handing out, and find an area of the fair where you can tuck away for a moment to jot a few notes about the conversation and review your notes for the next booth you plan to visit. Note the sentence reads, ‘accept any material or swag item the company is handing out,’ …don’t come to a career fair under the impression that you’ve won a ticket to a free shopping spree to walk around grabbing giveaways at each booth. Coming to a career fair equipped with an empty book bag to fill is not appropriate preparation!
For many companies and students, career fairs are the number one way to network with employers. The simple act of attending and visiting with a few companies will allow you to make significant progress in landing an internship or career that you aspire to attain. Going a step further by investing time in preparation will decrease your perspiration and increase your success, and the rate at which you achieve that success. Lastly, be prepared to have an open mind about the information you learn and the opportunities you discover. Sometimes the best decisions in life are those you never thought you’d have to make!