Whether in-person or virtual, career fairs require key preparation so you can take that next great career step.

Whether you're seeking your first job or your fifth job, attending a career or job fair is a smart strategy for marketing yourself to potential employers.

Forget reviewing hundreds of online ads or spending countless hours filling out applications and emailing resumes! At a job fair, you can connect directly with recruiters and hiring managers from a wide range of companies, learning about them as they learn about you.

Knowing how to effectively prepare for a career fair means you'll stand out from other attendees and ultimately find your next great career role. Follow these steps to make the most of every job fair you attend.

What is a career fair?

A career fair is a recruiting event where representatives from various organizations meet with a large number of job seekers over the course of the fair. 

Also known as a job fair or career expo, it's usually held in a large venue such as a hotel or conference center, and it can run anywhere from one to several days. Some are held during weekday evenings, and others are held on weekends.

Each company has a booth where potential employees can learn about openings, apply for a job, and sometimes have an initial interview with a recruiter, a Human Resources staff member, or the actual hiring manager. 

Generally, a career fair has a broad range of companies in attendance, but there are also companies that hold their own career fairs to fill only their openings. These are often held at the company site, although they can be in another venue.

The goal for the attending companies can be to fill a few key positions or to hire for a large number of open positions. Depending on an organization's needs, you may even be set up for more interviews at the company site or even be hired right at the fair.

Career expos can be helpful at any point in your career, but you must choose wisely. For instance, if you're a new graduate, don't have a ton of experience, or are changing careers, be careful to avoid a job fair that is only filling high-level or very specific roles for which you might not be qualified. Instead, look for one with job opportunities that better fit your current career status or position title. If you're changing careers, you may want to look for companies that have entry- or mid-level openings in that field.

You'll meet many people at a job fair, including some who are vying for the same jobs as you. Don't treat them as hostile competition though; strike up friendly conversations with everyone, share stories, exchange business cards. These are people who can become part of your extended career network and potentially help you in the future. Who knows? The person who got the job you wanted might think of you when another similar job opens at that company. 

How to prepare for the career or job fair

A key contributor to how job seekers succeed will be in the preparation. Here are some tips:

Pre-register for the career fair event

This can include submitting your resume and/or other information just in case attending employers review your information before the fair.

Research the companies that are attending

Having a background on these organizations means you can ask specific questions about the job and company. “This impresses [company] representatives because it shows a genuine interest in them,” according to the UC Berkeley Career Center.

Decide who you want to meet and talk with

By creating a priority list of employers, you don't have to waste precious time wandering around and deciding who to start a conversation with. You'll know when you walk in the door, greatly increasing your chances of success. If you can get a layout of the fair beforehand, you can make a “plan of attack” to see each employer or recruiter in order of interest.

Once you prioritize your list of companies, try to visit them in that order. If all goes well, this should allow you enough time to talk with people from the organizations you'd most like to work for. So if time runs short due to long lines, you will at least have made yourself known to your top few companies. 

Prepare and print your resumes

Bring more than you need, as some companies may want more than one copy. If you have multiple job objectives, make sure you bring enough versions of each resume, and of course, be sure your resume is well-written and free of errors.

Create and practice your elevator pitch

This 30- to 60-second speech should explain who you are, what your skills are, and what your career goal is. This is one truly important piece of learning how to prepare for a career fair, and Carnegie Mellon University has a page with some great tips on creating a solid elevator pitch.

Prepare for potential interviews or interview questions

Check out this list of the most common interview questions and prepare your answers beforehand. This will ensure you present yourself professionally and help calm your nerves.

What to do on the day of the fair

Arrive as early as possible, come dressed appropriately for the job fair, and then follow these tips to make the most of your time:

Be confident and enthusiastic

Introduce yourself with a smile and a firm handshake. Companies are there because they want to meet you, and more importantly, make a hire. Make a good impression and be ready to give your elevator pitch when appropriate. If you're still a student, talk about your academic and extracurricular experiences as well as your career interests.

Take notes if necessary

Do this especially “when you inquire about next steps and the possibility of talking with additional managers,” says the UC Berkeley career center. “Write down the names, telephone numbers, etc. of other staff in the organization whom you can contact later.”

Ask the company representative for a business card

This will give you all the information you need to get in touch with this person if necessary and to send a thank-you note for the time the representative spent with you. Believe it or not, many candidates have won the job because of a thank you.

Network, network, network

In addition to the company representatives, make time to talk with other job seekers to share information on everything from the companies to job leads and get their contact information if possible. Also, definitely approach any professional organizations at the fair and get information for future networking opportunities.

What about virtual career fairs?

A virtual career fair is much like the live version, with some obvious (and not-so-obvious) exceptions.

Attending a virtual career fair is somewhat similar to being in online discussion groups or chat rooms. Once you log in, you'll see “rooms” with specific employers in each one. When you enter a specific room, that employer is notified and then will greet you using a chat function. (This is not via a video connection; it is all typed text.)

Be as engaging as you can, using clear and professional business language that is also positive and enthusiastic. Use correct grammar and avoid text lingo, slang, emojis, and of course, unprofessional language. You are demonstrating your written communication skills, which could be a key component to many jobs (and also reflect a bit of your general personality). 

Jumping into an existing chat is allowed, and you can also request to chat privately with the company representative. If all goes well, they may ask you to meet them via video chat using Zoom or Skype. Treat this as a virtual job interview — remember to use effective body language and look into the camera just as you would look someone in the eye in person.

What makes virtual job fairs unique?

Naturally, virtual career fairs can be a whole different ball game. For that reason, they come with their own set of pros and cons.

No traveling necessary

One of the more obvious benefits of a virtual job fair is that you don't have to spend time traveling to the venue and then traveling home again. As a result, you don't have to worry about being late or arriving frazzled because you were stuck in a traffic jam or driving in bad weather. And it doesn't matter if your car is in the shop on the day of the fair.

Virtual job fairs are also perfect for anyone who finds it difficult to travel. This includes people with disabilities, those who live in rural areas, and military spouses who want to line up a job near the next base assignment but aren't there yet.

They're also perfect if you're currently employed. It's easy enough to leave work early or take lunch at the time of the job fair and slip out to a quiet spot or close your office door for privacy. 

Decreased social pressure

If you're an introvert, virtual job fairs can make this first step in the interview process so much easier. You get all the benefits of a traditional job fair but without the anxiety of large crowds. You can strut your stuff in one of the easiest possible scenarios.

Requires some tech-savviness

The only potential drawback to attending a virtual job fair would be if you're really not up to date on the required technology or you're not a good typist. You can most likely overcome the first issue in a few days with some help, but the typing isn't that easy. If this is you, consider getting speech-to-text software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking. Just remember to check the text before you hit send, because the auto-correct feature could cause some embarrassment.

Basically, if you have an internet connection, you can attend any virtual career fair. 

Tips for attending virtual career fairs

Attending a virtual career fair requires all the same steps mentioned above for an in-person job fair, but there are a few more preparations and requirements to make the virtual fair successful.

Use modern devices

Make sure your desktop, laptop, or tablet are new enough to function without issues and can handle all of the different software used for virtual meetings. If your tech is old, consider buying or borrowing something newer to ensure there are no problems during any chats or video meetings. 

Don't use your phone unless it's absolutely necessary. It may not have the same connection strength and quality as the other devices above, making your messages lag. Plus, the small, narrow screen can also be awkward during a video chat.

Have a strong connection

If you're attending from home, check your internet and Wi-Fi connections to be sure they'll send and receive information quickly and clearly. These same rules apply for attending outside of your home, as well.

Understand the tools

Download the appropriate software ahead of time and understand how to use it. You don't want to waste time figuring this out when you could be chatting with your next potential employer. If you're unsure how it works, ask someone who can help you learn a few days before attending the virtual job fair.

Set the scene

Wherever you are, be sure it looks professional (i.e. not in the kitchen with a pile of dirty dishes in the background) and is free from excess noise or distractions. This will keep you focused and make a great impression should you get an on-the-spot video interview.

Dress the part

Dress as you would for an in-person interview — from head to toe. It puts you in a “professional” state of mind and makes you ready to go if a video interview happens.

When the virtual fair is complete, follow the same steps as you would for any other interview format, which are outlined below.

Actions to take after any event

Once you've prepared for the career or job fair and then actually attended, there are a few important things to do once it's over. Here's what to keep in mind:

Follow up with company representatives you talked to

As mentioned above, send a thank-you note as soon as possible after the fair. Review your interest in and qualifications for the job and promise to follow up with a phone call. You can also attach another copy of your resume to the note or email.

Continue to network

Reach out to fellow attendees you talked with to share your experience of the job fair and ask about their successes. Tell them you'll keep them in mind if you see an open position or job opportunity they might want and ask them to do the same for you. Join any of the professional organizations that were at the fair if they are appropriate to your career goals, as well.

By following these guidelines at your next career fair, virtual or in-person, you'll give yourself an excellent chance of landing that next great job in your career path.

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