Going to a job fair is like speed dating.
You dress up, check your teeth for spinach and prepare a quick elevator speech about yourself. Then you head into a crowded hall to meet dozens of potential suitors — er, hiring managers — and hope you stand out from your competition.
You only have a few minutes to size each other up before moving on to another booth, and another and another.
The next few days are spent sitting by the phone or stalking your email box hoping someone will give you a rose — I mean, call you.
Job fairs, also called career fairs, are nerve-wracking, but they can also be an important part of finding your dream job.
I asked some business owners, hiring managers and career coaches for tips on winning the career fair lottery and landing a job. Here’s what they had to say.
What to Do Before a Job Fair
A little preparation goes a long way.
1. Pull Yourself Together
“Whether you’re attending a job fair for the first time or you’ve been many times, it’s important to look and act like a professional,” recommends Deborah Sweeney, CEO for MyCorporation.com.
“Stand out by putting yourself together, bringing along several copies of a proper, well-written resume and being sincere and genuinely interested in learning more about these companies.”
2. Prepare to Get Carded
“Check out who’ll be there, and make a list of the companies you want to meet,” says Ryan Naylor, founder of job posting and recruitment website LocalWork.com. “[Then] search company websites to identify open positions and see how they like to receive resumes. Look on LinkedIn for the recruiters and key people who might be at the job fair and are in your network.”
He adds, “Consider getting business or calling cards printed to take with you to the job fair. They should have your name, phone number, email address, LinkedIn URL, and a bit about what you want in your next position.”
What to Do at a Job Fair
Straighten your tie, smooth your hair and take a deep breath. You’ve got this.
3. Phone a Friend
“If you’re shy or particularly introverted, bring a ‘career buddy’ — a friend in your field or in your major if you’re still in college and attending career fairs before graduation,” says Valerie Streif, Senior Advisor for thementat.com, an online network for job seekers.
“Having someone to go with makes it a lot less intimidating to walk up to recruiters and company representatives to strike up a conversation. [Your career buddy doesn’t] have to be looking for the same type of job as you, but if they are, you both could get a lot out of your afternoon spent at a career fair!”
4. Run (Well, Walk) a Lap
“Take a quick surveillance lap around the fair before starting to engage with anyone,” says Streif. Don’t shut anyone down, but take a minute to scope out who is there (or even better, if you get a flyer with a list of employers that are attending, prioritize a list of who you want to see) and head to those first.”
“Several hours can pass very quickly when you are having all these different conversations, and you wouldn’t want to miss out on talking to a company that you really want to work at because you wasted time at a few random booths getting more information.”
5. Sharpen Your Interview Skills
“Ask open-ended questions that you couldn’t find the answers to online, like ‘What do you like about working for the company?’ or ‘Where do you see the company going in the next five years?’ suggests Julie Austin, founder of Fun Job Fairs.
She adds, “Be genuinely interested in what they have to say. Be interesting. Everyone has something in their background that’s fascinating. Don’t just spout off your resume. Tell a story that is interesting and relates to your qualifications for the job.”
6. Pamper Your Inner Introvert
“Think of [a job fair] as an informational interview on a larger scale,” recommends career coach Andy Chan. “Having one-on-one meetings will give professionals more chances for in-depth conversations because people now want to engage in inspirational and educational conversations.”
He adds, “Introverts may also find it more comfortable to have one-one-one chats. The purpose of informational interviews is to talk to professionals who can provide insights on what working in a particular city or industry is like.”
7. Network Like a Boss
“Networking at a job fair is exactly what you need to move your career in the right direction. Even if you are not the right fit for a company you inquire about, they may offer you advice on other companies to apply for,” says Steve Pritchard, business consultant for mobile network giffgaff.
“Employers are looking out for confident communicators, so be the best version of yourself; don’t be afraid to ask questions and show your interest in a company. Plus, if a company shows interest in your personality and the experience you have to offer, they may well create a role suited for you — that is the real beauty of networking at these types of career events.”
What To Do After a Job Fair
The fair may be over, but your work isn’t done yet.
8. Just Like Mom Taught You
“Always get the hiring manager’s contact information, and thank them for their time with a follow-up thank you note that sums up your interest,” suggests Laura Platt, human resources director for online retail company Spreadshirt.
“If you don’t get an offer, recognize that the interaction at an event like this builds your networking and interviewing skills, so it is never a poor use of time. Embrace that it is a learning experience and you will be more polished for the next interview.”
9. Link Up on LinkedIn
When you send out thank you notes, career coach Lavie Margolin says, “Attach a copy of your resume along with the note. Follow up with the company if you have not heard from them to remind the person of what you discussed at the fair and your qualifications.”
Additionally, Margolin says, “Try to establish a relationship by inviting the employer to connect on LinkedIn. Don’t do this during the active interviewing stage but after the process has concluded, even if you were not hired or chose not to accept the position.”
Find a Job Fair Near You
Now that you know what to expect and what to do at a job fair, it’s time to practice.
Type “career fair” and “job fair” into your favorite search engine, followed by the name of your town or city to find out what’s happening nearby.
Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. The last career fair she went to made her break out in a cold sweat but she survived — and landed a sweet job for her efforts!