Making Effective Connections at Career Fairs (and beyond)

By Claire Klieger

The career fair season can be overwhelming. I vividly remember in the fall of my senior year, a friend of mine in the business school convinced me to attend the fall career fair…on the day of the fair. I hadn’t previously known about it and was not professionally dressed or prepared. He convinced me that I should go anyway but when I walked into that giant room, saw the sea of students and seemingly endless rows of tables with impressive looking employers, I froze. After taking just a few steps I said “Nope,” turned quickly on my heel and sped out of there. So I can completely sympathize with students who feel intimidated by these events.

But the thing is, my friend was right. Career fairs are a great opportunity to connect face to face with a lot of employers at once and learn more about organizations of interests in ways that can help you stand out as an applicant. The trick is being prepared. Thankfully, in today’s day and age, there are so many things to make the process more manageable. Below I offer you both my tips for career fair success:

  1. Remember the purpose of the event – these employers are looking forward to meeting YOU! Any employer who is at one of our fairs is here because they are genuinely excited about the caliber of talent at Penn. I recently had several students ask me why attending a career fair was useful. From your perspective, how could they possibly remember you when you are only one of many students they will meet in a day? However, I assure you that they are keeping notes on students with whom they meet and most flag students that you would be interested following up with. Many students even hear from employers withing a few days of the fair, inviting them to either apply or sometimes wanting to interview them shortly afterwards!
  2. Leverage tools (the Career Fair Plus app) to prepare smarter. With so many employers, it can feel hard to even know where to begin–who should you speak with? What kinds of positions are available? The answer to this is the app we use for our career fairs, Career Fair Plus. Simply download it, and you can see details on each fair, including the ability to filter the list of employers by industry, position type, class year, degree level and even whether or not they are sponsoring international students. Once you have a smaller list to browse by your interests, favorite your preferred employers and they will then appear as stars on your event map so that you know exactly where they are located. After you’ve spoken with a representative at the table, you can take notes and check off that you’ve visited that table so that you can see where else you need to visit next (see image below). All of this makes it so much easier to have a planned strategy and make the most efficient use of your time at the event, even if you’re squeezing it in between classes.
  3. Bring resumes, but don’t lead with them. It’s great to have resumes ready to go should you be asked for one by employer. However, not all employers will be collecting resumes at these events so it’s best not to lead a conversation by offering to give them yours. If you aren’t ask for one, you can always end your conversation by asking if they are collecting resumes because the conversation has reaffirmed your strong interest in the organization.
  4. Ask smart questions. The key to standing out with employers is the ability to demonstrate both a strong interest in the opportunity (and their specific organization), as well as the ability to show that you have the qualities and skills necessary to succeed in the role. One great way to do this is to have intelligent, well-thought out questions. The best career fair questions are ones that showcase your knowledge of the company and the industry. For instance, instead of asking what qualities or skills an employer looks for in strong candidates, you could say, “I saw from the position description and website that XYZ Company really values an entrepreneurial spirit and creativity. Can you tell me more about how you see these qualities playing out in your experience with the organization?” Even better is if you can also bring in something from the news. For example,”How do you anticipate the recent acquisition of [fill in the blank startup name] by your company will impact the kinds of projects available to interns?” Finally, limit yourself to no more than 2-3 questions so that respect the recruiter’s time and their desire to meet with others waiting to speak with them.
  5. Be conscientious (of SWAG and others waiting). Lots of employers bring really cool giveaways (I got a metal straw from Appian at last week’s CareerLink that I’m especially excited about!) and while they are certainly there to entice your attention, you need to be careful of how you handle these situations. Wait for the employer to offer you a giveaway or if they don’t, you can ask if you can have something at the end of the conversation. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t simply walk by and help yourself to something without first having a conversation. Also, be cognizant of long lines at career fairs. Employers hope to meet with as many interesting candidates as possible, so don’t over-monopolize their time. Even if you’re having a great and engaging conversation, if it’s been going on for a while, you may want to say, “Wow, I’m really enjoying chatting with you but I see that you have lots of other people waiting to speak with you and I want to respect your time. Would it be possible to have your business card so that I can follow-up?”
  6. Take notes and follow up. At the end of your conversation, ask for a business card so that you can keep in touch. After you have a conversation, keep notes (I even like to write these on the back of the business card) on what you asked and what details were shared with so that you can keep track of these nuanced conversations. Within 24 hours of the fair, send a thank you email telling them how much you enjoyed meeting them, and how you appreciate them sharing their insights on [whatever it is you discussed]. End it by saying that you look forward to applying (or, if applicable, say that you already have and hope to continue the conversation during an interview).

And, let me tell you…these efforts do matter. As we are cleaning up after every career fair, there are always multiple employers sitting at their tables, going through their stacks of resumes or notes from candidates and discussing with whom they would like to follow-up. And, every year, I hear from students who say, “I got my internship or job interview because of the conversation I had at the career fair!”

So now you’re you’re all set to crush it at your next career fair. Hopefully the next person to say something like that will be you!

By Claire Klieger
Claire Klieger Senior Associate Director, The College Claire Klieger