Dos and don’ts for attending a career fair

Meeting potential employers face-to-face at a career fair is a great way to land a job—if you don’t blow it by acting like a buffoon.

Recently, I hosted a public relations internship and career fair featuring global leaders such as Ketchum and Ruder Finn, mid-size agencies Coyne PR and Success Communications Group, boutique shops CPR Strategic Marketing Communications and Green Room PR, as well as organizations including Breyer Animal Creations and Youth 1 sports marketing.

Students came well prepared and many have been hired by amazing companies.

Others, however, failed to prepare properly and thus wasted the opportunity to meet decision makers who could help them launch their careers. After observing the students at the fair and surveying employers, I’ve compiled essential tips to ensure you make a positive lasting impression.

What to do:

Dress professionally. Slacks and a nice button down shirt work well. A suit is even better. Although you are on your college campus, you should consider this a job audition.

When you approach the table, make eye contact. Extend a hand, and formally introduce yourself. And smile.

Prior to the fair you should have researched each company. Check out websites and social media, and review company case studies.

Start a conversation. Ask questions before thrusting your résumé at an employer. Let the person behind the table answer your question before you fire off another one. (After all, listening is a major skill in PR, so pay attention.)

Prepare an elevator speech featuring examples of your strengths. This is your chance. You have less than a minute to sell yourself and be memorable. Practice your pitch before the event.

Bring many copies of résumés to hand out. But keep them neatly in a folder or portfolio. It looks sloppy to have your stack hanging out over the table.

Ask for business cards. Be sure to send typo-free thank you emails and notes with a personal message about something you discussed so they remember you.

Shake hands. And thank the employer, by name, for his or her time as you leave the table.

Bring neatly copied writing samples. Keep them in a simple black binder in clear sleeves.

Give recruiters time to respond. Don’t send multiple follow-ups until they’ve had enough to read and process your résumé.

Expect some callbacks. Start answering your cell phone in a professional manner, for example, “Hello, this is Jane Smith speaking.”

What not to do:

Approach the table and start asking about the company—without introducing yourself. Awkward.

Give a limp handshake. Don’t do it. (Learn proper professional handshake techniques here.)

Use “college-speak.” Approaching an employer and saying, “So, what do you guys do?” is not professional.

Respond: “I’ll do anything.” Never provide this response when asked “What do you want to do?” or “What are you interested in?” Have a substantive response ready.

Wear a short tight miniskirt and very high heels or a hoody sweatshirt—not professional. Keep make up and jewelry simple, too.

Chomp on your chewing gum. Instead, eat a mint beforehand instead.

Use your college email on your résumé. At most universities, this email address goes away when you graduate. Also, avoid using a not-so professional email handle. FirstNameLastName@ works best.

Assume the representatives remember exactly whom you were when reaching out.
They just met dozens, even hundreds of students.

Never follow up. Even if you don’t want the internship or job at that company, use your follow up as a networking opportunity and thank them for their time and interest.

Send a thank you note with grammatical errors or typos. Don’t kill an otherwise great impression. The same goes for résumé. A typo sends it to the trash.

A career fair is an amazing opportunity to get your résumé and yourself in front of employers who are looking to hire new professionals. Take each interaction seriously and be open-minded about possible career avenues and options. I saw many students go to the fair excited about a particular company and then leave, excited about several new opportunities they never even imagined.

Lorra M. Brown is an assistant professor of public relations/professional communication at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. She serves as the M.A. in professional communication graduate program director, communication internship coordinator, and advisor to the Student Public Relations Association. Visit her blog or follow her on Twitter @LorraBrownPR.

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