The Students Guide to College Career Fairs

by Rich DeMatteo on February 19, 2010 · 9 comments

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Most companies suck at college recruiting, specifically in finding talent at college career fairs.  The unorganized and unprepared companies are the reason why most college students regret attending a college job fair, or why they simply stay in and eat Ramen Noodles, watch “I am not the baby daddy” TV shows, study, drink beer, or do whatever it is that college students do these days.

There are certainly a handful of companies that really kill it at college career fairs, but the career fair itself is just the tip of the iceberg.  For a company to be successful in college hiring, months, if not years of work go into building up a name, and a relationship with the campus and its students.  However, this is a guide for students, I’ll get back to the employer side next week.

Ok, let’s get right down to it, shall we?

It’s all about making pre-career fair connections

The employers who do it right, make connections before arriving on campus.  They find out a way to reach faculty, professors, and students early so that they have an advantage over their competition.  It’s not about having the greatest brand (it helps, but that creates other complications down the line at career fairs), or having the nicest SWAG.  The secret to a successful career fair is in making connections before the actual event, and students need to know that they can completely make this happen on their own as well.

So, how can students make the most out of college career fairs?

1 – Create a “Employers I Want to Work For List” – Most schools do a nice job of advertising which employers are coming to the fair.  Try to get your hands on this list at least a month before the scheduled event.  If you can’t find a list, just head on into your schools career office and ask for one.  List out 3-7 companies that you’d like to work for, and make sure you rank them all.  Double check your list and see what degree programs that the company are seeking. No point in applying for a position that the company doesn’t need.”Once you do this, you are ready for the next step.

2 – Find out the person who scheduled their company – In most cases, it’s an HR person or recruiter that schedules their company.  It isn’t uncommon for a business unit outside of HR to plan and schedule the career fair, so keep that in mind as well.  Take your list of 5-7 companies to your school career office, and explain that you’d like to reach out to the company in advance.  Ask for contact information of the person that scheduled their employer to attend the fair.  Try to get the most information for the top companies on your list.  If your school career office can’t, or won’t give you the information, simply call the company’s main telephone number and ask to speak to HR about college recruiting.

3 – Prepare your information – Once you reach out to employers, it’s going to get real very fast.  Make sure that  all of your information is the bees knees.  Fix up your resume, and complete your Linkedin profile.

4 – Start reaching out to employers – Email and call.  Doing both won’t hurt you.  Keep your emails short (a paragraph or two) and explain exactly why you are reaching out.  Don’t sugar coat it.  Explain that you are contacting them because you wanted to make a connection before the career fair.  This will not only impress them, but they will remember you.  If possible, ask for an informational interview (phone or in person).  Lastly, follow up with this person a week or a few days before the actual event.  Stay in their heads and they will remember your face, or at least your name.

5 -Instead of during, meet them before or after the event – Even when you’ve made a connection, that won’t change the fact that career fairs are busy as butt.  Many people attend on their own, but others are forced to attend and wait in long lines at the crowded event.  While your name and face is recognizable by your employer of choice, they probably won’t be able to give you much time.  Ask to meet them 1 on 1 before the event for 20 minutes while they set up, or possibly to grab a bite to eat during their event break or after the fair has ended.  Doing this truly sets you apart from your peers.

6 – Follow up – A week after the event, reach out to the person you met at the career fair.  Continue the relationship building process.  Companies with openings will bring in students for interviews.  Make contact first, and keep your name in their head.

If you follow the steps I’ve outlined above, you will not only enjoy attending career fairs, but you will build a long-lasting relationship with employers that you want to work for, and you’ll have a stronger chance of gaining employment with them.

It’s all about connections.  Not all employers are great at it, but you WILL be.

What is the worst/best college job fair experience you’ve had?
What other advice would you offer to college students?
Does your company do it right?
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Hi Rich, I would also like to impress upon students how important Step 3 is regarding having a good resume to present. Many employers, especially large employers, have so many events and meet so many students in a season that there are not many one on one opportunities to be had. A student's resume is his/her calling card and is usually the only resource a recruiter is able to base decision making on after a career fair. Spelling, grammar, and good organization of the resume means a recruiter can spend more time talking to the student, and less time trying to decipher the resume.

Rich DeMatteo
Rich DeMatteo

Great point, Kristan. I agree 100%. Recruiters want a 30-60 second scan of a resume. If they need to figure out what's going on, on the piece of paper then that will take away talk time. Thanks!

Dawn Lennon
Dawn Lennon

This is outstanding advice on how to prepare for career fairs. Not to do this is to accept being cattle at a livestock auction. What I love about this post, Rich, is that you don't sugarcoat the work involved, specifically the strategic thinking, planning, and positioning. Too many candidates think that the tooth fairy's sparkly dust will flow upon them so they stand out and that there's no need to apply intellectual elbow grease. I have done corporate career coaching and do private career strategist work now, and the resistance to information interviewing and networking is mind boggling. Thanks for doing your part to reinforce the need to differentiate to stand out. Well done...I think your posts are consistently well written and on target. ~Dawn (@businessfit on Twitter)

Rich DeMatteo
Rich DeMatteo

Hey Dawn - thanks for the comment and thoughts Dawn. I feel strongly on this subject and am going to write an employer piece on this as well.