Career fairs can be busy, loud and hectic. If the thought of attending one makes you feel excited, anxious or fearful, you're not alone. All of these are common reactions.
Attending at least one career fair should be on your job search "to-do" list. They offer opportunities to expand your network, discover a career pathway you might not otherwise have considered, learn about organizations where you would like to work, and have the chance to practice for an interview.
Bonus: There is usually a lot of free swag!
The good news is that even if you're feeling nervous about attending, you can turn that apprehension into confidence by planning ahead.
Within this toolkit, you'll find answers to the most common questions about attending a career or job fair. You'll also gain practical tips and advice for impressing recruiters and leaving a lasting impression that could lead to internships, mentorships or job offers.
Where Can I Find Career and Job Fairs?
Several types of organizations host career and job fairs. Here's a look at some of the most common groups that host these events.
1. College/University Fairs
Colleges and universities typically host career and job fairs for students twice a year: fall and spring. Attending your campus-sponsored event offers a significant advantage.
Your school's career services department has relationships with the employers who attend. This means the career services department can provide details about each employer, the types of jobs they are hiring for and other insights that can help you maximize your experience. The recruiters who attend also have experience interacting with students and are eager to talk about internships and job openings that align with your experiences and your goals.
Schools host a variety of career fairs. Some invite employers from various industries, with the event open to students from all majors. Others narrowly focus on a specific department or field. The latter are particularly helpful because the people there have experience in a particular industry, can offer useful advice and are looking for candidates just like you!
2. Labor Department Job Fairs
State labor departments also organize job fairs that are open to the public. At these, you'll find recruiters and company representatives from many industries, ranging from banking and human services to retail, the military and state-agency positions.
The job opportunities advertised through labor department career fairs are typically entry-level. But these events can be a great place to meet someone from an organization, learn more about what it's like to work there and open the door to learning about other vacant positions.
3. Employer-Specific Career Fairs
Large employers may also host career fairs. For example, a hospital or skilled nursing facility needs to hire more than medical professionals. They need candidates to fill managerial, accounting, HR and marketing positions, too. Similarly, grocery stores or convenience store chains with local headquarters must fill administrative positions as well as front-line service roles.
Customer-facing roles are the most widely advertised positions at these events, but it can be worth attending to learn more about the company culture and the hiring manager and begin forming a long-term relationship for when a job opens that matches your career aspirations.
PRO TIP: You might not walk away from a career or job fair with a position in hand, but you will have the chance to make valuable connections that could lead to a future opportunity.
How Does a Career Fair Work?
On school campuses, the event is typically held in a large ballroom. Off-campus career and job fairs might be at a local hotel with a large meeting room, at a convention center, at the local chamber of commerce or even at an employer's headquarters. Pre-registration may or may not be required; whether it is will be noted in promotional materials advertising the event.
At in-person events, each employer sends one or more staff members to set up a table with company materials and to meet with attendees. Small workshops featuring job search tips may also be available.
You choose which booth(s) to visit based on your goals and interests. Typically, the representatives talk to individuals on a first-come, first-served basis, so you might have to wait in line.
Virtual career and job fairs offer additional opportunities. At a virtual job fair, you'll experience a similar setup to a regular job fair, in that you can listen to presentations, "visit booths," leave resumes and business cards, participate in live chats, and get contact information from recruiters, HR managers, and even hiring managers.
Pre-registration is required for virtual events, allowing you to create a profile with your name, current employer (optional), industry sector, location and contact information. When a candidate clicks on a recruiter's booth to enter it, the recruiter can see the candidate's full profile and decide who should interact with the visitor.
PRO TIP: When attending a virtual career fair, test your computer or mobile device, internet connection and video/audio capabilities to ensure a smooth virtual interview experience.
How Long Does a Career/Job Fair Last?
It depends. A fair might be open all day, part of the day or for a few hours early in the evening. Review the event details in advance so you can plan accordingly.
On-campus career and job fairs offer a significant advantage—the flexibility to stop into the fair several times throughout the day, between classes or other commitments. If you're attending an offsite fair, you'll need to factor in a commute, time to find parking and potentially a walk to the event space, in addition to time spent talking with recruiters.
In either scenario, set aside enough time to visit each of the booths of interest and build in time for waiting in line, as some employers draw large crowds.
PRO TIP: Don't wait until the final 10 minutes of the event to arrive, especially if it's an all-day event. By that point, the representatives are exhausted after standing for hours and talking with multiple individuals.
How Much Do Fairs Cost to Attend?
College career fairs and job fairs should be free regardless of whether they are in-person or virtual. For no cost other than your time, you can access a valuable networking opportunity that can inform decisions about your career path, identify organizations you would like to work for, and provide information about open positions.
Be cautious of job fairs that charge fees. The largest and most reputable career and job fairs do not charge, and an entrance fee signals that it might be a scam. In general, you should not pay for access to job opportunities, including working with a recruiter. The hiring company pays the recruiter a fee once a candidate the recruiter refers is hired.
Who Will I Be Talking To?
Who represents a company at a career or job fair depends on the size and scope of the company, and who is available. It might be a recruiter, an HR representative or a department manager. It's even possible that a senior leader or the owner is the one to attend.
Career and job fair organizers post a list of participating companies. See if the list specifies who is representing the company and learn a bit about them and their role by visiting their LinkedIn profile in advance of the event.
Another bonus to attending your college's career and job fair is that the career services department has this information available. This can give you a leg up in preparing for the event and streamline your research process.
What Is the Dress Code?
Dress code expectations are changing. In the past, recruiters and students wore business suits to career fairs. Today, according to Sarah Hobgood, Christopher Newport University (CNU) director of the Center for Career Planning, both parties wear more casual clothing. For example, recruiters attending CNU career fairs often wear khaki pants and a company polo shirt.
"However, do not show up looking like you just rolled out of bed," Hobgood said. "Also, be mindful of the cut and length of dresses and dress tops."
Context is key when it comes to selecting an outfit. A school-sponsored career fair may feature a more relaxed dress code, so you can feel comfortable stopping by between classes without the stress of rushing to change.
Some industries still expect business professional or business casual attire, even for on-campus recruiting events. That can range from dress pants to khakis paired with a nice button-down or collared shirt, a cardigan or blazer.
If you're unsure, talk with the staff in the career services department and use their resources to choose your outfit. If it's an off-campus event and you're unable to determine the dress code in advance, bringing along a jacket or blazer can quickly dress up an outfit.
Clothing considerations frequently takes the spotlight in dress code conversations, but footwear also factors into the equation. Though casual footwear has become more widely accepted, wearing boat shoes without socks or flip-flops stands out and may not fit in professionally.
Also consider the size of the event, how far you'll have to walk and how long you might stand in line to talk with employers. Choose shoes that are comfortable, practical and professional so that you can focus on interacting with recruiters.
How Do I Prepare for a Career Fair?
There's an old adage: "If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail."
Investing time before the event can help you make the most of the experience and leave a positive, lasting impression with those you meet.
These six steps can set you up for success.
1. Pre-Register for the Event
When the option is available, pre-register and upload a resume. Entering your information into the system allows employers an opportunity to identify you as a candidate they may like to connect with at the event. Pre-registering is not a guarantee that you'll stand out or get a job, but it's an easy way to introduce yourself.
2. Research Participating Employers
Look at the list of employers attending and make a note of those you want to visit with. Rank them in order of how important it is for you to interact with them, in case there isn't time to visit your entire list.
Many students focus on big-name employers. Students who wait in line or only attend career fairs to speak with the more popular companies limit their opportunities. And it might mean missing out on valuable opportunities.
Plan to network with less well-known companies or businesses, too. A smaller business might not have national name recognition, but the culture, benefits and job openings could present the perfect opportunity for you.
"Smaller employers who are not well known may offer wonderful opportunities and allow young hires to take on broader and more responsible roles early in their career," Hobgood said.
Once you've made a list, research the organizations you want to meet. For on-campus events, your school's career services department can share details about the companies you're interested in and offer insights into what it has been like for other students hired there.
Also, visit the organization's website and make a note of any points of interest that stand out to you to weave into the conversation as appropriate. If the event listing includes a representative's name, look them up on LinkedIn and learn about their background and any shared connections that may make good conversation material. Search for employee feedback on social media platforms or read reviews on Glassdoor, Indeed and other sites to discover if it is a company you want to invest time in.
3. Review the Event Layout
Career fair organizers provide a map of the meeting space and a notation of where each recruiter's table is located. Print a copy or save it to your phone. Highlight your highest priority stops, and plan your route around the space accordingly. For smaller events, this may not be as critical, but at large events it can help you maximize your time.
If you're unfamiliar with where the room is on campus, set aside time to check out the building and the space. An in-person trip to scope out an off-campus venue may be impractical depending on how far it is from your location. However, a drive-by to look at parking, entrance, etc., can give you an idea of where you'll be going.
4. Prepare Your Elevator Pitch
One of the most common mistakes students make is not knowing what to say when approaching an employer. Often, students wait for the recruiter to speak to them rather than proactively introducing themselves and explaining what brings them to the company's booth.
Employers will immediately gravitate toward confident students who take the initiative and show genuine interest in their opportunities.
Here's an example of an elevator speech:
"Hello, my name is Kelli. Thank you for taking the time to be here today. I'm a [INSERT YEAR] student. My goal is to leverage my HR studies and practical experience to contribute to a team that values innovation in talent management and employee development. I'm excited to learn more about your organization's values and goals and explore how I can be a valuable asset to your team."
It's important to let the person you're speaking with know you're interested in their business. Sharing information about your career goals and asking relevant questions such as next steps demonstrate your interest. You can also ask if there's an opportunity to schedule a phone call for a more in-depth conversation.
At the end of your conversation, thank the person for their time. Don't forget to request a business card! It's impossible to remember everyone's name after the event. Having contact information handy will allow you to follow up.
Create a List of Questions
Career and job fair conversations are a two-way process. Not only is the recruiter evaluating your suitability for the organization, but it's also an opportunity for you to determine if the job is right for you. Being inquisitive during the discussion lets the employer know you're interested in their company and its operation.
Wait to ask about benefits or salary until you're invited to an interview, but do take time to learn what you can about the company.
Here are some examples of great questions to ask a recruiter:
- How long have you been at the company?
- What do you appreciate most about the company?
- What opportunities are there for growth?
- What does training and professional development look like?
- What does the company expect of its employees?
- What skills and qualities make an employee of the company successful?
5. Update Your Resume
Make sure your resume is up to date and free of typos or grammatical errors. The CNU Center for Career Planning created this information for its students and graciously made it available for you to consider when reviewing and revising your resume:
Every resume is unique and should reflect your specific experiences, skills, accomplishments, qualifications, etc. As you begin creating your resume, focus on the content first and build a master list of your time at Christopher Newport, including: work experiences, courses/projects, involvement/organizations, volunteer/service, honors/awards, etc.
From that list, select the items you feel are most important (and most relevant to the position you're applying for) to put on your resume and create specialized entries. Remember, the Center for Career Planning can help you with your resume by making an appointment through Handshake.
This guide includes details for getting started on your resume, as well as samples to help you brainstorm the experiences you want to include and formatting options.
- Name and contact information (MUST be included)
- Name should be the largest item on the page. Show current address, phone and email address.
- Education (MUST be included)
- Including graduation date, GPA (if over 3.0), relevant coursework and/or research as appropriate.
- Spell out your degree (Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, etc.)
- Experience (MUST be included)
- May include paid or unpaid/volunteer work, internships, etc.
- Accomplishments and relevant skills emphasized in narratives (quantify if possible)
- Include keywords from the industry, organization and position description.
- Do not use pronouns.
- Use action verbs to highlight skills, abilities and achievements.
- Section(s) could be labeled as specific experience: Communications Experience, Technology Experience, Research Experience, Teaching Experience.
- Objective: Must be tailored to the specific position and state the value you can bring to the employer.
- Summary: A bulleted list of three relevant points about your skills, education or experience that are relevant to the position.
- Leadership/Activities: Follow the same instructions as in the Experience section above.
- Service/Volunteer Experience: Follow the same instructions as in the Experience section above.
- Professional Organizations: List relevant organizations and, if heavily involved, write up like experience narratives above.
- Honors and Awards: List names and dates of honors/awards.
- Special Training/Certifications/Licenses
- Computer Skills: List software and hardware, especially if going into technology jobs.
- Foreign Language Skills: List languages known.
- Research: Can include independent studies, research apprentice positions, Summer Scholars or other summer programs, lab work, thesis, or other writing-intensive projects.
- Follow a consistent format throughout your resume, including font style and size (except name) and how you format section headings and other information.
- Choose an easy-to-read font (Arial, Calibri, Times New Roman, etc.)
- Make margins no less than .50.
- Avoid using more than two fonts, and be consistent when you use them (e.g., all headers should be the same size). NO COMIC SANS!
- Don't overdesign or add clip art/icons that may distract from the meat of your resume.
- Don't squish everything. Leave space between sections of your resume. Most recruiters will spend 30 seconds or less scanning a resume, so make it easy for them to see your experience and/or education.
- While the colors can be changed, avoid overly bright colors, especially for text elements. Often when a company prints out your resume, it's in black and white.
- Customize your resume to match specific job postings. Review several postings before you begin writing. You will identify most keywords that you will want to include in your resume, and from there, individual customization should be a fairly quick process.
- Always follow instructions when uploading your resume and use the preferred file format (typically Word or PDF).
Print multiple copies of your resume and bring them with you. Many recruiters will ask you to complete a form on a device in their booth, but many also collect hard copies. Some may even scan your resume onsite.
Ten or 20 years ago, a nice "resume" paper was expected. That is no longer the case. Printing on regular paper is acceptable as long as it is not crumpled or wrinkled. Printing on heavier-quality paper can, however, make your resume distinctive in a stack of others.
Be prepared to speak to the points on your resume when engaging with recruiters. At CNU, the career services department encourages students to schedule an appointment with their department before a career fair to help students prepare.
Find out if your campus offers similar support. You can get feedback on your resume, ask questions about attending the career fair, learn about an employer and glean tips for translating your resume experience into a meaningful interaction with the recruiter.
"One of the questions they always ask is, 'What are you doing in your classes?'" said Hobgood. "Another is, 'What are you learning?'"
Many classes include substantial projects that require teamwork, communication and problem-solving, which are top skills every employer looks for, regardless of position. Being ready to talk about those projects, including specific details about overcoming challenges and outcomes, can help you stand out. Hobgood also encourages students to talk about their activities outside of class, highlighting transferrable skills.
It's Go Time
Career and job fairs can make for long days that can feel tiring. It's important to stay upbeat and positive throughout the day as you meet multiple new people. Make eye contact, lean forward slightly, vary your vocal tone, and offer a smile to create a positive energy. Despite the fact that you may be saying the same thing several times a day, keep in mind that it will be the first time each employer hears from you. If you're planning to attend a bigger event that lasts several hours, it's okay to periodically take breaks and give yourself a chance to get re-energized.
First: Introduce Yourself with a Smile
By smiling, you convey a positive and inviting personality. Take the initiative to introduce yourself and offer a handshake. A simple introduction is fine:
Here are examples of simple introductions you can use:
· "Hi, I'm Larry Good. It's nice to meet you."
- "Good afternoon, my name is Jane Smith, and I'm glad to meet you."
- "Hello, I'm Regan Kelly. I'm pleased to meet you."
Allow the recruiter an opportunity to introduce themselves, and take note of how they prefer to be addressed. Once introductions are complete, be ready to share your elevator pitch, and be prepared to answer questions they may have. Share your resume and business card (if you have one) and pick up the recruiter's business card.
Then: Take Notes
Bring a small notebook and take brief notes during the conversation. Remembering details from multiple, short conversations can be challenging, so having things in writing streamlines your follow-up process. Jot down contact information and instructions for the next steps.
When a recruiter says to visit their website and complete a form, or take some other action, they make note of the individuals who follow through, giving you a leg up in the job search.
Next: Be Ready for On-the-Spot Interviews
Imagine you've caught a recruiter's attention, and suddenly, you're invited for an on-the-spot interview.
"Think about the things you've done that the recruiter might be looking for and how the activities you're involved in, or class projects can transfer into a job," Hobgood said.
Be prepared to talk about:
- What you have learned that is applicable to a job you aspire to.
- What skills you have developed through activities—even volunteer and class projects—that translate to a job.
- What type of work you are interested in doing.
"Communication, teamwork and problem-solving, are skills employers focus on. Many classes include intense projects that require those skills," Hobgood said. "Think about how you can highlight your experiences in these ways."
Avoid These Common Mistakes
- Don't make negative comments about your college or previous jobs, companies or supervisors.
- Don't forget to ask about the hiring process for each company.
- Don't ask too many questions about salaries, vacation time and other benefits.
- Don't bring a parent or significant other for moral support. There are valid reasons for bringing an individual for support in navigating the event, and you should feel comfortable doing so in these situations. However, nerves alone are not a reason to do so.
Finally: Leave a Lasting Impression
Make it clear to the person you're talking to that you are interested in their organization. Ask appropriate questions, including details about next steps. If you're able to, arrange to stop by the recruiter's office for a longer conversation.
At the end of the conversation, thank the person for their time and interest. Request a business card if they are not readily available on the table, so you have the person's contact information to follow up.
Beyond the Fair: Following Up and Navigating Job Offers
Immediately after the career fair ends, connect with the recruiters you spoke with and follow their companies' LinkedIn pages for news and job updates. Thank them for their time, remind them where you met, and reiterate your interest in opportunities within their organization.
Personalize the message and spell their name correctly. Note how they introduced themselves. For example, if their name is Michael but they go by Mike, use their preferred name. Mention the name of the career fair and include a detail from your interaction with them at the booth.
Keep your message concise. Include two to three short paragraphs highlighting your qualifications, skills and enthusiasm.
In the body of your thank-you note:
- Acknowledge your appreciation for the person's time.
- Emphasize your interest in the organization and in open positions.
- Highlight the qualifications you can bring to the company.
- Mention a unique point from the conversation.
- Wrap up with your contact information.
Sample post-fair thank-you note:
Dear [INSERT NAME],
It was a pleasure meeting you at the XXX career fair on [INSERT DAY]. I really enjoyed speaking with you and learning more about your company and potential job opportunities. After hearing more about the organization's needs in terms of staffing and recruiting, I'd love to bring my summer internship experience of interviewing and hiring 10 candidates to this role.
Please let me know if you need anything more to consider me for this opportunity. You can reach me at [INSERT CONTACT INFO]. I look forward to speaking with you again soon.
[INSERT YOUR NAME]
Besides developing long-term relationships with employers, career fairs let you stay updated on future job openings as your career progresses. Given that career and job fairs are free, consider your time an investment that can lead to connections and resources that will help you land a job that fits your career goals.
Don't get discouraged if the recruiting process doesn't move quickly—or at all. A career fair is only one avenue to get your foot in the door at an organization. Every interaction, every conversation and every connection matters. Career fairs aren't just events—they're gateways to your future in HR. So, future HR superstar, let's make your career fair experience one for the books.
Remember, an employer is spending valuable time with you, so be considerate. If a company representative reaches out and you are no longer interested, send a short reply with a word of thanks, but that you are not interested at this time. Don't ghost them!
Similarly, if you have a follow-up conversation and then decide the organization is not a good fit, don't waste their time arranging additional phone calls or visits. Graciously thank them for their interest and acknowledge you are not interested in moving forward.