How to Succeed at Career Fairs Even if You Hate Them

It's that time of year again.

College students are looking for jobs or internships and want to put their best foot forward. What's they think to do? Attend a career fair.

For people who don't know, a career fair is when a bunch of employers come down to campus to recruit the university's best. They've trusted the school with providing them competent employees and decided to spend 4 hours standing next to a table to talk with students.

If you're not used to job-hunting, then your first career fair can be pretty daunting.

Nearly everyone is dressed up in suits and trying their best to impress the employers (even in the California heat!). They all have their little black-binder-looking things and impatiently look around while they're waiting for their turn to talk to the recruiter.

You stare at the transactional nature of these interactions as resumes are exchanged for business cards. You scoff and think, "is this really what job-seeking is about?"

It feels so slimy and mechanical.

But everyone's doing it, so you feel the pressure to put on a suit, join the race, and compete at the back of the line in the hopes that your resume is better than the other 50 people in front of you while you sweat it out in the California heat.

With these conditions, why would you ever consider going to a career fair?

1. You don't have the uniqueness of your school's degree on your side when everyone around you has one. "Oh so you're studying towards a USC degree? So are all these other people." I've also learned that when you have less "shiny" experiences as other people, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle.

2. Your chances of starting any meaningful relationship with one of the big companies is very small when the lines get to around 50 people each and you have to wait around a half hour just to get 3 minutes to talk with recruiters (I'm looking at you Facebook and Google).

3. The environment is just so formalized, that it becomes really hard to get the truth out of some recruiters. They're simply going to be telling you what they think the company wants them to say as the spokesperson. It becomes hard to get a clear picture of what the work environment is really like.

At this point, I've made the career fair look like a sub-optimal way to get a job.

Does this mean that you should just avoid career fairs at your university altogether?

Not necessarily.

There are a couple of benefits to attending career fairs.

You just have to understand what you're getting.

If you're looking to get a job immediately, it's most likely NOT going to happen.

What a fair is good for is building your network if you dedicate your time to a few longer and solid interactions. It also pushes you to update your resume and put you in the mindset of job-hunting.

And truthfully, I'm not a big fan of job fairs at my school. But I do know that for a lot of people, it's their first exposure to the professional world. So if these things exist, why not learn how to shine at one of these events?

But how exactly do you make the most out of a career fair at school when you're young or don't have much experience? 

Evan's 5-Step Career Fair Guide for Low-to-No-Experience Candidates

  1. Lightly research the companies that seem interesting to you, but target only 3 companies that you want to work for and prepare questions for them. Why 3? This ensures that you prioritize your favorite companies and allows you to expend as much energy as you can into preparing for these 3. The recruiters will appreciate the effort you've put in.
  2. Prepare your resume and make sure that you have framed each resume for the position and company you're applying for. Personalization is king here. The more you can show how your unique experience can provide VALUE for the company, the more likely they are to save your name in their "must contact" list. Remember that a good resume won't get you the job, but a bad resume will most definitely disqualify you. (If you don't feel like you have much relevant experience, at the very least mention how passionate you are about the industry by talking about the blogs, books, or reports you've read that prove it.)
  3. Craft an elevator pitch. What you really want to do is sit down for 10 minutes and write out who you are, why you are passionate for the job, and what you are looking for. Create bullet points for things you want the recruiter to know. Too often people will create a pitch that is too stiff and too formal. The more natural-sounding and conversational you can make your elevator pitch seem, the better.
  4. Look new and dress up in a presentable way. Unfortunately, you do have to play the dress-up game when attending career fairs. There's no way around it when you're competing with other people in suits and nice dresses. People will make first impressions of you whether they're superficial or not, so be hygienic, expand your chest, and dress to express, not to impress.
  5. Find a way to offer value, and keep in contact with the recruiter as often as you would a friend. Think about the traditional tactic of "following up". Don't you think it would be kind of annoying to have someone "follow up" with you when you know they just want to take, take, take? So show authenticity when you email or send them a note by thanking them for their time. Also tell them what you're going to do to keep yourself valuable for the position. Ask them for advice. Send them a useful article. This is what networking is about: developing real relationships.

Look, I don't always enjoy going to career fairs, but I do see the significance of having a face-to-face interaction with a recruiter. One simple meeting for 10 minutes has the potential to elevate your professional development way faster than just sitting in a classroom for 2 hours.

And if your college is hosting it on campus, then it's definitely worth it to go for it. You're not losing time; you're building up your job-seeking skills.

You're learning how to prepare your resume, do research, speak about your goals, and network with people in the industry.

Now go out to those fairs and and laugh at all those suckers wasting their time just dropping off resumes and not developing real relationships.

You got this.