You have your degree. You have the drive. You just need a chance. Sound familiar? Then it could be time to check out a career fair. As large and hectic as career fairs can be, it’s undeniable that they serve a purpose in connecting companies and candidates who may not have found each other otherwise. The key is treating your career fair encounters like mini interviews. To do that, we recommend memorizing one word: SOAP. Be Selective, Open-minded, Attentive, and Professional.
With dozens of booths at each career fair, it’s unrealistic to think you’ll have time for a meaningful conversation at every one. Make an effort to narrow down your destinations before you set foot in the building, and then visit them based on how excited you are about each opportunity. Being selective will also give you sufficient time to research your favorite companies beforehand, so you’ll have more valuable, memorable interactions once you get there.
Once you’re at a booth, you can also be selective about who you approach. If you can quickly deduce that the hiring manager is present, try to hone in on them without being rude. HR managers and recruiting reps facilitate the hiring process, but the ultimate decision always belongs to the hiring manager. The sooner you get on their radar, the better.
For any organization you don’t have first-hand knowledge of, try to check your preconceived notions at the door. There is always a chance that your dream employer has a much different culture or mentality than you assumed, or that a company at the bottom of your list has more redeeming qualities than you realized. Although a quick conversation at a career fair won’t give you the full picture, it will certainly give you a flavor for things like work/life balance, employee expectations, and the overall vibe of working there. For hints, pay attention to what the employees are wearing, how they are interacting with each other, what they emphasize as corporate values, and what questions they ask you. If your gut tells you something positive or negative about your interaction, don’t be afraid to listen to it.
It’s also important to be open-minded about what could happen after the career fair. You never know where an opportunity could start. Maybe someone you meet at the career fair really likes you, but isn’t currently in need of your skillset. That rep could easily send your info to a colleague at another company. For this reason, assume nothing and give your business card and resume to as many people as you can.
Lastly, stay open-minded about where your career could go. Due to the range of companies present at a career fair, you could discover an entire industry or niche you didn’t even know existed. If you do stumble upon a new field that interests you but requires additional coursework, remember DSST offers a convenient, affordable way to earn college credit by testing.
One of the most powerful things you can do at a career fair is listen. Although it is advised to tactfully work in a one-minute elevator pitch about yourself (rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse again!), informed and open-ended questions are equally as impressive to a recruiter. Even better, they can teach you a lot about the company. Below are examples of good topics to ask about (and one to avoid) according to Veronica Montalvo, senior vice president of the Online Education Institute at Post University.
- A typical day for the position you are interested in.
- The company’s culture and work environment to determine if the position would be a good fit for your personality.
- What initial training is like. (This is a unique one that shows a true interest in how the company works.)
Don’t ask about:
- What the company does. (Any question that shows you haven’t bothered to do even minimal research is a big red flag for recruiters and hiring managers.)
This one should go without saying, but handling yourself in a professional manner is vital at any career fair.
Here are some basics to keep in mind:
- Dress in appropriate formal business attire (slacks, dress, or skirt plus a jacket for women, suit and tie for men), and keep excessive accessories and fragrance to a minimum. It’s okay to have one or two accessories that reveal your personality, but overall, your attire should help you appear approachable, confident, and put-together.
- Use “Mr.” and “Mrs.”
- Practice your handshake beforehand so it’s firm and confident, but not aggressive.
- Maintain eye contact when speaking, and be aware that your body language speaks volumes.
- Do not use foul language or go off on tangents about your personal life.
- Follow up every single encounter with a thank you email or written note (even better), and don’t hesitate to send requests on LinkedIn. This means you should ask for business cards from everyone you meet.
Now that you have SOAP down, you’re ready to hit the career fair circuit. Good luck mingling, networking, and putting yourself out there!