Job Fairs: How To Make Them Work For You

Plan for Success

Marketing 101: Identify your target audience and educate them on the value of your product – you. Job fairs are for exactly that purpose - employers can reach the highest volume of candidates at fairs and students can learn about a large number of opportunities in one distinct setting. However, the value of a job fair is relative to the amount of effort you put into preparing for it and “working it.”

If you have never been to a job fair, think of a large open space where recruiters stand at tables with displays and information about their company and job opportunities. Often there are long lines for the most popular organizations, so manage your time wisely and be prepared to have only brief interactions. Be sure to maintain eye contact, have a strong handshake and an engaging introduction about yourself. Visit one or two companies that are lower on your wish list first to get the hang of it, and then wait in the longer lines early enough to ensure you have time to talk to the popular recruiters. Plan to come early and stay late; some companies will leave before the event is over, so don’t just attend the last 30 minutes of the fair. Expect the venue to be stuffy and loud and filled with nervous, yet well dressed job seekers. Business suits are expected.

On this page:

Why Recruiters Attend Fairs

Generally, recruiters attend fairs to quickly screen potential candidates, but also to attract and educate you. This venue allows for superficial contact with a high volume of candidates and requires the recruiter to both sell his or her company and make fast judgments based on first impressions only. Recruiters use this first impression to decide if they will contact a candidate in the future for either on-campus interviewing, on-site interviewing, or to forward on to other professionals in their company. Companies with few openings may still attend fairs to generate name recognition and to develop a résumé bank from which to pull when future growth occurs. Students have been contacted months after a fair from companies who met them only briefly.

Why Candidates Should Attend Fairs

You are expecting to read that the main reason is to find a job, right? Well, not exactly. Given the above reasons that recruiters attend fairs, students can gain a great deal from the interaction besides a job offer. In fact, it is quite rare to actually obtain a job offer at a job fair.

Fairs are your chance to impress the “gatekeeper” to an organization and to allow him or her to put a name to a face/ résumé. Your goal should be to identify the next step in the process and to entice the recruiter to grant you an interview or at least a referral to someone who needs a candidate like you.

In the case where the recruiter is looking for candidates with qualifications or backgrounds different from yours, you can still gain value from that interaction.

  • By asking the right questions, you can learn a lot about a company, industry or geographic area
  • You can have brief conversations about the recruiter’s profession, or even be referred to someone else at the organization that can be a good resource for you
  • If the recruiter is hiring salespeople, and you are in IT, you can still learn how that company’s IT is structured, how it makes IT hiring decisions, and even be referred to an IT hiring manager if you impress the recruiter with your knowledge about his or her company and your exemplary interpersonal skills
  • Fairs are great practice for employment-related interactions. You can gain confidence in practicing these conversations

We recommend students who are not yet ready to conduct a search for a full-time job attend fairs for the above reasons, and to investigate potential internship opportunities. If the company does not have a formal internship program but its representative meets an impressive student, the recruiter may refer that student to someone who could use an intern in their company.

National Fairs Are Different

A national career fair or national recruiting event typically happens during a national conference and is a way for Fortune 500 companies to identify talent from schools where they typically do not visit for on-campus recruitment. This means if the companies you are interested in do not visit your school, check to see if they attend a national career fair. This may be the best opportunity for you to get “face time” with gatekeepers and decision makers in the recruitment process.

These events are different in that they tend to be much, much larger (hundreds of companies and thousands of candidates from across the country). Your competition will be the best and the brightest and most motivated candidates. Therefore, your preparation needs to be even more stellar. Additionally, companies who attend these events often post job openings on the fair website ahead of time to attract and secure candidates for on-site interviews. Prepared candidates will apply to these opportunities months or weeks in advance and try to secure pre-arranged interviews. Often interviews can be offered at the fair itself for later the same day or the next day.

Go Prepared

Unless you do your homework, you will be wasting your and the recruiters’ time. If you ask the recruiter simple questions about the company (i.e. what their products are) you have basically told the recruiter that you did not prepare and/or are not truly interested. Nothing bothers recruiters more than students who are obviously ill-prepared to meet them.

Recruiters state that the most impressive students are those who demonstrate knowledge of the organization, have intelligent questions to ask and have thought about the way they might fit into the organization. To do this, you need to have done your research about the company and about yourself.

The Elevator Speech

In a nutshell, an elevator speech is a statement that succinctly and memorably introduces you in the time it would take to ride an elevator (average time is 30 seconds). You should be able to deliver this speech in a manner that does not sound too rehearsed, and in any situation, from standing in line at the coffee shop to riding the metro.

Work up an interesting verbal summary of your background, achievements and career interests so you won’t be fumbling for words at the wrong time. Recruiters expect to hear the following information during a student’s “elevator speech”:

  • Name
  • Class/level
  • Major/concentration
  • Opportunities that you are seeking (full time/internship)
  • Highlights of relevant experience (work, internship, volunteer work)
  • Highlights of skills and strengths
  • Knowledge of the company

Tailor your introduction to each employer and end your intro by asking a focused question that will engage the employer in conversation. Here is a sample of a good introduction to use at a job fair specifically, followed by a relevant question that demonstrates strong interest.

“Hello. I’m Jack Ross, a senior in finance at UB. I noticed on your website that you have openings for financial analysts. Last summer, I interned with Smith Financial and because of my strong analytical skills and ability to communicate with clients, they asked me to continue with them this fall, redesigning their service demonstrations for the entire northeast. This was invaluable training because it gave me greater insight into the finance industry and allowed me to show my ability as a team player. Also, it confirmed my desire to become an analyst for a top-10 firm, such as yours. I have been following your expansion into the northeast through trade journals. Could you tell me more about this expansion and how someone with my experience and education may be useful to your company’s expansion?”

Do you see how this intro highlighted the key aspects that a recruiter would want to know about a candidate? Now there is time to get into greater detail with questions that make the candidate more likely to earn an interview. Some of these questions for which to expect are:

  • Why do you want to work for this firm?
  • What do you have to offer this firm?

The recruiters want to see how you will fit in. To answer these questions effectively, you will need to research the companies who are attending the fair ahead of time. Obtain the list of who is attending from the CRC and at least view all the companies’ websites to identify what they do and view the employment section of their site. Next, look to see if they are visiting our campus for formal on-campus interviewing later that semester. If they are coming back to interview, your goal is to earn an interview slot.

What to Research

  • Products and service(s)
  • Current and common job openings (i.e. development or training programs)
  • Core competencies of the firm
  • Geographic markets, size and locations
  • Organization structure
  • Main competition
  • Recent news items
  • CEO, profitability, stock price, etc.
  • Industry growth potential
  • Information on the location's cost of living

Where to Find Information

How To Use Your Research

Learning these aspects about the company can help you determine if you are interested enough to submit a résumé or visit its booth. Create an “A” and “B” list for companies you plan to target. Once you have the ear of the recruiter, you should let him or her know you have done your research through the questions you ask and the key points about yourself that you stress.

For example, when meeting the Perry’s Ice Cream representative, a first-year marketing MBA looking for an internship may make the following statements:

“I’ve noticed that Perry’s often collaborates with local organizations, special events and sports teams to roll out specialty flavors each year. This is the type of product development that really interests me because I enjoy seeing a connection between the products I help develop and the community as a whole. Could you tell me if the interns you hire are involved in such special events and new product launches?”

Or when visiting General Mills' booth at the fair, a human resources senior may comment:

“According to, General Mills experienced a 32% growth rate just last year. That is quite impressive. I see you are visiting specifically from the Buffalo location. Can you tell me how this growth has effected this specific location and if you anticipate an increase in full time hiring due to this growth?"

What to Bring to the Fair

  • Résumés on high-quality paper for as many as the number of companies you plan to meet plus five. Make sure it is a bulleted résumé, so it is easier for recruiters to quickly grasp your qualifications. You may have different version of your résumé if you are targeting different types of jobs or industries.
    • Be prepared; most companies will not accept actual résumés. You will most likely be asked to submit online and if you have already done so prior to the fair, will impress the recruiter by telling them that this submission is completed. Consider having a scanner-friendly version of your résumé and asking which version the employer would prefer. 
  • A formal business suit is expected. Read about specific dress advice
  • Energy, a smile, a strong handshake and a positive attitude
  • Portfolio: Only if appropriate, i.e. samples of website pages, a short analytical report for a class, etc., but only show it when there is not a line and the recruiter expresses an interest in learning a great deal about you
  • Notepad and pen: nothing makes you look more ill-prepared than fumbling for a pen
  • Calendar/organizer: Be able to schedule a follow-up meeting if requested (typically on your phone)
  • Business card: If you have one, this could show professionalism and make you stand out
  • Mints (not gum)
  • Notes on each company and a list of questions you plan to ask

Not Required But Nice to Have

  • List of references with contact information: Use same heading, font style and paper as résumé
  • Copies of your transcript

Good Questions to Ask at a Fair

Q: Can you tell me more about your management development program and what makes a strong candidate for that opportunity?

Q: Besides XYZ that I read on your company’s website, what new initiatives is your company planning that would expand your business in the next several years?

Q: I see you have recently begun expanding into China. At what stage in your expansion are you and would you need internship assistance from someone who has experience in the Chinese market?

Q: On what basis do you make your decisions to invite candidates to interview?

Q: Please describe your hiring process.

Q: May I have your business card and what would be the most effective way and time to follow up with you?

Q: I see you are recruiting just for accounting and finance; however, I am an human resources candidate. Is your recruiting process for HR different and what would be the best route for me to apply for future HR openings?

Poor Questions and Common Mistakes

Q: What does your company do?

Q: Do you have job openings that I would want?

Q: Will you be on campus to interview this semester?

Q: Do you hire international candidates?

Q: Why would I not apply to your company?

Q: What is your typical starting pay?

Q: Can I stay in WNY? (when it’s clear in their descriptions where their company locations are)

  • Don’t confuse the company with its competitors or a company with a similar name
  • Don’t say you’re open to any opportunity they have; it makes you look desperate and unfocused
  • Don’t be more interested in the free samples than the conversation
  • Don’t attend the fair with a group of your friends; stay independent and focused

Follow Up is Key

Companies will have literature for you to take, but plan to also write notes that will remind you of your conversation with a particular recruiter. Before moving on to the next table, write down what you want to remember about that company, what the next steps are in its process and what follow up you plan to do. Try to get the business card of the representative with whom you spoke.

When conducting follow-up (either through email or telephone calls) remind the recruiter when and where you met, thank the recruiter for your conversation and for educating you on specific aspects of his or her company, and remind him or her of who you are and why you are a strong candidate. Make this targeted and specific (no mass emailing) to everyone you met. Make this purposeful and professional.

Ideally, from a fair you learn more about what recruiters expect, more about specific companies and opportunities, and also gain a greater sense of self and confidence about your candidacy. Always reflect on the experience and how you can capitalize from that event afterwards. Follow up. Even if the company is not exactly what you want, you might be able to conduct informational interviewing and at least learn more about the career field and industry. What you get out of the event is directly related to the effort you devote to it. Good luck!