Working the Room at a Career Fair


Nonprofit career fairs can be an excellent opportunity to learn about job opportunities and meet staff from hiring organizations. However, jobseekers should do some preparation before attending any career fair to ensure that they make a good impression!

By the end of 2008, Commongood Careers will have participated in over one hundred career fairs across the country. To date, we have met thousands of nonprofit jobseekers, some who have impressed us and others who have left us underwhelmed.  Based on this experience, we’ve prepared a set of tips to help jobseekers gain valuable information, make important connections, and create positive impressions with hiring organizations at career fairs.

1. Prepare a scouting report: Before arriving at a career fair, set aside some time to visit the web site of the career organizer. Idealist.org, a nonprofit resource that organizes a national series of career fairs, lists the names and web sites of every organization that attends their fairs. For organizations that interest you, read the mission statements and learn about their programs. Jot down some notes and prepare one or two questions if you’d like to hear more about a given nonprofit.

According to Meg Busse, Director of Nonprofit Career Transitions Program at Idealist.org, there are a number of ways jobseekers can prepare in advance.

“Just as you’d never walk into an interview without researching the organization, don’t show up at a career fair without having reviewed the list of organizations in attendance and selected a few to research more in-depth. Conduct an Internet search to find out who is on staff at any organization that interests you, and check to see if you have any personal connections.”

2. Visit your short list
: After you research what organizations will be at the career fair, prioritize your list of favorite organizations and make visiting those organizations your top priority. This will save you time and keep you focused. Being focused at a career fair communicates confidence and direction. Aimlessly meandering around a room reflects confusion and self-doubt.

Do not plan on papering the career fair with your resume. Bring only a couple of resumes for a few select organizations. This will help you bring a focused attitude. If you know you are already planning to apply to an opening posted on one of your targeted employer’s web sites, craft your resume to match the qualifications of the position and bring it along (but don’t forget to also apply as instructed in the job description; you don’t want your application to get lost in all the paper of a career fair!).

3. “To thine own self, be true”: When visiting an employer booth, a representative may ask you about your career interests. Be prepared to give a thoughtful answer. You don’t have to know exactly what your career goals are, but be prepared to articulate your interests. Take stock of your values and motivations, and use this information to craft a personal “elevator pitch” in advance. Because hiring decisions are rarely made on the spot at a nonprofit career, working on a fluid personal pitch at a career fair can prepare you for actual in-person interviews.

4. Be confident … but check your ego at the door: An approach that will surely derail your credibility with an organization at a career fair is to be overconfident about your skills and experiences. Employers want to meet competent jobseekers who are interested in making a contribution and being team players, not those who are egocentric and arrogant. 

To make a great first impression, start off by maintaining a positive, enthusiastic attitude. Smiling, making eye contact and projecting genuine excitement will not only demonstrate your interest, but will also communicate soft skills like friendliness and approachability.

Finally, listen actively and make a connection with the organization’s representative. According to Kasey Gagnon, Recruitment and Events Manager at Commongood Careers, passively listening to an organization’s pitch can translate to disinterest. ”It is very obvious to an organization representative when you have tuned-out and only want to talk about yourself and your experiences. Listen actively by asking a few brief questions that are relevant to the information that the representative is telling you. Having nothing constructive to add to the conversation can make the interaction go south very quickly. We want to know that you have understood what we have told you. If you are able to connect the information back to why you may be interested in our work, we will be impressed.”

5. Mingle with your peers: Representatives from organizations are not the only people at career fairs who are valuable sources of information. Because career fairs attract attendees with a diversity of backgrounds and experiences, chances are there are peers in the room who could be helpful in your search. Strike up conversations with fellow jobseekers and practice your elevator pitch some more. Be friendly and welcome other jobseekers into your conversation with the organization’s representative. However, if the table is crowded, be respectful and don’t jump into conversations already going on.

6.  Manage the clock
: Organizations have a lot of people to meet during the course of a career fair. Being aware of this simple fact can help a jobseeker not overstay his/her welcome at an organization’s table.

“Just as attendees are anxious to get information and then move on to the next organization on their short list, staff members who are manning tables have a lot to manage. It’s not the time to go into your life story. Get the information, ask a brief but relevant question and then move on,” says Jocelyn Sherman, Commongood Careers’ Director of Recruitment and Partnerships.

Therefore, limit your time spent at a table to only a few minutes. Quality of time spent at a table trumps quantity of time. A short, smart, positive conversation will be most memorable.

7. Take advantage of career fair programming: Along with providing organizations a venue to recruit talent, many career fairs have informational programs for jobseekers scheduled into the day’s events. These programs may include panel discussions or tutorials on topics like effective resume writing. In addition to gaining information that will help in your job search, these programs provide opportunities to network in a smaller, more focused setting.

8. Remember names and follow up: When meeting an organization that interests you, do your best to remember the name of the representatives you meet. When appropriate, ask the representative for a business card. Then, write a note on the back of the card to help you remember them. Thank them by name on the spot, and follow up with an email with 24 hours. If you have any remaining questions, an email is a great avenue through which to ask them. Initiating this contact with an organization will help solidify you as a thoughtful and strong candidate in their memory. 

Smajl Cengic, Director of Career and Alumni Services at Year Up, agrees that follow-up is key.  “The most important phrase for a jobseeker who approaches our table at a career fair is relationship building.  If our recruiters walk away from the fair remembering something about a candidate, that person is much more likely to continue a relationship with Year Up.  The strongest candidates we meet engage us in real conversations and then follow up with an email referencing the conversation after the fair.” 

Conclusion

There is much more to career fairs than just showing up. Effectively working the room at a career fair requires knowing details about the organizations in attendance, as well as being able to talk about yourself and your interests with humility, confidence, and enthusiasm. Being mindful of these tips will help you stand out among all the other attendees. 


This article was written by Commongood Careers and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

For more information about nonprofit and socially entrepreneurial careers, visit Commongood Careers at http://www.commongoodcareers.org