Are Career Fairs Worthwhile?

So your college career is winding down and you’re anxious about landing a job in your field, particularly one that justifies the enormous amount of time and money you invested in your degree. Then you find out about the career fair at the student center and you’re stoked … that is, until you get there. Turns out the career fair is a maze of booths and banners, a crush of fellow graduates clutching résumés, and a series of lines like you’re waiting for the best ride at Six Flags.

And you start to wonder, Can I really find a job this way?

Well … probably not. But does that mean it’s a total waste of time? Not if you like free pens with company logos on them!

But wait, there’s more. There are actually ways to make a career fair worthwhile, even if the odds of getting hired on the spot are about equal to landing a modeling contract while walking past a construction site. We spoke with Vicki Salemi, a career expert for hiring giant Monster.com, who shared the results of a recent Monster.com survey, as well as great strategies for making the most of your day at the career fair. You might not leave with a six-figure contract and a company car, but you can certainly take steps to improve your career prospects.

If nothing else, you’ll set yourself apart from all the other cattle at the marketplace.

Case the Joint

A career fair (AKA job fair, career expo, or job expo) is usually in a big room; think gymnasium, convention center, and airplane hangar. It can be hard to find what you’re looking for, especially if you don’t know what it is. Monster.com advises you to do reconnaissance before you show up. Ms. Salemi advises:

“Research companies that will be in attendance ahead of time. When you land face time with recruiters at their booth, specifically refer to open positions with requisition numbers and why you’re a fit. Mention something interesting you noticed on the company’s social media feeds. This will likely lead to a meaningful conversation in which you can leave a positive, lasting impression.”

While career fair organizers will try to sell you on the fact that they’ll have more than 100 employers collecting résumés, all you want is quality facetime with your Top Five. Create a Top 10 list, then adjust to avoid awful lines and compensate for disappointing conversations. Hopefully, at the end of the day, you’ve had five conversations. If two of them were meaningful, you’ve done great!

Prepare a Memorable Package

Perhaps the most valuable part of the career fair is the work you do before you show up. Now’s the time to get your résumé up to snuff. Update your information, refine your skills, and get rid of irrelevant work experience. Running the register for an Au Bon Pain in high school doesn’t count as international work experience, so get rid of fluff like that. If you really want to stand out, do more than just shore up your résumé. In most cases, when you apply for a job, you’ll lead with a cover letter. Consider approaching a job fair the same way. Now that you’ve researched the attending companies that interest you, reach out to each and see if you can learn the name and position of those attending the fair. Address each cover letter directly to one of these individuals and indicate that you’ve done so when you introduce yourself. You might also consider rounding out the whole package with a cool-looking business card. One word of warning: these days, many booths do not accept résumés and will simply direct you to an online application form or submission page. Don’t be frustrated. Now that you’ve developed some key materials, you’ll have a head start in the process.

Scout Prospective Employers

This may well be the most valuable part of going to a career fair. Truthfully, some employers show up just to showcase their brands. As Salemi explains, “Occasionally, companies may not have that many openings but go for marketing purposes because their competitors are going, so they need a presence.” But mere presence has value. Beyond its package of information, a company can reveal much by the way it presents its booth, by the disposition of its representatives, and by its style of engaging job hunters. If you get a bad vibe from a company’s booth, making a multi-year professional commitment may not be a great move. On the other hand, your career fair experience might enlighten you about a company on your list or about a company you might not have considered beforehand. You might gain additional insights into advancement, educational assistance, or professional development. Salemi shares, “Nearly 32% of graduates admitted they don’t know what job they want, so this career fair could be an opportunity to explore options by chatting directly with the company representatives.”

Build Your Network

You’ve probably heard that your job search is all about who you know. Well, it’s true. Your employment prospects (and your future career success) will depend on your ability to make contacts, create connections, and cultivate personal relationships. Salemi notes, “A top fear of 31.7% of graduates, based on the recent Monster survey, was that they don’t have the right network. This is the perfect opportunity to network with potential employers, while practicing ‘walking the walk’ and ‘talking the talk.’” It’s also a good way to collect business cards, compile contact lists, and target companies for follow-up phone calls and emails. If you treat this as a networking mission, rather than a job hunt, you could come away with valuable connections.

Take Advantage of the Low-Stakes Interview

Some day, possibly soon, you will give a cringeworthy reply during a job interview. We’re not trying to psych you out. It happens to everybody. If you’re lucky, you’ll burn through a few of those statistical likelihoods during a career fair, where the stakes are a lot lower. Salemi notes that “about 33% of graduates surveyed admitted their biggest fear was bombing the interviews, so face time could help you address your fears with potential employers in a different kind of setting.” Use this setting to practice your answers. Learn what works, what fails, and what results in awkward silence. Try out a few punchlines, but keep them clean. And most importantly, relax and be yourself. This is a dry run, so experiment with interview tactics. Make yourself memorable, or at the very least, try out a few different versions of the “where do you see yourself in five years?” response. Take mental notes so that when you’re in a real interview that actually matters, you’ll have some experience under your belt.

Beware the Sales Pitch

Career fair skeptics warn of an actual insidious element to the career fair. It may be free, but if you’re not careful, you could go home with new expenses. As prospective or recent college graduates, you are fresh meat to companies that make their bread off of hungry job hunters. But that’s not why you’re there. Be sure to distinguish between an organization that can actually help you land a job and one that just wants to sell you something. No matter what field you’re in, here’s a critical tip: jobs are supposed to pay you. Never pursue a job you must pay to get. It means something doesn’t add up.

Find Industry-Specific or Start-Up Events

A user discussion at Asktheheadhunter.com largely confirms that career fairs are not a great way to land a job. But users do note a few exceptions. Industry-specific career fairs may actually offer a more focused, intimate, and skill-driven recruitment atmosphere. Depending on your area of interest, you might consider joining a number of professional associations in your field. Reach out to members and learn from them about career fairs or other events in your field. Once you get your foot in the door, you may find specialized industries are small and personal. Industry-specific fairs can help you to enter into a network of other professionals with niche skills, or at least to gain a better understanding of these networks.

Keep Calm & Snag the Swag

Y’know, it’s not all about free pens. Some companies give away awesome key chains, bottle openers, or calendar magnets. If anybody is giving out a tote bag, stop there first and start collecting. What we really mean to say is, Have fun with this. If you don’t, it will be a frustrating waste of time. If at all possible, try to move from booth to booth without the stink of desperation. Not only can prospective employers smell it from a mile away, but you shouldn’t take this event so seriously. Hey, they wouldn’t call it a “fair” if it wasn’t supposed to be fun. Recruiters see all kinds of serious candidates. Stand out by maybe taking yourself a little less seriously. You can start by telling them how much you like their free stuff.

With all of that said, we still advise you to keep your expectations to a minimum. A career fair isn’t a good way to land a job these days, and we’re not entirely sure it ever was. But it doesn’t mean it’s destined to be a waste of time.

If there’s a career fair on your campus, or near enough to justify the fuel costs, it is a free event. I know it ain’t Shakespeare in the Park, but it’s something to do. And in all seriousness, if you take the steps above, a career fair could be a decent investment of your time. It may not score you a job, but it could help you prepare for the steps you’ll need to take on your way to one, from networking and résumé preparation to job scouting and interviewing without sounding anxious.

We won’t tell you not to go to a career fair. We’ll just say, Don’t go to one unprepared.

Survey methodology: Research findings are based on an online survey fielded by Research Now SSI, the global leader in digital market research data, on behalf of Monster. The survey was fielded April 11–15, 2018. It surveyed more than 350 college students expected to graduate in 2018, which included those graduating with a bachelor’s degree, vocational or technical degree, associate degree, master’s degree and doctoral or professional degree, between the ages of 18 and 26, and a nationally representative sample balanced on age, gender and region.

Photo Attribution: Public Information Office, City of Marietta, Georgia