There are a lot of ways to go about looking for that dream internship, but few are as effective and time-worthy as a career fair. If your school is a big one, it probably has one; if not, there’s probably a big school within 50 miles (if not, you need to move).
This article was originally published in September of 2011. I’ve gone through and updated a bunch of sections with knowledge I’ve acquired since then.
Career fairs are a freaking gold-mine of networking opportunities, and they are easily the best place to look if you’re seeking an internship or job with a larger company.
However, you can’t just waltz willy-nilly in to a career fair. Not being prepared is a recipe for failure, and failure is for tools.
Unfortunately, I see far too many students attend career fairs like complete dumb-asses; they go dressed like they just rolled out of bed, don’t prepare at all, and lack any enthusiasm or self-confidence. They haven’t worked to make sure their personal brand fits their career goals. Heck, they don’t even know what a personal brand is.
“Not being prepared is a recipe for failure, and failure is for tools.” – Tweet This
Don’t be one of those students. You’re better than that, right? Follow these career fair tips, and you’re sure to catch the eyes of recruiters.
Prepare for Battle
Oh, don’t pretend like you don’t know; internship-seeking is an all-out war. There are a limited amount of internships, and a seemingly never-ending torrent of desperate students willing to sing, dance, and do anything else to get them. You have to sing and dance the best if you want to succeed.
The first step to doing this is preparing, which should ideally be done before the career fair. In fact, it’s pretty hard to do any other time. Thorough preparation will not only make you look better on the outside, but it’ll also make you more confident on the inside. Don’t skip it.
Get a Suit and Make Sure It Fits
Nothing makes a recruiter groan more than being approached by some sloppy doofus wearing cargo pants and a Metallica t-shirt. If you dress like this, you’re screwed.
It doesn’t matter if you can stand on your head and literally spit quarters all day long; if you’re dressed like a tool, you might as well be holding a sign that says “HERP DERP I CAN HAZ JAUB?”
Your outward appearance is part of the impression you make on people, and it taken as a reflection of your inner qualities.
So get a suit.
You don’t need to go crazy and buy an Armani; indeed, you can look damn sharp for around $200 – maybe even less if you’re thrifty. I got mine at Kohl’s with shoes for around that price.
If even that price is too steep for you, try these other avenues to procure your threads:
- If you’re the same size as your dad/grandpa/uncle/whatever, see if you can borrow a suit from them. If you’re borrowing from a member of an older generation, be ready to rock a retro look with pride.
- See if you can borrow a suit from someone attending the career fair on a different day or time than you. Expanding on this, you could even go halvsies on a suit with a friend – though this could backfire if you end up with scheduling conflicts. I reserve this option as a last-ditch effort.
- Check thrift stores for suits still in good condition. You just might find a diamond in the rough. Around here, Goodwill suits are around $30 – a price even a drunk raccoon could afford.
- Your school may even have a suit rental program. If it does, make sure to hit it up early so you can beat all the other chumps to the punch. Nothing sucks more than having to get a loaner that’s two sizes too small.
Hopefully you can go with a method in which you end up owning the suit, though.
When you buy your suit, it might cover you, but that doesn’t mean it actually fits. That’s because suits are sold to fit you specifically. They don’t come automatically fit to your specific measurements and body type, which means you need to go get it tailored.
Don’t worry – tailoring doesn’t cost all that much. As long as your pants fit alright, you usually only need to get the jacket tailor, and that should only run you $25 or so.
Getting your suit tailored will make it fit you nicely and accentuate your body. Neglecting to get your suit tailored will result in it looking like an expensive tarp.
Worried about your actual body not looking good in the suit? Tailoring will help you no matter your body type, but I won’t pull any punches here – being fit definitely leaves a better impression on people you meet (and not just at career fairs).
Besides offering the standard health benefits, getting into shape will improve your dealings with people you meet drastically. Not sure where to start? Check out my podcast episode on hacking fitness to get started.
Go to Pre-Career Fair Networking Events
The career fair itself often isn’t the only event going on that can get you schmoozing with recruiters. Many professional clubs will hold pre-career fair events for their members or for students in particular majors, and your school may even sponsor college-wide events such as networking breakfasts.
Pay attention to announcements and make sure to mark your calendar for all events that pertain to you. You’ll also want to check with your school’s career center to get more information on these events and to figure out how to best take advantage of them.
Make Your Resume Stand Out…
…like a Kobe beef steak on a plate full of McDonald’s cheeseburgers.
Your resume is a snapshot of your entire professional life. At a career fair, it’s like the bow tie on a tux; you’ll look like noob without it. It’s not enough to just have a resume, though; your resume needs to be tailored to perfection.
First step – get that thing reviewed. So many people just slap together their resume and don’t give it a second thought. You really need to think about the information you’re putting down, how it looks, and who will be reading it.
You also need to sweat the details. I could write several articles about resumes, but I simply don’t have time; therefore, I’ll just start you out with a few tips:
- Leave your high school off of it.. Seriously, no one cares. The only exception to this is if you’re a freshman and don’t have much college experience to list.
- When you list your work experience, talk about your accomplishments rather than your duties. If you can quantify something you did, rather than just regurgitate what you were simply expected to do, you’ll look like a badass.
- Tailor your resume for the job you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a job or internship in your major, emphasize experience in that field – even if it was unpaid or volunteer experience. It’s totally cool to put club or volunteer experience above your work history if it’s more relevant. You should always be thinking about what you want a recruiter’s eye to hit first. It’s much better for her to see some great volunteer experience you had than your part-time job at Crazy Joel’s Coffee Shack.
- Pay attention to the details. Make damn sure there aren’t any typos or awkward-looking sections on your resume. Having a typo on your resume is like walking around with poop on your forehead.
Also, you’re free to take a look at my resume if you want some inspiration. Don’t worry if you don’t have as much stuff – it’s the sections and format you should take inspiration from.
You may think you’ve got an eagle eye, but guess what… you probably don’t (I didn’t either). That’s why you should definitely get your resume reviewed. Go to your school’s career office and make an appointment with your career counselor. They’re the experts, and they’ll make sure your resume shines.
Next step – print your resume on linen paper. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s worth it. Linen paper has a nice, premium texture that looks and feels almost woven. It’s also got a creme-colored hue that looks a lot nicer than regular white paper. Finally, it’s thicker than white paper, so when that recruiters starts thumbing through his stack of resumes, yours will feel different and stick out. Science, bro.
Lastly, put your resumes in a classy padfolio. Don’t be like that L-7 weenie who carries around his resumes in an orange paper folder from Wal-mart. You need a padfolio – you know, one of those slick, black leather folders that give you instant street cred. You can get them at your school’s bookstore for around $20-$30, and you might even be able to rent them from your career center.
Oh, and one more thing – you can get a huge leg up by listing your personal website on your resume. Don’t have one? Learn how to build one.
Make Some Sweet-Ass Business Cards
Now that you’ve read that entire section about resumes, allow me to piss you off.
It’s a growing trend that most recruiters won’t accept a paper resume at the career fair, and will instead ask you to upload one to their company’s website.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t bring resumes, as they’ll often ask to look at a copy while they’re talking to you.
However, this trend makes it so you can’t count on your resume to leave a lasting impression. How memorable is a file on some company server named “Joe-Blow-Resume.docx”?
Naw, dawg – you need some business cards. A recruiter might not take your resume, but he’ll almost always swap business cards with you if you impress him and express interest in following up.
Not just any business card will do, however. As someone who works at a career center and gets handed a lot of cards, I’ll be the first to tell you that most people have business cards that are…. well, I’ll just be blunt: trash magnets.
Seriously, most business cards suck big hard rotten eggs. They’re all just these plain white, square-edged cards with some contact information in black Times New Romain and a low-res company logo. You can do better.
Make business cards with purpose. Take the time to craft a card that people will want to keep – if only because it looks badass. Pay the little bit extra it takes to get full-color, double-side, rounded-corner beauties. I get mine from Moo, and they’re amazing (and still pretty cheap). Give yourself a cool title. Include a picture of yourself. Need an example? Check out my business card design tutorial.
Caveat – if you’re a freshman and don’t really have any work/project experience, I wouldn’t make business cards just yet. As some readers have pointed out, handing out a business card that reads “Caleb Schmidt, Freshman in Business” makes you look like a douche. Wait until you have some real experience or skills to offer to make your cards.
Oh, and in case you didn’t catch the subtext, that means you should start seeking experience ASAP. Get an on-campus job related to your major, join a club, or start a personal project. Do SOMETHING outside of class.
Do Your Freakin’ Research
Walking up to a company you know nothing about is like asking a girl out without Facebook stalking her first (somewhat shaky analogy). Fire up the internetz and figure out what the company does and what people in your intended role do. Take notes and keep them in your padfolio or on your phone. Ideally, you’ll hit the career fair with a cheat sheet full of info on the companies you’re interested in.
“Research companies before you talk to their recruiters.” – Tweet This
Want to be extra super badass-level prepared before you hit the career fair? Sign up for my newsletter and you’ll get free access to my toolbox of personal branding resources for students. Besides free business card templates, it also includes a comprehensive checklist of things you should be doing to build your personal brand.
Everything on the checklist will improve your chances at the career fair. Get access by signing up below:
Now, let’s move on to what you should do when you’re actually at the career fair.
Give ‘Em Hell
Alright, so all the preparations are made and you’re ready to waltz into the career fair like a smooth criminal. This is go time; all your preparation will be for nought if you don’t nail the actual interaction with recruiters.
Introduce Yourself Like You’re the Next Mark Zuckerberg
You can’t just walk up to a recruiter and say, “Hi, what do you guys do?” That’s likely to net you a nice big blank stare and some awkward silence to boot. Before you lead into talking/asking about the company and begging for a job, you need to introduce yourself.
This is where “knowing your elevator pitch” comes in; you should be able to smoothly and confidently deliver an introduction that includes your name, major, year in school, and why you’re interested in them. Only then should you start asking questions.
Practice on Companies You Don’t Care About
If you did the ground work before walking in the door, you’ll know what companies are there, and you’ll probably have a few in mind that you want to talk to . Don’t start with them.
Especially if this is your first time at a career fair, you need to get some practice talking to recruiters to make sure you’re comfortable. This is why you should “practice” on the companies you don’t really care about.
Walk around the boothes and look for one that’s not too busy. More often than not, the recruiter will look bored and will be playing with a pen or pretending to pick lint off of his pants.
This is what you want; a bored recruiter is a gold mine for practice. Walk up, introduce yourself, and let him know that you’re just looking to get some information about his company. At the very worst, you’re giving him some pleasant conversation.
If you’re truly not interested in working for that company, don’t act like you are; however, don’t burn bridges either. You never know if that’ll be the only call you get…
Write Everything Down
Knowing the names of the recruiters you spoke to is critical for following up smoothly. However, a long day full of introductions will leave you tired and prone to forgetfulness.
If you don’t write down a recruiter’s name, you’ll probably forget it sooner or later. Hell, I sometimes forget a person’s name 30 seconds after they say it to me. It’s just something you need to write down. So do it!
Work at the Career Fair
Odds are that whatever department is in charge of the career fair needs help, and they probably hire student ambassadors. Being a student ambassador at a career fair is a fantastic way to get more (and earlier) time talking to recruiters. Plus, they’ll get to see you actually working, which can help solidify their impressions of you.
Reap the Spoils
Create a Contact Database
If you followed the tips in the last section, you should have lots of business cards in your padfolio and names on your cheat sheet.
You should get all this information into a personal database, so you can organize your contacts and make it easier to find them in future. Use Address Book, Access, Excel – whatever. Just get it all organized so it’s easy to search through.
Reconnect With Your New Contacts
Call up recruiters you swapped business cards with and express your interest in an interview. Some (really only a few) may think it’s annoying, but most will silently take it as perseverance.
Snag an Interview. Get an Internship. Win.
It’s up to you now!
Bonus Tip: Be Martin Boehme.
Image credits: Suit photo