Follow these tips to make a great first impression at a job fair

Hundreds of job seekers check out the companies at an engineering job fair Sept. 30 at the McKimmon Center on the N.C. State campus in Raleigh. About 370 companies were talking to prospective job seekers. LinkedIn can be a great way to get to know a company’s gate-keepers and recruiters in advance. Before you walk into a job fair, prioritize who you’ll engage and do some informational interviews with people who work at the companies you’ve targeted.
Hundreds of job seekers check out the companies at an engineering job fair Sept. 30 at the McKimmon Center on the N.C. State campus in Raleigh. About 370 companies were talking to prospective job seekers. LinkedIn can be a great way to get to know a company’s gate-keepers and recruiters in advance. Before you walk into a job fair, prioritize who you’ll engage and do some informational interviews with people who work at the companies you’ve targeted.

If you meet with a corporate recruiter at a job fair booth without having a clue about the company’s business, you’ve already damaged your chances of being hired.

The problem is that you’ve already demonstrated that you arrived at the job fair unprepared. That’s not the kind of job candidate recruiters are seeking. Moreover, you can count on plenty of other job fair attendees having done their homework, giving them a leg up on you.

“The worst question you can ask is, what is it that your company does?” said John Hutchings, associate director of career development for N.C. State University’s MBA program for working professionals. “You should have already known that.”

Such innocent, but nonetheless significant, gaffes by job candidates are all too common at job fairs.

“You assume everybody knows the ins and outs of a job fair ... but some people don’t,” said Brooks Raiford, president and CEO of the N.C. Technology Association.

That’s why next week’s Come Tech Out the Triangle Job Fair – sponsored by NCTA, entrepreneurial support group CED and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce’s Work in the Triangle initiative – will feature a free workshop led by Hutchings. Its title: How to Be an Employer’s First Choice at a Job Fair.

The basic rules of engagement – or job fair etiquette, if you will – remain the same whether you’re a freshly minted graduate or a seasoned veteran of the workaday world. But expectations are greater for those with experience.

“I do think that the bar is higher ... for a professional person, because they’ve been around,” said Georgia Grant, director of human resources at fast-growing e-mail marketing company Bronto Software in Durham. “But more and more often, the competition at the collegiate level is pretty fierce. I find that these students are very impressive and very well-prepared. The students who aren’t prepared will really stand out.”

Bronto, which has more than 230 employees, is participating in about 10 job fairs this year.

“For us, that personal contact is very important,” Grant said. “I think you get way more from that face-to-face than (by interacting) over the computer.”

Job candidates need to make every second of that face-to-face meeting count. Although it can vary depending on the job fair and the particular employer, a conversation lasting several minutes may be all that’s available at the job fair itself. The goal is obtaining an invitation for a follow-up interview.

The News & Observer talked to corporate recruiters, career coaches and others about how to make a great first impression at a job fair. Here’s a list of recommended dos and don’ts.

Be prepared. Once upon a time, prospective job candidates at a job fair could just show up without doing a lot of homework beforehand. But the advent of the Internet and social media have changed the rules of the game.

Today, “two-thirds to three-fourths of your work ... happens before you get to a job fair,” Hutchings said.

That means researching the companies that will be at the job fair so you know what they do and where you might want to work. Even better, work your network – LinkedIn contacts can be especially helpful here – to do some informational interviews ahead of time with people who work at the companies you’ve targeted.

“Ideally,” Hutchings said, “when you show up at the job fair and you show up at the company’s booth, they go, ‘I know who you are. I was talking to so-and-so. I was looking to speak with you.’ ”

“That’s how you get in front of the pack,” Hutchings said. “That’s how you become an employer’s first choice. Because they know who you are. They’ve got familiarity with you.”

Dress professionally. Dress for a job fair just as you would for a job interview at a company’s office.

“It’s hard to believe, but sometimes you will find candidates that go to these things in their jeans and their tennis shoes and think it’s an informal affair,” said Kerry Ahrend, a Raleigh career and executive coach.

Sure, jeans will make you memorable – but the recruiters will remember you for all the wrong reasons.

“I can’t see ever going wrong with a man wearing a sport coat and tie and a woman wearing a professional suit” regardless of the type of job he or she is seeking, Hutchings said. “It just makes you impressive.”

Prioritize. Too many candidates just walk up to the first job fair booth they see and stand in line waiting to talk to a recruiter and hand them a résumé. Or they opt for the shortest line, thinking that they’ll go back later to the companies that are at the top of their list.

“The problem is, they may never get to see their No. 1 company,” Ahrend said.

Shawnice Meador, director of career and leadership services for working professionals at UNC-Chapel Hill’s MBA program, suggests ranking your five top prospective employers and hitting them first.

“I really think you should be very strategic and targeted,” Meador said. “Otherwise, you are going to run out of time.”

Prepare an “elevator speech.” You should be able to summarize, in a few broad strokes, what you bring to the table – your skills and accomplishments – and how they would be a great match for a particular company. (Here’s where your research about the company comes to the fore.)

It’s important to stress what you can do for the company, not what your career goals are.

“Remember, it’s all about them,” Meador said.

The tricky part is that these elevator speeches, or sales pitches, can sound scripted and contrived, said Kelly Sicina Welch, a Raleigh career coach and personal brand strategist.

“It should be just a few points. It should be conversational,” Welch said. “You want to feel comfortable. You want to make the recruiter feel comfortable, too.”

Résumés are important. Have copies of your résumé with you and give them to recruiters when you meet with them. Hutchings recommends “a tailored, custom résumé” for the employers you’ve targeted.

And be ready to talk about anything and everything highlighted in your résumé.

Ahrend, the career coach, recalls the time she was leading a workshop and one of the participants handed her a résumé in which he described himself as “a natural people motivator.”

When Ahrend asked him what he did to motivate the people on his team, he couldn’t think of a single thing. “Expect that something on your résumé is open for question,” Ahrend said. “If you say you are a natural people motivator and you can’t answer the question, you’ve just lost all credibility.”

Some job fairs allow job candidates to submit résumés in advance.

If that’s an option, take advantage of it, Meador said. It’s an opportunity to make a good first impression before you even arrive – and could lead to a more substantial interview at the job fair.

Be engaged. Asking questions – about the corporate culture, the reasons for the company’s growth, what they’re looking for in a job candidate – is a great way to demonstrate enthusiasm.

“When you get (the recruiter) talking, it’s an opportunity to be an engaged listener,” Welch said. “That’s always a great strategy.”

Be consistent. If recruiters are impressed by you, their next step could be checking out your profile on LinkedIn.

“Some people would argue that if you’re not on LinkedIn, you don’t exist,” Welch said.

Consequently, said Hutchings, you want to make sure that the skills and accomplishments you outlined in your résumé are consistent with your LinkedIn profile.

Accentuate the positive. “Never say anything negative about any of your experiences,” Grant said.

She’s interviewed candidates at job fairs who complain about how difficult their boss is, or how terrible their company is. But a candidate who talks negatively raises a host of troubling questions.

“Are you going to be difficult to manage?” Grant said. “Are you going to have other issues going down the road.”

Maintain your game face at all times. From the time you drive into the parking lot and get out of your car, you need to act professionally.

“Be on all the time,” Meador said. “Realize (recruiters are) watching all the time and making a judgment call on whether you’d be a good fit and worth bringing in for an interview.”

The wrong kind of behavior at any point could get you crossed off that list.

“If there are people in line who are ... exhibiting immature behavior, or people who are getting angry in line or people who are getting impatient, those kind of negative things will stand out,” Grant said.

Network! A job fair presents a great opportunity for networking.

“So much networking is done online these days,” Welch said. “A job fair is an opportunity to network face to face.”

And don’t limit that networking to the recruiters. Your fellow job seekers could well know about an opening that would be your dream job.

“Nowadays, you never know where your next job is going to come from,” Grant said.

Send a thank-you note. Yes, writing a recruiter afterward and thanking them for the opportunity to meet with them is a plus.

“I think a thank-you note makes you stand out over somebody else,” Ahrend said.“Too many people don’t write thank-you notes these days.”

You can also use that note as a vehicle for reiterating what makes you an outstanding candidate, she added.

Sending a thank you note by email is entirely appropriate in this day and age.

Obviously, you can’t send a thank you note unless you get the recruiter’s business card.

Grant said she always has her business cards with her when she’s recruiting at a job fair, but she only hands them out if she’s asked.

Consider it a litmus test.

“You are trying to distinguish yourself in a crowd of hundreds of people,” Grant said.