Here’s a bit of career fair advice, from the other side of the table.
When to go – As soon as possible! The most prepared students start going to job fairs as freshmen. Establish relationships with recruiters, ask what classes you should take to be a good fit for their company in the future, etc. Come final semester of your senior year, it’s too late to sign up for those classes. A company with open roles will give you way better career advice than your career center; they know what is hot and marketable. In terms of fair day, also try to go as soon as possible. Recruiters are people too, and our energy is waning towards the end after speaking with hundreds of people.
What to do before hand – Read up on the companies! Most career fairs publish the list of attendees, or at least the sponsors, ahead of time. You better believe it that, “I’m interested in your company because of [specific breakthrough we produced]” impresses me way more than, “So what does your company do?” Show genuine and targeted enthusiasm.
What to wear – It’s best to dress just a smidgen better than the employees in an office usually dress. Start-up folks are often in t-shirts and jeans, in which case you should come to the interview in a button up and jeans or khakis. Some start-ups do wear button ups, in which case maybe you want to throw on a tie, as well. If you go in overdressed, however, it will usually signal that you are out of touch with company culture and can be points against you.
What to bring – Your resume! Some companies may require online applications so that they can stay organized. However, don’t come to a career fair empty handed. Many of us recruiters are “old fashioned” and love to take a paper resume to put a name to a face, as well as to reference it as we talk with you.
What to say – Keep it short and sweet, something like, “Hi, my name is [name] and I’m a [year] in [major]. I was interested in talking to because I read about [something specific in your company.] I’d love to hear more about what you look for in [role on their jobs site.]” From there, you can have a productive conversation about what they see in an ideal candidate, what you’ve done so far, and what you can either do to bridge the gap or apply right now. Keep in mind that at career fairs, recruiters talk to hundreds of people. While they’re interested in spending enough time with you to see if a follow up makes sense, they’re also tired, thirsty, losing their voices, and worried about showing the same courtesy to the people in line behind you. Present yourself well, but be cognizant of time.
Feel free to follow up! – If the employer does have business cards available, there’s no harm in thanking them for their time at the career fair. It will help set you apart from the rest of the crowd.