(This is the second part of my section on Career Fairs. Please read Part I if you haven't already.)
How to Prepare for a Career Fair
Register for the Career Fair. Some career fairs require you to register before you can attend, and others don't. Make sure you look into this in advance. You may also need to pay a fee if you aren't a member of the sponsoring organization or the primary target audience. In addition to registration, some college career fairs will make the resumes of all attendees available to the companies hiring. Find out if this is the case, and make sure to submit your resume before the deadline.
Update Your Resume. If you don't have a resume, make one now. I'll be writing later on about how to write a good resume, but there are a lot of resources online and at your school's career center to help you get started. Before going to a career fair, make sure that everything on your resume is up to date. Double check your contact information, which should include your full name, email address, mailing address (both permanent and local if you are a student), and phone number. Make sure your most recent work experience is included and any honors or awards your have received are there. Also, make sure that your objective statement matches up with the type of job you're looking for.
Research the Companies. You should be able to get your hands on a list of the companies attending the career fair in advance. Some career fairs are more organized than others, and will include details with each company stating what majors they are targeting, what experience levels, and what positions are open. Others will give you a long list of companies that isn't even alphabetized. In the worst case scenario, you'll have to dig around various announcements for the companies that they're highlighting and try to piece together a list yourself. Don't be afraid to contact the event organizer if you can't find a list.
Research the Companies. (It bears repeating.) Visit the website of each company and take notes. I like to print out the list of company names and highlight them. Use one color for companies that aren't related to your field, one for companies that are in your field and you would love to work for, and another color for companies that are tangentially related or are in your field but you're uncertain about working for them. This will help you prioritize your time at the career fair. If the lines are long and you only have two hours, you want to spend them with the companies that are most likely to offer you a job and that you would be most excited to accept a position from. Spend your time researching the companies you're really interested in in more detail. Get a sense of their overall size, the scope of their work, some of their recent projects/products, their office locations and their history. It may seem like a lot of work, and to some extent it is, but it really pays off to know who you're talking to.
Write Cover Letters. I like to write cover letters for all of the companies in my high priority category. This serves a variety of purposes. For one, having a cover letter tailored to the company tells the recruiter and anyone they pass your resume on to that you knew who they were going in, you were interested in them, and that you were willing to make a special effort to reach out to them in particular. It also helps to cement the details of the company in your mind and mentally prepare a few talking points. Thirdly, if you have cover letters for your highest priority companies then you know you won't forget to talk to them because until you do you're carrying that cover letter around. What should the cover letter include? It should explain what you like about that company in particular, how you specifically can meet their needs and fit in well with their culture, and it should explain anything that doesn't fit on your resume. For instance, I added a second major halfway through my junior year. When I went looking for a summer job in that major I knew that my resume looked misleading. I was really only a freshman as far as coursework in that major was concerned, but my graduation date made me look much farther along. I used cover letters for that career fair to explain that and to explain how some of the skills I had picked up from my first major would apply to this new field.
Prepare Your Clothes. A suit is your best bet, and failing that you should get as close to a suit as possible. For men that's dress pants, a button-down dress shirt, and a tie. If it's cold you can wear a nice sweater over that, but a tie is really a must. For women, a tie isn't necessary but you should wear dress pants or a professional looking skirt (nothing too short) and a dress shirt or blouse. Get a hair cut if you need one and make sure that you have everything you need to appear clean cut. Men should generally be clean shaven, and women should wear a small amount of make-up. (I actually think it's really silly that men aren't supposed to have facial hair if they are looking professional, but it's still the industry standard in most places so it isn't worth the risk of offending a recruiter.)
Print Your Resumes. Use nice paper. It should be white, beige, or light gray, and a little heavier than regular paper. If you go into any office supply store they will have a section with resume paper. Many people will print their resumes on regular white multi-use paper, and having your resume on something a little bit different helps your resume stand out in the pile. You should have at least one copy for every company on your top priority list and one for every company on your maybe list. (The maybe list is the one that includes tangentially-related fields and companies that are relevant but you're not super excited about.) You should also bring along some extras in case there are last minute additions to the list, a recruiter asks for a second copy of your resume, or you find out that a company you didn't think you were interested in actually does have positions open in your field. You absolutely do not want to run out of resumes.
Double-Check the Date, Time, and Location of the Career Fair. And then triple-check it. Seriously. I've seen people come into class in a suit only to find out that the alumni association career fair was twenty minutes north of campus and they didn't have a car, or wear heals only to realize that the career fair was in a gymnasium and you were required to wear flats to avoid damaging the floors. Make sure you read through all of the information and requirements several times so you don't miss anything. Last minute realizations and changes of plans will put you off your game and you won't appear as confident and pulled together as you want to.
Keep your eyes open for Part III of this series, which will explain what to do once you get to the career fair.
This is part of my Career series. For the full series of Career posts, check out the Career section of my blog.