Keep in mind a few simple guidelines, and you can ensure that you’ll put your best foot forward at the career fair, and increase your chances for career fair success.

Research the fair.

Do you know where the fair is being held? Have you pre-registered? Do you know where to park?

Every career fair is different, so make sure you understand the type of fair you’re attending. Some fairs are meet-and-greet events only. You’ll have the opportunity to meet representatives from various employers, but you’ll have a very brief time to chat with them. Other fairs incorporate screening interviews. That means that you may get the chance to participate in a 30-minute interview on the spot at the fair.

Check whether you need to pre-register for the

Some fairs charge minimal fees to attend, which are ordinarily paid in advance. You might be able to register on site for these fairs, but the fees for on-site registration are typically much higher than if you had preregistered. Some fairs do not allow on-site registration, in which case you’ll be turned away at the door if you haven’t done your homework.

Make sure you understand the logistics of the

Is there parking available nearby? What about a place to buy food?  If you’re going to make a day of it at the fair, you’ll probably need someplace to buy a quick snack. And of course, that means that you’ll need to bring some cash with you. Go prepared!

Research the employers and the types of positions they
typically have available.

It’s crucial that you spend time learning about the employers who will be attending the fair. Take a look at each and every employer who will be in attendance. Don’t count out anyone based upon preconceived notions you may have. You never know what you’ll find, and you never know what types of positions may be available with the employers.

For example, you may think that if you’re looking for accounting positions you should limit your research to public accounting firms. But remember that all sorts of organizations need accountants.  Don’t dismiss governmental agencies, nonprofits, and all sorts of business sector employers.

After you’ve done some preliminary research, decide which employers you will focus on.  Prepare for meeting reps from these employers as you would for any interview. Learn as much about the organization as possible, so that you’re able to articulate why you believe you would be a good fit. Know enough so that you’re able to ask insightful questions.

You may not always be able to find out exactly which positions the employer is looking to fill, but you should be able to get an idea of what types of positions they usually have open.  If the employer doesn’t specify what positions are open, make sure that you can clearly articulate the type of position you’re looking for. And be sure that the employer you’re speaking with hires those types of positions.

Arrive early and get the lay of the land.

Many career fairs provide maps of the fair layout. Spend some time when you first arrive just plotting your course. Think back to the research you did, and make a plan for which employer table you will approach first. It’s usually a good idea to do a ‘practice run’ first.  That is, pick an employer you’re moderately interested in to speak with first. This will allow you to work out some jitters before you approach your dream employers. Use the map of employer booths to plot your course.

If there is an employer in attendance that you didn’t have a chance to research well, you may wish to causally wander past the booth. See if there is any literature you can pick up.  If so, take the literature out to the lobby and spend a few minutes reviewing it. Then later you can re-approach the table and have a more informed conversation with the representatives.

It’s always helpful to be early to a fair. You will get to interact with the representatives while they are still fresh. Also be aware that even when fairs are advertised to run until a certain time, sometimes employers pack up and leave early. In order to avoid missing your dream employer, and so that you avoid a last minute crush, plan to arrive at the fair as it is opening.

Prepare your ‘elevator speech’.

You don’t really need to be riding an elevator to give an elevator speech. An elevator speech is so named because it’s a brief introductory speech about yourself that you could give in the amount of time you’d typically share with someone in an elevator. (The concept comes from the idea that you should be prepared at any time to find yourself sharing an elevator with your boss’s boss. You should be prepared to introduce yourself and describe briefly what you do.)

In a career fair setting, your elevator speech is what you will give when introducing yourself to an employer representative. It should be brief and to the point. For example:  Hi, I’m Sue Smith, and I’m a senior Accounting major at Minnesota College. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work over the past few years, and I’m especially interested in combining what I’ve learned in my major with the social service work I’ve done outside of class. I was very excited to see that the United Way has openings for accountants, and I’d love to be able to talk about those openings with you.’

Your elevator speech tells who you are and what you’re looking for. Note that Sue Smith doesn’t say, ‘Hi. What kind of positions do you have available?’ Sue has done her homework, and knows where she’d like to fit within the organization. Remember that it’s your job to know what kinds of positions you’re interested in. Don’t shift the responsibility to the employer. She doesn’t have the time or the inclination to be your career counselor, and expects that you will have done this work prior to arriving at the fair.

If the employer hasn’t listed the positions they are hiring for, you should still provide information about the type of position you’re looking for. Your research will pay off big time, so be sure that you’re prepared for the fair well in advance.

Don’t fill your pockets with give-aways.

Sure, the brightly colored plastic toys look fun. And who couldn’t use a few extra pens?  But resist the temptation to grab the give-away off of every booth you pass. Do you really need the tri-colored highlighter so much that you’re willing to risk looking like a desperate kleptomaniac? This isn’t the county fair, it’s a professional event. And if you’re walking around with a bag full of stress balls and bag clips, you’re not looking very professional.

Your focus should be on interacting with the representatives at the booths. Of course, if you’ve had a conversation with the representative and she has offered you a give-away, you should feel free to accept. However, aside from that, leave the trinkets where they are, focus on your handshakes and your ‘elevator speech,’ and make a stop at the Dollar Store on the way home to stock up on the goodies you missed at the fair.

Think of the fair as a networking extravaganza and follow up with employers that especially interest you.

Regardless of whether you have the opportunity to do a screening interview at the fair, plan ahead to follow up with the employers you meet. Drop off your resume with employers that interest you, if appropriate, and be sure to get a business card from the employers you’ve spoken with. Set aside a few hours on the day after the fair to work on your follow-up correspondence.

Even if you’ve already given the employer a copy of your resume, follow up by sending another copy. The resume should be accompanied by a cover letter reminding the employer of your interaction at the fair. Use this as a chance to re-emphasize any important points from your conversation, and to introduce new information that you didn’t have a chance to discuss at the fair. If the employer requires you to complete an online application, do that in advance, and mention in your letter that you’ve completed this step.

Career fairs can seem time consuming, but they are a wonderfully efficient way of meeting many employers in the course of a few hours. If you plan ahead, do your research, and take the time to follow up afterward, you can make career fairs work for you.

Kimberly Betz is the Director of Career Development
at the College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, Minn.