How to Hack a Career Fair – Secrets from an HR Specialist

I work in HR. I usually joke to people that I’m an “HR Specialist by day, lifestyle blogger by night.” Many people think of HR workers as being pretty straight-laced, non-creative, serious types. In many respects, we are. Department of Labor regulations and state and federal laws govern our actions and the counsel that we give to managers, employees, and directors. (Speaking of the Department of Labor, a new rule on Overtime regulations was recently released that I intend to write about in a later post…)

However, when we’re off the clock, HR people are some of the most interesting folk I know. I design and sew handmade lingerie for fun, a fellow coworker in my department raises honeybees, another runs obstacle-course marathons for fun, and yet another sings in a traveling choir. I’ve learned a lot working in this field, and I want to share the knowledge that I’ve gained with my readers.

In this blog post, I’ll be giving you five no-nonsense pieces of advice for career fairs. I’ve worked for 2 years in HR, I’ve been to numerous fairs, and I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many, many candidates. I want to teach you how to present yourself in a way that ensures your greatest potential for success.

1. Arrive early. If that’s not possible, come within the first hour of the job fair.

That’s when the recruiters have the most energy to greet you, answer all of your questions, and give you the insider knowledge that you need about the company’s hiring process. If the advertised hours are 10 am – 2 pm, arrive between 9:45 am and 11 am. Arrive early, but do not approach the recruiters until the fair officially starts – they may still be setting up their displays. If you arrive to a career fair towards the end of the event, you risk not being able to meet with the recruiter you want to speak with. Many of these HR professionals have to return to work after the event. A recruiter may have a conference call or a meeting they need to attend afterwards. Don’t arrive at 1:45 pm for a job fair that ends at 2 pm.

2. Observe the recruiters.

Arriving early gives you the chance to walk around the room before it becomes too crowded with other jobseekers. Observe the booths and listen to the chitchat going on around the room. What are the recruiters saying? You may be surprised at what your ears may pick up! Companies usually send employees in pairs to run a career fair table – it’s only natural that they will talk to each other about work. What are the recruiters talking about? This is a tiny sneak peek into the culture of the organization that you may not get otherwise. Are the recruiters complaining about their job in between talking to candidates? Are they checking their work email obsessively and do they seem stressed? Are they laughing – do they seem relaxed and as if they genuinely are enjoying speaking with candidates? All of these are clues into what it’s truly like to work at the company you’re interested in. Aside from what’s being said, pay attention to what the recruiters wear. Most likely, they came from the office that day so their clothes may be indicative of the company dress code. Of course, take your observations with a grain of salt. The way the recruiters behave could be reflective of the personalities of the individuals more so than a reflection of the company they’re being sent to represent.

3. Do your research and have an agenda.

Know why you’re at the job fair and why you want to speak with the recruiters. There’s a great quote from one of my favorite shows, Being Mary Jane – “People can help you, but they’re not going to rescue you. Know the difference.” It is difficult for an HR professional to help you at a career fair if you don’t have specific questions. There’s nothing more frustrating to a recruiter than having a candidate shuffle up to the table and mutter, “Uh, so… what does your company do?” To an HR worker, a basic question like this shows that the candidate did no research whatsoever and lacks interest in the organization. We live in the information age. We have the internet. Use it! The day before the career fair type the name of the companies that will be at the fair into Google. Summarize, in one sentence, the mission of the companies that you’re most interested in. Write it down on a piece of paper to bring with you  to the fair. Then, write down at least one, targeted question. For example, “How is your company different from its competitors?” or “What do you love most about your company’s work environment?”  Questions like these give you an edge, differentiate you from other candidates, and – once you get the answer – give you insider knowledge that may not be available online. This is especially important because once you have an interview, you can whip out this knowledge to your advantage when answering questions.

4. Ask for business cards. Leave a business card. 

These days, fewer and fewer organizations accept resumes at career fairs. Recent labor regulations along with a nationwide move to online applications have made accepting resumes not only cumbersome but also risky for recruiters. After you’ve spoken to the recruiter and had your questions answered, ask if you can contact him or her later and request a business card. Then, 24-48 hours after the career fair, send a thank you email to the HR professional that you spoke with. If you’ve applied to a position, state this in your thank you note – it can be a simple line like, “Dear X, Thanks for answering my questions yesterday at the career fair. After speaking with you, I applied to the X position we spoke about. I look forward to hearing from you soon and can be reached at XXX-XXX-XXXX or [email protected].” I always forward thank you notes like this to the hiring manager who is in charge of selecting who to interview. I’ve been to countless job fairs and spoken to hundreds of candidates in the past two years, and I can count the number of thank you emails I’ve received on my two hands. Thank you notes really make a difference and help you stand out!

5. Final piece of advice: conduct informational interviews and grow your network instead!

Informational interviews are the new black. Job fairs used to be the major way companies would get new candidates, but they are slowly becoming outdated. As a jobseeker, you have the power to conduct an informational interview with anyone whose job or organization interests you. You’ve probably conducted a few informational interviews already without realizing it. Basically, an “informational interview” is when you meet with someone whose career you’re interested in and ask them questions about their job, their organization, and the company culture. You can get a lot of inside information about the company you’re interested in that way, learn how to tailor your resume to score an interview, and ask about questions that will be asked in the company’s interview. The Muse has great resources on how to ask someone for an informational interview, what questions to ask, and how to leverage this tool to your advantage.

My Networking Prep Guide will take the anxiety out of meeting new people at informational interviews and networking events. Prepare with this simple one-page worksheet. There’s a space for you to add your elevator pitch, questions to ask, and stories to spark conversations. It has been designed for you to be functional and easy-to-use, and it’s an editable PDF that you can edit right on your smartphone. Check it out here.Final Ad 1 Network Prep.pngNetworking Prep Guide, Editable PDF, Job Search Printable, Productivity Template, Networking How-To, Business Meet Up Conversational Guide

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