How to attend a job fair

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a) Register.
b) Walk in.
c) Start talking.

Ah, if only it were as easy. I’ve been to a few job fairs in recent months, both as a recruiter for my company and as a reporter. I admit I’ve been surprised and at times appalled at the lack of skill, decorum and brains among some of the job candidates.

I could more easily excuse the jobseekers at the job fair for veterans I attended in Chicago; ex-soldiers aren’t adequately trained for civilian job hunting, a fault I lay at the feet of their former employer, the military. And boy, did they try. I saw soldier after soldier work up the nerve to approach a recruiter and blurt out a request for an application. Some managed to strike up animated conversations. Almost all were dressed in neat, clean clothing. And every jobseeker should take lessons in posture from a Marine.

Then there was the publishing job fair my company’s HR department sent me to a month ago. It was held at an Ivy League university’s graduate journalism department. The participants of the job fair had just completed a summer course–a sort of finishing school for recent grads interested in the publishing biz.

These women–and they were all women–were nothing if not prepped. True, they were seeking work in an industry notoriously difficult to break into. But they (well, their parents) had just paid for the finest career-prep program money could buy. Almost all had undergrad degrees from the nation’s most prestigious schools. Many appeared to come from highly educated, highly accomplished families.

Yet a few alarming trends emerged. The ones who approached me expressed keen interest in reporting jobs at TIME magazine. Yet not a one carried any clips (our calling card in this biz). None could name a section of the magazine, despite professing to have read it since childhood. Few exhibited any knowledge of widely reported news about our publication, such as our recent redesign or our new managing editor. When asked what beat they were most passionate about, they responded vaguely: “oh, arts”…”politics, or maybe fashion”…”beat? What’s a beat?” All took my business card, but only one followed up.

(But the worst job-fair etiquette boo-boo happened at the booth next to mine. I overheard this exchange:
Interviewer from Time Inc.: “If you had your pick, at which magazine would you most want to work?”
Interviewee: “Vanity Fair.” Vanity Fair is owned by Condé Nast.)

Now, I’m not a hiring manager, as I made clear to all the candidates, but I’m a conduit to one. The one candidate who stood out to me–the one who appeared calm, professional, eager, trained, and, overall, a good fit for our unique culture–I heartily recommended to the chief of reporters, who promptly had her in for a real interview.

Still not convinced? Here are some words of advice for attending a job fair, from Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University’s College of Business Administration:

How to prepare for a job fair:

• Prepare to sell yourself. Have an “elevator” pitch ready to introduce yourself positively to employers and to quickly give them the headlines of who you are, what you are looking for and what makes you unique.

• Prepare to present the best first impression. Wear your best business attire. A professional, conservative business suit is appropriate; exercise good personal hygiene; avoid heavy fragrances and flashy attire.

• Prepare by educating yourself on the companies. Review the list of participating companies; research each company, know what they do, who their customers are, what types of positions they are hiring for and any recent issues that have been in the press. Differentiate yourself from others by being knowledgeable about the company.

• Prepare by having an event strategy. Don’t start at the first table by the door and work your way around the room; you may spend more time waiting in line and miss the companies you most need to see. Prioritize the companies you need to see and focus on meeting with those on the top of your list. Quickly scope the room to see if a top priority company has no line or a very short one, but be willing to wait for those most important to you.

• Have an ample supply of your resumé. Make sure it is perfect – no typos. Hand out your business card as well.

• Follow-up is critical. Help them remember you by sending a polite, professional thank you note within 24 hours of the event. Thank them for their time. Let them know what interested you from your conversation. They met many students that day so help them remember you, my personal preference is sending a handwritten note so you don’t get lost in their long list of e-mails.

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