5 Things Recruiters Wish You Knew About Career Fairs


If you think career fairs are intimidating, you’re definitely not alone. In a recent survey of AfterCollege users, 26.1% said they’d never even attempted to go to one, and 38.5% said career fairs were too crowded and they couldn’t talk to the companies they were interested in.

We get it—you’re in a room full of people who have the power to make a decision that’ll influence the rest of your life (i.e. whether or not to hire you). No presh.

Seriously, though. You already know this is a high-stakes situation and it can feel like everything is out of your hands, but there are actually a few things YOU can do to improve your chances of making a connection and impressing your recruiter.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with a handful of recruiters from a range of industries including multinational corporations, non-profits, and federal agencies. They may recruit for very different types of jobs, but their descriptions of career fair experiences were all surprisingly similar. Here are a five little nuggets o’ wisdom I picked up from our discussion.

1. Your Appearance is a Reflection of Your Attitude

Yes, recruiters know you’re in college, and you’re not a bazillionaire, so you can therefore not afford a super swanky suit or shoes made out of solid gold. But that doesn’t mean that you should come to a career fair dressed in whatever sweats and T-shirts were closest to you when you rolled out of bed. Remember all that stuff that your kindergarten teacher taught you about how looks don’t matter and it’s what’s on the inside that counts? Yep, she was lying.

It’s not so much that recruiters are judging you based on what you’re wearing, but taking the time to put some thought into your appearance shows them that you care about impressing them. On the other hand, a sloppy appearance shows recruiters that you’re probably not taking your job search too seriously.

So don’t worry about buying an expensive new outfit. Just make sure that your clothes are clean and professional (e.g. no booty shorts or tank tops), and your hair and makeup are neat and tasteful. Also, avoid perfumes and body sprays. Sadly not everyone finds the scent of “Sex Panther” to be as irresistible as you do, and you want to be leaving the recruiter with your résumé and the desire to follow up with you—not a giant headache.

2. Listening is More Important Than Speaking

Sure, recruiters want to get to know you. They want to hear about your studies, your interests, and your aspirations, but remember that they have an agenda of their own.

Recruiters generally have a very well-defined idea about which majors, departments, and personality traits are the best match for their open positions. Start the conversation by asking them about this, and (this is the really important part) genuinely listen to what they have to say.

Do you match the criteria that they’re outlining? If so, great! Then you can talk about yourself and your qualifications. If not, thank them for their time and move on.

A few recruiters I spoke to emphasized this point—they want to be polite and they don’t want to hurt your feelings, so instead of telling you they’re not interested, they’ll just continue to describe who they are looking for and hope that eventually you’ll get the hint. Don’t be that guy. Start by listening and you’ll cut down on awkward moments all around.

3. Try Not to Take Rejection Personally

Let’s say you forgot to heed the point above, or maybe you did heed it and you found out that you’re not what that particular company is looking for. Do you:

a) end the conversation abruptly and walk away in a huff

b) continue to talk with the recruiter and attempt to argue the case of why they should hire you anyway

c) politely end the conversation, thank the recruiter for their time, and maybe recommend that company to a friend or classmate who matches their criteria

I hope that the answer is pretty friggin’ obvious here, but just in case it’s not, go with C.

Again, keep in mind that recruiters generally know exactly what they’re looking for. And if you’re not the person they want, it’s not about the recruiter disliking YOU as a person. It’s about your major, your skills, and the positions they’re looking to fill. There is someone else out there who would LOVE to hire someone just like you. You just might need to work your way through a few more booths (or a few more career fairs) to find your match.

Most recruiters know that it’s hard to hear that you’re not what they’re looking for, and they’ll try to tell you this as gently and politely as possible. If you end up with a rare meanie, just say “thank you for your time” and move on.

4. You Have to Fight Your Own Battles

Did you have a good conversation with a recruiter at a career fair? Participate in a job interview that seemed to go well? Send out a cover letter and not hear back? No matter what your experience was with a company, remember that you are the person applying for the job.

It sounds obvious enough, but one recruiter mentioned that she’s often contacted not by the job applicant but by his or her parents. This is bad in so many ways. Does it mean that you’re not mature enough to fight your own battles? That your parents are more interested in your career than you are? That your future employer should be prepared to answer to your parentals on a regular basis? Whatever it is, you don’t want to give this impression to recruiters.

Politely ask Mom and Dad to stay out of your job search and not meddle with potential employers. There are plenty of ways that they actually can help you in a more productive way. We cover some great ideas for getting them involved in this post.

5. Recruiters Are People, Too

All the things that you find uncomfortable about career fairs (the crowds, the stuffy rooms, the awkward conversations) are uncomfortable for recruiters, too.

Be conscientious about things like personal space (don’t stand so close to me), hygiene (mints and deodorant are your friends), and etiquette (don’t monopolize someone’s time, especially if there’s a long line of people waiting to speak to him or her).

If you’re sick, tired, or stressed, seriously consider sitting this event out. You should have plenty of opportunities to meet employers at their info sessions, one-on-one interviews, or through your student groups and associations. (Be sure to check out the “Events” section on AfterCollege to find out what’s coming up in your school and department.)

It can feel like everything in your life depends on the hour or two that you spend at a career fair, but try not to think of it that way. Career fairs are just one part of the job search, and you’ll have tons of other opportunities to meet potential employers and get your foot in the door.

At the same time, making a good impression with a recruiter is never a bad idea. So keep these lessons in mind and they’ll be much more willing to send you to the next stage of the application process.

Good luck!

Homework time! Pick out your go-to career fair outfit. If you need a few ideas for looks that are professional (and that you might be able to create with items that are already in your closet), check out our Pinterest board.


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