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Career fairs, like networking, can be a nebulous term for students. What do you actually do at a career fair? How can it help you on your career journey? Who can attend and how do they prepare?
2021 alum Kathy Huynh was a skeptic but, after being encouraged to attend her first-ever career fair, is now a believer. She explains why she’s a strong proponent for college career fairs and offers a student’s perspective on the whole experience. The Hub’s Recruitment and Employer Development Lead Ben Anderson also offers advice to students planning to attend and lends knowledge to student readers on behalf of the Hub’s employer partners.
The Pink Suit
A fresh LSA alum, Kathy graduated in only three years from U-M with a B.S. in Economics. She’s now set up a home base in Cleveland, Ohio, working with Key Bank as a Consumer Bank Analyst. As an LSA undergrad though, it hadn’t occurred to her that career fairs could be a worthwhile exercise. So how did she get roped in?
“I definitely attended my first career fair because of the Hub,” Kathy reflects.
In her sophomore year, Kathy signed up for one of the Hub’s résumé workshops with a few of her friends. They received individualized support on their résumés and learned about several upcoming events, among which was career fair season.
As a lead up to the event, Kathy was conscious about three things: her attire, her résumé, and her pitch. For a few days prior, she refined and printed 25 copies of her résumé, and asked her friends to quiz her with questions like “why do you believe you’re a good fit for this company?”
“My first career fair, I was like, ‘you know what: everyone's wearing black or gray so I'm going to wear pink,’” Kathy recalls. “So I had a full light pink suit. And it worked. Every single person I went up to said, ‘oh, I love your suit.’”
Her efforts to stand out paid off. But she also emphasizes the drive to stand out from among a crowd as a critical part of her learning process.
“I was so scared at my first career fair,” Kathy admits. “I was like ‘oh my gosh like I don't know what I’m going to say to these people, I don't know how to talk about myself, I don't know how to do anything.’ But even during the first couple of hours, I got better at it. It’s mainly having the guts to reach out and lead the conversation, and I can't tell you how valuable that is now.”
Although she didn’t expect to find a job at her first career fair, Kathy says that her participation has been an essential part of her professional development. She stresses that beyond making individual connections, career fairs are skill-building opportunities for students.
“Career fairs are that first taste of networking,” Kathy explains. “Learning how to navigate those social cues when you're talking to a professional. Understanding that this is a conversation, and what you need to drive the conversation. Building that repertoire of how to speak to people in a professional way and in a professional environment has helped me a lot to get through my current role.”
From an Employer Expert
As the Hub’s Recruitment and Employer Development Lead, Ben Anderson develops employer-driven experiential learning opportunities for LSA students across a spectrum of industries. He works to bring employers to networking and recruiting events like career fairs and encourages students to take advantage of opportunities like these.
How can students come prepared to career fairs? First and foremost, Ben says, “do your research.”
“When you're armed with that information, you have confidence,” Ben explains. “And confidence is a big thing when you have a short amount of time to convey your interest.”
He offers an anecdote that showcases the necessity of preparation:
A student he knows from the Hub’s ALA 125 course attended a career fair with the express intention of connecting with the recruiter from Oracle—but at the event, it became apparent that the student didn’t know much about the organization.
Ben troubleshooted by offering some quick advice: “Two minutes, go hide, do some basic research, figure out who they are, figure out where they're located, what type of roles they may be interested in, and then go in.”
How did it turn out for that student?
“Six months later, he was working full time with the organization,” Ben confirmed.“In that two minute conversation, [that student] was able to convey his interest in the organization. He found someone on LinkedIn that he knew worked for Oracle and he was able to connect it to his experiences. So even if you don't know anything about the organization, pull out your phone or pull out your computer and just do some basic research to figure out who they are, what their product is, and how you may be able to support that organization with your collection of experiences and interests.”
But beyond researching and synthesizing, Ben recommends that students be conscious of two things when approaching a recruiter at a career fair: what are you getting out of the conversation and what are you giving into it.
For the latter, he reminds students that authenticity is essential when it comes to making connections in professional settings. Students set themselves apart not only by the quality of their résumé, but by their personability.
“The first thing that I hear from recruiters is that they come to the University of Michigan because they know that we have talented students,” Ben explains. “So at a career fair, students have an opportunity to show up and be more than their résumé. It's an opportunity for them to connect with a real person. And yes, that person's connected to a company, but come and have that authentic conversation first.”
For that first contact with an employer representative, Ben advises students to find out how they’re doing, introduce yourself, and explain your interest. He also encourages students to showcase their individuality at every point during the interaction.
“What I consistently hear from employers is that candidates stand out when they're human,” Ben emphasizes. “It's all about authenticity. Provide people with the opportunity to see your impact. Sometimes that's verbally, sometimes that’s in your follow-up by sharing your personal website so that they can see the work you do. So in that 30-second conversation, you may make an impression but the follow-up is another opportunity to make an even more lasting impression, and sharing just a quick link to your work is another great way to again stand out.”
The Virtual Experience
All the career fairs hosted across campus this fall are nearly virtual, but this doesn’t mean they’re not as valuable for students.
Kathy began attending career fairs during her sophomore year in the fall of 2019. She attended a few in-person career fairs throughout the fall and winter, but come March, she and hundreds of other students had to embrace the new virtual-only reality.
But for Kathy, a career fair is essentially a career fair, whether it’s happening in the League or over Zoom.
“It can be an advantage [to be online] because you're not worrying about what the rest of you looks like, you're not worrying about ‘I need a good handshake’ or ‘what do I say to this person’ as soon as you enter their room,” Kathy explains. “It's understood that the conversation starts when you enter.”
Logistically, Kathy likes the lower stress environment that virtual events offer. Rather than standing in line in packed event halls, she was able to relax, breathe, and then move on to the next connection.
“Employers are so eager to talk to you, so just be super open,” Kathy advises. “Go to every single career fair you can, because even if it's online they're waiting to talk to you. There's people that will not go to virtual career fairs because they think it's not as good of an opportunity. But I would say go, take that as an advantage if no one else shows up. Talk to them for an hour if there's no one else in the room.”
Kathy reminds students: preparation and practice are still essential for virtual career fairs.
“Prepare as if it was an in-person career fair: wear your nice suit, and come prepared to ask questions,” she recommends. “During any in-person career fairs, it’s typical for there to be a lot of questions, but I feel like in the virtual space they ask you more to fill any voids of silence. So be prepared to answer questions but also to ask them.”
The bottom line: career fairs are about forming those connections, learning deeply about the organizations present, and understanding more about what your career options are. Career clarity is a huge takeaway for students attending these events. A motif that remains consistent from the in-person to virtual space.
“In the whole interview process, not just the career fair, the value is to get to know the company and get to know the people who work for that company,” Ben affirms. “Every interaction is a data point that you have with a company, even what you see on their website. Do you see yourself in the images, do you see yourself in the text? Do you resonate with their mission and vision? At career fairs, are they bringing people a wide swath of individuals to connect with you?”
For students, Kathy offers a final piece of advice.
“I wish more people knew about the Hub, about what they do,” Kathy reflects. “I think if I had reached out to the Hub during my first-year, I would’ve been in a different place mentally as I was applying to jobs and internships. I would have felt more in tune with what happens during the summers and what happens after college.”
To learn more about this fall’s upcoming career fairs, check out UCC’s website. For a learning tool to help you prepare for career fair season, head to the Hub’s Canvas site. To meet with a Hub coach for more in-depth preparation or other coaching, click here.
- Do your research. When you attend a career fair, come prepared. For that initial research, look the company up, but don’t be hesitant to explore them more thoroughly through platforms like the LSA Opportunity Network, Handshake, or LinkedIn. Survey the company and understand where your experiences, vision, and values align.
- Make them laugh (be personable). Be specific and intimate in your introduction of yourself and your expression of interest in the company. Above all remember—you are connecting with a person.
- Connection, not an interview. Career fairs are a great opportunity to connect with employers, but they are not the only opportunity. Introduce yourself, get a contact or tangible follow-up step, but focus on the personability of the connection.
- Wait to follow up. Give the recruiter and/or employer representative time before following up. Their inboxes are likely flooded immediately post-career fair. Following up 24 to 36 hours later can help you make a stronger impression.