How can a career fair not be a slam dunk? You've got dozens of employers all in one room, all looking to hire, collecting résumés — even interviewing on the spot. Yet, too often, job seekers miss the shot.
Former Army Spc. Christopher Peral, 26, made the rounds at six career fairs after separating in June 2011 and didn't get an offer. Now he's a network administrator for General Dynamics at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., a gig he landed through personal contacts. How come the career fair effort never clicked?
Strike one: Wrong résumé. "I handed out my military-style résumé, and it was just too long and wordy and not geared toward the civilian sector."
Strike two: "I wasn't writing down the names of who I actually talked to. Then I would call back and not be able to get any information. I had no way to follow up."
Strike three: "I know I didn't bring enough résumés one time. I ran out when I got there."
Here are five more ways to miss the moment at a career fair — with tips on getting it right.
Recruiters don't need to hear about every task you've ever performed. They'll tune out if you get bogged down in the details. "People tend to come in with something long and drawn out, or they stumble over their words," said Robert Walker, director of events and national accounts for RecruitMilitary, which is slated to put on 67 career fairs this year.
Give them the big picture. "A company will say, ‘What have you done?' and you need to be able to answer that. ‘I was in the infantry for five years. Here are my basic skill sets. I managed 10 people. I executed specific plans, and I serviced this and this.' They just want to know who you are."
Failure to prepare
Knowledge is power, said retired Navy Capt. Patricia Cole, deputy director of transition services at the Military Officers Association of America. Too often, people show up without a plan, not knowing who they want to talk to or even who will be there. Go online and find a list of the companies scheduled to attend the fair, Cole said, then select the top five or six who are in the industry you're interested in. Research their websites and develop thoughtful questions to ask the interviewers when you meet them at their booths.
"This is a big point," Cole said. "We see many people at job fairs who are not dressed appropriately for meeting a potential employer. You should be dressed exactly as you would for an actual interview because that is what this is. Conservative, timeless business attire is the order of the day."
"People come in assuming they know about a company," Walker said. "They see Wal-mart, and they assume that all they have are customer service jobs and greeters. Every company has operations, sales, accounting and logistics. When you look at the name and make assumptions, you can miss out. I have seen people walk away from Lowe's thinking they would wind up working in plumbing, but Lowe's was there specifically because they wanted to hire managers."
Forgo the freebies
Recruiters go to fairs laden with giveaways — pens, calendars, paperweights, etc. You'll look like a rookie if you get weighed down by the tchotchkes. "This is not the time to trick or treat," Cole said. "You are a professional player. Leave the goodies for the easily amused and instead present the professional demeanor of a serious job seeker.
But sometimes you can't follow all the rules. Peral knew, for instance, that he needed to do some research in advance, to scout the companies that would be at the fairs and learn what they were all about. "But there are local fairs that don't list who is going to be there. They will list the industries, but not specific companies," he said.
In such cases he would take his best shot, narrowing down his industry interests so at least he would know which recruiters to visit.
It's a sound strategy as long as you do the follow-up work: Once you've visited your top picks, stop in and chat with the other companies too, Walker said. You never know where an unexpected opportunity may be waiting.