Preparing for a Career Fair

Aug. 31, 2009
What to know and what to do before you walk the floor

Many jobseekers assume that all they need is a resume in hand when they walk into a career fair. This assumption hurts your credibility and allows others with just as much experience to appear superior in the eyes of recruiters and industry professionals.

There’s a lot of legwork involved when preparing for a career fair. The resume is just part of the total package that you want to present to a prospective employer. Without the other pieces, it’s easy for your peers to gain a competitive edge over you. Here’s what you need to do to prepare for a career fair.

Do your homework
This is the first step, even before creating a resume. Get a list of the employers who will exhibit at the career fair you plan to attend. Review their job openings and pick out a few that seem like a good match for your skills. Take the time to learn a little bit about the companies so that you can appear more knowledgeable when speaking with company representatives.

The resume
Once you’ve done your homework you can formulate a resume to highlight your skills, achievements, training, and fields of application. It’s good to have a generic resume to hand out to any prospective employer. It’s better to have copies of your resume that you have tailored to specific employers that you are genuinely interested in working for. For example, if you know a certain employer has openings in its avionics shop, it would be wise to carry a copy of your resume that explains in more detail your special training in avionics.

Resumes should be brief and direct. Most employers only spend 30 seconds looking at a resume and will ignore any resumes that are longer than one page. Highlight the most important aspects of your education and experience on your resume. The rest can be brought up in conversation when you meet a company representative face to face.

Lucy Kollhoff, Career & Employment Services liaison to the College of Technology and Aviation at Kansas State University, regularly advises students on preparing their resumes. She encourages students to list the types of engines they’ve worked on, hands-on experience in the field, and part-time jobs to give employers a dimension of what kind of employee they would be. Other items Kollhoff suggests including are the expected date of graduation, any internships held, full-time job expectations, and any licenses obtained. When it comes to licenses, list those that you already have as well as those you are currently pursuing. The latter should be listed as “anticipated certifications” and should include expected dates of completion. Make sure to mention any professional organizations you belong to and any leadership roles you have held. Steer clear of listing any personal hobbies unless they relate directly to aviation.

The resume of a recent graduate should focus on schooling and training, whereas the resume of an experienced mechanic should focus on real-life experience. You can also develop a cover letter that explains your experience and goals in more detail; it is wise to tailor this to certain employers as well. Make sure to include some information you have found about the company in the cover letter instead of focusing only on yourself.

Not sure where to start when it comes to penning a resume or cover letter? Check out the book Real – Resumes for Aviation & Travel Jobs, edited by Anne McKinney. It devotes 54 pages to showing examples of resumes for aircraft mechanics. Most schools will also have in-house examples on file for you to look at.

Review your resume carefully for spelling and grammar; if grammar isn’t your strong suit, find someone else to read it for you. Computer spell-check functions won’t catch everything. Even if you are confident in your written skills, make sure to have someone else look at your resume before you call it done.

If you don’t have business cards, it’s a good idea to create some for yourself. Make sure that everything about them is professional — if the only email address you have is [email protected], sign up for a new one that won’t put off prospective employers. Use the more appropriate email address in your contact information on your resume as well.

Practice, practice, practice
Before entering a career fair, you should have a few sentences memorized to use when introducing yourself to prospective employers. Your “spiel” should include your name, a brief description of training, and what you’re looking for in a job or employer. This short speech should focus on you, not on the company to whose representative you’re talking. Know why you want to work for them and what you can bring to their organization.

By no means should you only stick to a script. Think about the questions that prospective employers will likely ask and try to develop short answers. Make sure to actually say your spiel and short answers aloud many times at home — you may feel silly talking to yourself, but it will help you feel more practiced and confident when saying those same words out loud to a recruiter.

You can even practice with a family member, spouse, or friend. Have them play the part of the recruiter while you recite your pieces and react accordingly. This will help you appear more relaxed (and therefore confident) when you experience the real thing at a career fair. The person you role play with will also be able to tell you if you come off as confident or if you come off as arrogant. Employers are looking for smart people who can keep learning, not for someone who acts as if they already know it all.

Look the part
Kollhoff says that jobseekers should always “dress a step above.” Even if you would never wear a suit on the job after you get hired, you still need to dress to impress during a job fair or interview. Make sure to appear clean and neat in all aspects — some things go without saying: bathe, comb your hair, brush your teeth, shave your face or make sure facial hair is groomed, clean and trim your fingernails, and put on a suit.

If you don’t own a suit, make sure you still step up your appearance. Kollhoff says that even “business casual” means a blazer, nice shirt, and pants or skirt. Men should wear a tie and women can wear a subtle scarf if they wish. All clothes should be clean and pressed. Dress shoes should be scuff free; women should wear a low or moderate heel if they choose not to wear flats.

Tennis shoes are never appropriate at a job fair, nor are backpacks. Granted, some students will find out about a job fair the day that it occurs and will roll in straight from class.

However, these people project the image of a student rather than that of a prospective professional.

Most employers are looking for applicants who dress conservatively. Your flaming skull of death t-shirt might get lots of looks at the bar, but it will only get you looked over at a career fair. Cover tattoos and wear minimal or no jewelry.

The idea is not to distract from your message: that you are the best candidate for the job. Flashy prints or bold accessories will detract attention from your words. If a recruiter is too busy watching you fidget with your watch or push your hair back every two seconds, they won’t pay attention to the speech you worked diligently to prepare. If your watch makes you uncomfortable, don’t wear it. If your hair falls in your face, pin or tie it back. Do whatever you need to do to make yourself comfortable so that you can appear poised and focused when speaking with people you aim to impress. As Kollhoff says, if an accessory is going to make you uncomfortable, do without.

Attack the floor with pride
By this point, you have researched the companies you want to work for, prepared a resume that reflects all that you have to offer an employer, you look sharp, and you have rehearsed what you will say. All that’s left is to do it.

Gather copies of your resume and business cards and put them into a portfolio or a professional-looking briefcase or bag for easy access. Silence your phone or put it on vibrate so that AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” doesn’t start blaring when a prospective employer asks you where you see yourself in five years.

Hold your head high and shake recruiters’ hands firmly. Maintain eye contact with the company representative with whom you speak. Keep your hands out of your pockets, don’t chew gum, and try not to say “um” when speaking with prospective employers. Try to avoid using slang in general — “yes” sounds better than “yeah,” and “’sup?” isn’t an appropriate greeting in a professional setting. These are tendencies you should have overcome while practicing what you will say.

Try to collect business cards from recruiters or company representatives that you meet. This gives you a name and a contact. Jot down notes on the back of the cards so that you will have better recollection of the conversation with that person later. Write down what kind of jobs they have available so that you won’t have to rely on memory.

“Everyone looks to come away with that position, but you need to look at networking,” says Kollhoff. “It’s not only who’s hiring, but the hidden job market — someone who’s not hiring now might be in the future.”

Follow up
So you’ve done the career fair thing and now you’re just waiting for the phone to ring. This can be even more nerve racking than the career fair itself. It’s important to remain positive and patient.

It’s a good idea to write thank-you notes to the people with whom you spoke at the career fair. While it may have become more acceptable to write an email to thank someone, a hand-written note is a rarity these days and will make you stand out more as an applicant. If you choose to send a thank you by email, it’s not a bad idea to attach your resume to it so that the employer can identify you more readily. They might not remember you by name, but they may recall your experience.

Kollhoff suggests that job seekers indicate in a cover letter that they’ll follow up in a week. After that week has passed and it’s time to call, be polite. If the person whose business card you got is unavailable, ask for a better time to reach that person. If you find out that the company no longer has jobs available, ask them to keep your resume on file. Then call back in two weeks. If they still don’t have any available positions, don’t call back for one month.

Kollhoff recommends that job seekers stay active in their field and keep networking. Use your time between calling back different companies to find out about their openings to stay current on training and expand your skills in any way possible: classes, volunteerism, whatever keeps you engaged in the field. If you gain new skills or accreditation, update your resume and resubmit it to a prospective employer. Find more career fairs to attend and keep plugging away at it.