Bring Knowledge and Poise to the Fair

By Susan Kreimer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 23, 2008

Job fairs hadn't done much for Akuba Torvikey's career, but she kept an open mind. So two years ago, she came to one fair primed for success -- and it made all the difference.

"I was there first thing in the morning," said Torvikey, 24, of Alexandria. She attended a career expo in Atlanta, where she worked part time as a bank teller while planning to pursue an MBA.

"One of the tips was to become well acquainted with the companies you were interested in," she said of advice from the event's sponsor, recruitment firm Women for Hire. So Torvikey not only submitted her r¿sum¿ in advance to a handful of employers, but she also browsed their Web sites and retained details such as milestones in company history.

"I learned certain things about them, key pieces of information to possibly bring up in conversation," said Torvikey, who was hired in the Washington area by Accenture, the consulting firm. "It shows confidence when you're well prepared for career fairs, and you come and converse with the representatives instead of asking questions."

Job seekers who display knowledge and poise at career fairs stack up well against competitors who don't. Experts recommend a cherry-picking strategy of researching and approaching employers with the best anticipated fit, instead of just touching base briefly with recruiters at every table.

"The key is to do some homework," said Barbara Safani, president of Career Solvers, a career management firm in New York. "A lot of people just go and wander around. They are overwhelmed and don't know where to go first."

Even if a fair is specifically for people in your industry or job function, it's still important to select a few target companies. "The more relevant the target, the more likely you are to meet the right decision-maker," Safani said.

Better yet, prepare a pitch to highlight your compatibility. "Your pitch should be something that's short, not too cluttered, and memorable," she said. "Think of it as a PowerPoint presentation. When people watch a PowerPoint presentation, if there's too information on there, it loses its meaning."

Recruiters recognize when job seekers "extend value" to them, said Don Orlando, a global executive career coach in Montgomery, Ala. Companies pay to rent booths and to send employees to represent them at such events. As a return on their investment, they want qualified applicants. "They have marching orders," Orlando said. "They're not just out there fishing."

He suggests that job seekers call the fair's organizer and request a list of participating companies. If the list includes available positions, candidates can match their searches according to employers' needs.

When a list mentions only the company names, Orlando advises calling human resources departments and saying something along these lines: "I want to help make your presence at this upcoming job fair a great success. I'm an accountant. Will your reps be looking for that?" If the answer is yes, Orlando would go a step further: "I like to address people by their name. Who will represent you at this job fair?"

A well-prepared job seeker then crafts a cover letter addressed to the recruiter at the fair. "Other people just wander up and say, 'What do you do?' and grab the free candy," Orlando said. But the job seeker who extends a hand and knows the representative's name has a competitive edge.

Appearance also matters. Formal business attire makes the best impression. "You can never overdress. You can always underdress," said Wendy S. Enelow, an author, trainer and career consultant in Coleman Falls, Va. "This is your first contact with the company. You better look the part if you want to make it to the second contact."

When you arrive at the fair, Enelow recommends, start at the back of the room and work your way toward the front -- against traffic. "You're using your time more wisely, so you don't have to stand in line as much," she said.

Don't expect to leave with an offer. That's not what these events are about. The purpose is to make a connection with a recruiter looking for a needle-in-the-haystack candidate. "It's your opportunity to meet, greet, get contact info and schedule a more formal interview," Enelow said. "The onus is on you, the job seeker, to follow up."

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