10/04/2013 02:11 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Conquering career fairs: Tips for individuals on how to approach mass job hunt

Whether they're held in malls, on campuses or in convention centres, career fairs offer a one-stop shop for job seekers to connect with multiple recruiters under one roof.

Yet with the prospect of meeting dozens of employers, some may be unsure how to tailor their typical approach within a large-scale setting.

How can individuals prepare for career fairs and distinguish themselves among a crowded crop of equally eager job-seekers? Here are a few tips.

1. Determine the motivation for attending.

It seems obvious and inherent in the event title: job fairs are for landing jobs, right? Well, not necessarily for everyone — or at least not initially.

Patsy Valenzuela is the supervisor of career and employment development at Mount Royal University in Calgary. The school organizes smaller, program-specific networking events during the year in addition to a campus-wide fair in March for students seeking summer, full-time and graduate-level employment.

While securing a job may be the ultimate goal, Valenzuela said some people may have other motivations for attending fairs at first, like trying to gather more information about a particular company or their field of interest.

"It could be more of an exploration — you just want to build some contacts, or for some people, you just want to practise some interview skills and meeting people," she said. "That's a really great way to do that because it's a safe environment where you can practise networking and introducing yourself and all of those techniques.

"I think if you're a job seeker, it's important to know what is your goal in attending, and what do you want to get out of attending, and then prepare accordingly."

Valenzuela said job seekers also need to consider that while most employers in attendance are actively recruiting, there are some who stake out a presence for branding purposes or to raise awareness about potential future opportunities — even if there are no vacancies at present.

2. Do your research.

Readying for job fairs should be a similar process to gearing up for an interview — which includes coming dressed to impress, noted Eric Boutie, founding president of National Career Event, which organizes job fairs.

"Preparation is key to participation in the fair, because you have to check before you come what kind of exhibitors are on site, and what kind of positions are open from the different companies. You have to research before coming," said Boutie, whose organization will host four career fairs at the Montreal Congress Centre on Wednesday and Thursday and a virtual student fair beginning next January.

Boutie said the feedback he receives from recruiters stresses the importance of both a candidate's technical background or qualifications as well as his or her attitude to help ensure a good fit between the company philosophy and the character and competence of the job seeker.

Being aware of the exhibitors on hand and jobs available — which will likely be posted in advance — can help potential applicants better focus their efforts, said Valenzuela.

"It's about deciding who you want to target because it's going to be impossible to target everybody," she said. "If you're specifically targeting certain types of positions, then you can do that research ahead of time. Then, you can customize your resume accordingly based on that targeted approach."

While career experts generally recommend tailoring each cover letter and resume for individual applications, that can be more challenging when meeting with multiple prospective employers simultaneously. Valenzuela said it's a good idea to bring copies of your resume that are industry-specific rather than job-specific.

"The reality is, though, a lot of employers may not be collecting resumes at the time. So another strategy is to have a conversation (about): 'How can I follow up with you to discuss this position? Where can I submit my resume? What's the best way to do it?'

"To actually find out what they're looking for — that's the whole point of having that conversation. Getting a business card, getting a website and then following up and applying later," she added.

"You don't always have to apply on the spot, especially if you've found out about something that's relevant that your resume doesn't match it exactly."

3. Have an "elevator speech" ready.

The elevator speech is a personal marketing tool of sorts, designed to offer a brief introduction containing key details about your educational or professional background.

"It's very important — either a little elevator speech about who you are and what you're looking for, or a great introduction around asking them what you want to know," said Valenzuela.

"'So (for example): 'I'm Joe Smith, and I'm a fourth-year business student. And I understand from your website you have a lot of good business positions. Would you be able to tell me about some that would be good for a (fourth)-year student or soon-to-be-graduate?'

"So, you have little speeches available so that you can just get into that conversation."

4. Keep your ears open.

Busy exhibitor booths can leave individuals idling as they wait to speak with designated representatives. But Valenzuela said the time spent queuing up for a chance to chat can still be put to effective use.

"There's a lot to be said for listening and watching as well. There's a lot of times where there's lineups and you definitely don't want to interrupt, but you might get a lot out of the information coming out of those conversations — information you can use," she said.

"Definitely take notes because the fairs are busy. There's so many people, so many conversations, you might not remember who you spoke to or what information you learned. So it's going to be really important to take notes and to follow up on some of those pieces of information that you've gathered. And for some of it, it might just be a lead or somebody's name."

5. Follow through with the followup.

So, you've survived the job fair, but the work is not over, especially if you're still keen on applying for a position.

When looking to reconnect with recruiters, Valenzuela suggested the possibility of sending a thank you note following the fair. Another option when submitting a cover letter with your formal application is to refer back to the date of the initial meeting.

"It's important for people to know there are so many strategies that you can use, but you have to evaluate each time: 'What's going to be the best strategy for me to use in this case with this employer with this company?'"



National Career Event:

Mount Royal University Career Services: