3 Tips for Students to Ace Job Fairs

Make sure you have a game plan, do your research, and understand how recruiters evaluate candidates.

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Feeling like a late bloomer on the summer job hunt? While it's true that many companies like to have their entry-level staff and interns in place by the close of the year, there's still a lot of opportunities out there if you know where to look.

Perhaps the most low-hanging fruit are career fairs. As someone who used to hire interns for a Top 15 accounting firm, I wanted to give you some pointers.

When developing your approach with campus recruiters, put yourself in their shoes. In other words, you are meeting a lot of students in one day. With so much traffic, "good" students who may be well qualified don't stand out as much as those who come in with charisma.

For example, 9 times out of 10 the student being interviewed is professional, eager to please, and will probably do fine in the workforce. As a recruiter, though, I don't want "fine"—I want "great," someone I would hire on the spot. How can you become one of the "greats?"

[Learn how to network while you're in college.]

1. Have a game plan: Don't even think about going into a career fair without knowing who's going to be there and who you want to speak with. I talked to so many students who I think just stumbled on our booth. Top clue: They would ask basic questions that are answered on the home page of our website.

Even if you do happen to come across a company that you didn't intend to approach but looks promising, take a few minutes to sneak out and look them up on your phone. You want to make every recruiter feel like your top choice.

2. Have a clue: You must do your research. These days companies have put themselves out there so much on the Web and through social media that there's no excuse for not knowing basic information such as core services and key players. Also, if you can find out who is doing the on-campus interviews for one of your top picks, don't be afraid to contact them in advance to introduce yourself.

3. Understand how you're being evaluated: To make the recruiting process more objective, most employers have recruiters fill out a simple ratings sheet for each interviewee. These sheets are usually standard and cover most of the following:

• Personal appearance: If you dress like you're serious, people will treat you like you're serious. For fairs, this means a suit every time. I once had a student give me a résumé that was very impressive—but he was in a sweatshirt. If he didn't make an effort, why should I?

[Find out how to get your résumé in the right hands.]

Professionalism: Have your elevator pitch down because there's a good chance you'll be asked some form of the question, "Tell me about yourself." Your response should be under two minutes, extremely focused, and include some general background information, demonstrated leadership, and what you will bring to an organization.

For example: "I grew up in Seattle, but moved here to attend university. I'm a junior this year with a major in accounting and a minor in communications. I know that accounting today is much more than numbers in a box so I felt my communications courses would prepare me for the demands of client service.

I'm a member of student government, serving as cochair of the community outreach committee, and in that role I've organized projects for the United Way and Habitat for Humanity. I've researched your company and I know that you offer the resources of a 'Big 4' with the personal touch of a smaller firm, and I believe that combination will give me the best opportunity to contribute and grow my career in the long run."

The best way to perfect your elevator pitch is to practice. You should be able to recite this in your sleep. Also, consider this list of 50 other standard interview questions.

• Confidence: We know you're nervous, but one of the fastest ways to turn off a recruiter is to appear overly nervous. If you can't handle the career fair without a sweaty brow, then how are you going to handle clients?

Naturally, you will be anxious. The trick is to appear as if you're not. For example, look people in the eye when you speak, be secure in your delivery, and watch how often you use filler words such as "um, ah," etc. Bonus points to anyone who can articulate his or her career path at this point.

For example, at my firm, our entry-level employees start as associates and then move on to senior associate, manager, senior manager, and member. If you are speaking from this script, too, you will be miles above other candidates who have only a general idea of what they would be doing.

• Leadership: Every recruiter scorecard has some ranking for leadership potential. Since you may not have any real career experience yet, this will be evaluated by how you've spent your time on campus.

Have you assumed any leadership roles within a student organization? Do you have any volunteer experience? What interests or passions do you have outside of your classes that could demonstrate leadership ability? Employers know that if you can lead in any of these capacities, then those skills readily translate into the office environment.

[Learn more about finding the right extracurricular activities.]

• Etiquette: Finally, candidates who ascend to the top of the "must have" list understand the basics of etiquette. This is about firm handshakes, addressing recruiters as "Mr." or "Ms.," and following up with a post-meeting thank you note or E-mail.

These days, success is heavily reliant on interpersonal skills, meaning that having superior manners is more than just a courtesy. It's good business.

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