Don’t Panic: An Anxious Undergrad’s Guide to Career Fairs

Career fairs can seem daunting, particularly if you buy into the success stories like I did. It is easy when you are worried about your job prospects (and feel the ever present shadow of graduation lurking) to put too much weight on these kind of events. It can feel like your entire future is riding on one to five conversations; that if you ‘fail’ at the career fair you’ve wasted your time even getting a degree, because you could’ve spent that time getting four years of work experience. Take this moment to remind yourself that this is a lie. You’re great. Congratulations on getting here. There is no one conversation that will wreck you as a person. Truth is if you aren’t great with networking and extemporaneous speaking and if you don’t have very concrete ideas about what you want to get out of a career and what you are willing to put into it, then a career fair probably it’s basically impossible to come out of a fair with a job offer. The question I always got from recruiters was ‘What’re you looking for’ and I couldn’t give them a simple answer, which is one of the reasons I don’t think career fairs are for me. To be clear, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t able to walk away from the experience with more information than I had going in, or that I recommend not going to them yourself. While I don’t plan to attend another career fair, I feel confident in my ability to at least pass on my missteps in hopes that you don’t repeat my mistakes.

Try not to fall down a research rabbit hole. While I think it’s great to look at your university’s listing for the event to get a sense of who you definitely want to talk to, you probably don’t need to look at each company website, read their mission statements, etc. This isn’t a formal interview or a quiz.

If you’re nervous about your ability to perform, take a walk around the event hall before you walk up to anyone. It is less overwhelming once you get a lay of the land and know where you’re wanting to go. There’s also the added benefit of giving you time to plan well enough to avoid striking up a long conversation with a very nice but ultimately unhelpful representative from a company that you have no interest in simply because they were the first table you saw.

If you think of the fair as a long series of job interviews where all of the recruiter’s attention is on you and you’re imagining them slowly transforming into a large pair of intimidating eyes, know that actual career fairs are overcrowded, loud, and fast paced. (Think small town carnival.) Even if you say something embarrassingly stupid, chances are they won’t hear you and will assume you’re smart anyway. Or they will hear you and I guarantee they’ve heard worse. Every paid person in that room talks to people for a living. Also, when you go later in the afternoon they’re more likely to be tired, dehydrated, and harder of hearing than usual just from being in there for so long. Pressure is minimal.

Fair warning, some companies will not want you. There were well known companies whom I was super excited to talk with at the career fair I attended who were listed as accepting all majors, but who really only wanted to talk to accountants. They simply handed those of us from the Humanities brochure paper with their websites on it. Side note, there are few things more frustrating to me than being handed a piece of expensive ad paper telling me the url of a website I could have found with the most cursory Google search. To me this is only a half step below the frivolousness of restaurants insisting everything, even mashed potatoes, needs a skillet. The point is that it is very easy to waste your time and energy on people who don’t want to talk to you, or whom you don’t want to talk with. I recommend lowering your expectations from ‘I could land my dream job here’ to ‘This is an opportunity to talk to people in a low pressure but professional environment in hopes that I won’t feel completely awkward when I need to do this for real’.

I find it helpful to remember that everyone at the fair is looking for something. The representatives working the booths are looking to recruit engaged, educated, excited new employees for a company they ostensibly enjoy working at. You are there to network. In an ideal world this will result in you becoming one of those success stories we all hear, finding the perfect company, fitting in, and making all of the money and friends. But this isn’t a commodity exchange in the same way as ordering a coffee. You are neither the coffee nor the uncaffeinated person. If anything it’s more of a free barbecue cookoff. If you’re feeling vegetarian, don’t eat. No harm done. If you find the brisket (company, that is), you win career fair. Good job. Try to remember that if neither side is impressed with what has been offered, there are no real consequences except wasting approximately the same amount of time you would spend in pretty bad traffic. Worst case scenario: they all forget you, you forget them, and you printed a few resumes for no reason. In the grand scheme of things, who cares? In short, Don’t Panic. It doesn’t matter that much, but learn what you can and definitely take advantage of the free candy/notebooks/pens.

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