The Underclassman’s Unlikely Guide to the Career Fair

Every year, most universities sponsor at least one career fair. If you’re an underclassman, you might have been ignoring the emails about the events because career fairs are only for seniors, right? Well, maybe not. Career fairs tend to scare away younger students or students who are still a few comfortable years from being thrown to the wolves in the American job market because they are marketed as just that: career fairs. Perhaps “explore-your-options fairs” would be a more fitting title, but it doesn’t have quite the same…professional ring to it. So, if you’re an underclassman and you happen to be gung ho about your future, just curious, or maybe just bored, don’t be intimidated by the idea of attending a career fair—it might be one of the few professional experiences from which you have absolutely nothing to lose! Keep reading for a few tips on how to make the most of your low-stakes trip to the career fair.

Before you stumble out of your dorm for your 8 AM in heels you know you’re going to regret and those slacks you wore waiting tables over the summer, take the time to print off some copies of your résumé, even if it might still be a little short. You might just be interested in doing some window shopping at the fair, but you never know if you’ll come across a great deal. If you do, you’ll certainly want to have some “cash” on you; while little green cloth-paper hybrids with old men’s faces on them are the currency of the economy, résumés—which are much less creepy and hopefully much less green—are the currency of the job market. Though your résumé may not be as developed as it will be in a couple years, it will give the representatives for organizations you have an interest in a way to contact you and to know a bit about who you are.

Upon entering the career fair, you should receive a map and a list of the organizations set up at tables—don’t worry, they should have a system to check your backpack so you don’t have to lug it around. After making a beeline to the free refreshments table, take a minute to scan the room and your map, and do a quick walk-around to scope out the tables you’d like to visit. Prioritize about four or five you think you might have an interest in, whether that’s from a quick google search about the organization’s mission, a neat logo, or because you dig the representative’s lipstick—remember, you are here on your own terms to learn about the event itself, like a practice round for the fairs you will attend as an upperclassman with more serious goals in mind.

Despite the fact that your visit is verging a bit more on the casual side, you will likely be nervous before stepping up to your first table. Take a deep breath and smile before reaching out your hand to greet the representative. After you exchange names, be ready for the inevitable question: “So, tell me about yourself!” If you’re anything like me, this simple little prompt can have you shaking in those pointy-toed heels you borrowed from your mom—you’re barely a legal adult and you’ve spent the last semester in a stupor from a combination of alcohol and the mono you caught losing at beer pong at frat parties. You’ve only just started your college career and you know professionals couldn’t care less about your achievements in high school, so how can you tell this stranger who you are if you aren’t even sure yourself? Rehearse a couple lines about your interests, skills, hobbies, coursework, etc.—anything you can scrounge up from your short list of life experiences—that may possibly be useful or interesting in the professional world. Talk about yourself in future tense; how do you plan to use your Mandarin skills? What did you learn volunteering at the animal shelter that one time because you wanted to play with some kittens, and how can your new perspective on compassion influence your future studies or career?

If you’ve wracked your brain and you’re still not confident about your statement, try to make your conversation with the representative all about the organization from the get-go; turn the tables on the rep and start your conversation by asking: “So, tell me about your organization!” Continue to ask questions about what the organization does, what qualifications it looks for, and what opportunities they might have for someone still in school. If you stumble across opportunities for positions you might qualify for, such as a company looking for summer interns or a non-profit looking for volunteers, don’t hesitate to dish out your résumé and express your interest. Be sure to grab whatever pamphlets or other literature the table might have and ask the representative for his or her business card, and if they were not able to answer all of your questions, get the names and information of people within the organization who can. This is what the grown-ups call “networking.” Of course, it’s certainly fine if you’re not interested in one, or any, of the organizations you meet with—again, you’re here with no expectations—just be sure to snatch a couple of the cool dual highlighter/pens or carabiners they’re giving out as you thank the rep for her time.

Once you’ve made your way back to your dorm—hopefully in the flip flops you remembered to stuff in your backpack rather than in your bare feet—congratulate yourself on taking the initiative to do something that most freshmen (my freshman-self included) would never have even opened the email to read about. If you stumbled across some possible opportunities, follow up with whatever contact information you received. If not, hopefully you are at least better prepared to face subsequent career fairs and are more educated about options for your future.

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