The scene is the same across the country -- eager men and women in suits and business skirts, résumés in hand, waiting for hours in long lines for entrance to a job fair. Three years into the global recession, the United States is still losing jobs faster than it can create them. For laid-off workers, job fairs represent one of the few opportunities to meet face-to-face with companies that are actually hiring.
At a job fair, dozens or even hundreds of companies send recruiters to promote their business, advertise job openings, screen potential candidates and collect resumes. Some job fairs are targeted to college students and recent graduates, while others are aimed at a particular job sector, like health care, education or hospitality. Still others are organized especially for women or minority applicants. In this tight job market, attendance at all job fairs has skyrocketed.
At an overcrowded job fair, a successful applicant has to figure out how to stand out from the horde. Since there usually isn't time for a formal, sit-down interview at a job fair, you need to quickly show the recruiter that you're prepared and professional. One of the best ways to do that, the experts say, is by asking intelligent, informed questions [source: Lorenz].
Career experts agree that the worst questions you could ask at a job fair or interview is how much money you'll make or how many vacation days you'll receive [source: Hering]. You don't even have the job yet and you're already asking about days off? Although the absolute worst question has to be: Do you run background checks? Uh, why do you ask?
We've assembled a list of 10 questions that will help get you noticed -- in a good way -- at a job fair. Each question opens the door to a conversation about the skills you'd bring to the table as an employee. But before we get to the first question, you have a little homework to do. Read more about it on the next page.
What Does X Mean for the Company?
If you want to come home from the job fair with some real leads (not just free pens and stress balls), you have to do your homework first. Closely examine the list of companies that will be attending the job fair and identify your top prospects. Then go to the company Web sites to learn more about what they do, what clients they serve and the kind of positions they have available.
Pay particular attention to recent press releases posted on the Web site. These can usually be found in the "About Us," "News" or "Media" sections of the site. Companies typically issue press releases to brag about achievements, high-profile hires or future plans. Another good place to mine for current events is through company or employee blogs.
Obviously, you want to focus on positive news -- bringing up the latest corporate scandal won't ingratiate you with the recruiter -- but try to find something that reflects on larger industry trends. If you have time, search for more information through industry publications and Web sites. Come up with your own theory about how the current event you've chosen might effect the company's position in the marketplace.
When you get your chance to talk to the recruiter, mention what you've read about the company, ask what he or she thinks, then share your brief, insightful opinion.
What Are the Opportunities for Advancement?
When recruiters go out in search of new hires, they're looking for two key characteristics: flexibility and loyalty [source: Craig]. The ideal employee will be somebody who can handle a wide variety of tasks, is open to evolving roles and will stick around for the long haul. It's expensive and time-consuming to recruit, hire and train new employees. If you want to impress, you need to convince the recruiter that you're eager to make a long-term investment in the company's success.
A subtle way to do that is to ask about opportunities for advancement within the company. This shows that you're excited to grow with the company and apply your diverse skills to different roles. If you are applying for an entry-level position, be careful not to seem too eager to skip past the lower-salary job for something bigger and better. Instead, ask if the company has a policy of hiring from within and what the typical five- or 10-year trajectory looks like for a new employee.
What Types of Training Programs Do You Offer?
To remain competitive in today's tight marketplace, companies are looking for employees who actively upgrade their skill sets. This is particularly true for high-tech jobs like software developers, Web developers and network administrators. If you want to make a positive impression at the job fair, you need to come across as a talented, skilled employee who is eager to learn even more.
When asking about training programs, be careful not to give the impression that you're looking for a free education on the company's tab. Instead, lead off the question by telling the recruiter about a positive experience you had with a previous employer, where a training program led to increased productivity or a particularly successful project [source: White]. Even better, come prepared with an example of a skill set that you're eager to acquire and how that new knowledge would directly benefit the company.
What Are the Skills and Attributes You Value Most in Your Employees?
Here's a great example of a question that is designed to be a conversation-starter about how you would be a great fit for the company. Before you ask this question, it's important that you've done your homework about the company. You should feel confident that your skills and experience are good matches with open positions at the company. This is not the time, however, to try to jam a square peg into a round hole. Recruiters will see through that immediately.
After asking about the desirable skills and attributes, pay close attention to what the recruiter actually says. Choose a few specific characteristics and try to tie them to specific examples from your professional or educational life -- internships, project leadership, daily responsibilities -- that show why you're the right person for the job. Share one or two of those experiences with the recruiter and point out the related entries on your résumé.
What Type of Educational Background Do You Look For in Your Employees?
This is another example of a question that provides an excellent opportunity to highlight your resume. Assuming you've done your homework, you already know what kind of educational background the company looks for in its applicants. If you think your own degree is a good match, play coy and ask the recruiter to talk about the educational background of the ideal candidate.
Without seeming too obvious, segue into your own educational experience. If you went to a brand-name institution, don't be shy about name-dropping. Frankly, that's half the reason you went there. But beyond naming degrees and programs, give the recruiter a specific story to remember. Explain how an internship, study abroad experience or senior capstone project ignited your interest in the field and set you on the path to professional accomplishment.
How Would Someone Like Me Contribute to the Company?
Job fairs don't allow much time for interaction with the recruiters. With a long line of impatient applicants waiting behind you, you need to make an impression and make it fast. Here's where a little research will go a long way.
Before you arrive at the fair, figure out exactly what kind of applicant the company is looking for to fill its open positions. Pay particular attention to the list of desired skills and job experience included in the job listing. Do your best to match those skills with your own. When it's time to introduce yourself to the recruiter, highlight those skills and experiences prominently, then ask, "How would you envision someone like me fitting into your company?"
By asking this question, you are encouraging the recruiter to think of you as already being on the job. Instead of telling him or her exactly how you'd contribute, the recruiter gets to put the pieces together for him- or herself. If you've done your homework, then it will be clear how someone exactly like you would be a great addition to the team.
What Are the Biggest Challenges for This Position?
Frustratingly, every company that attends these job fairs isn't always hiring. Some are simply out to promote their company, troll for qualified applicants and save the best resumes for the time when a position opens up. But if you're lucky enough to engage a recruiter in a conversation about a specific open position, don't let it go to waste.
One subtle, yet effective way to show what you're made of is to ask about the biggest challenges of the job. When you ask about challenges, it accomplishes several things at once. First of all, it's not a question that the recruiter has heard a thousand times, so it snaps the recruiter out of his or her routine. Secondly, it shows that you're someone who is doesn't shy away from hard work. Thirdly, this question provides an excellent segue to a conversation about how you and your specific skill set are more than up to the challenge.
What's the Company Culture Like?
This is an important question to ask for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's not always clear from a company Web site or job fair display what exactly it's like to work for the company. Modern business culture runs the gamut from suits and ties to shorts and flip-flops. Some companies expect all employees to clock in at 9 a.m. and attend regularly scheduled meetings, while others encourage working from home and gathering via Web conference.
By asking about the company culture, you'll get a better picture if this is indeed the kind of environment in which you'd like to work. If workplace culture isn't an issue -- you'll take any job, period -- then the question is more of a lead in to show how you and your personal style would fit into that culture. If you've always felt that dressing up for work sets a professional standard, here's a great opportunity to share your thoughts. If you think you do your best work in a beanbag chair, make that known as well.
What Do You Enjoy Most About Working For the Company?
As a general rule, people love talking about themselves. Recruiters are no different. Since they spend 90 percent of their day talking about the company or listening to applicants tell their own employment stories, it's nice to give the recruiter a chance to tell his or her own story for a change.
By asking the recruiter what he or she enjoys most about working for the company, it puts him or her on the spot. If the recruiter has a hard time answering the question or comes up with generic answers, that response might raise some concern [source: White]. On the other hand, if the recruiter is genuinely excited about his or her work and can come up with specific examples of positive experiences, this is a chance for you to bond about workplace culture and your own favorite working moments. Choose an anecdote in which you met a professional challenge, created something successful and learned something about yourself.
May I Contact You With Further Questions?
No phone calls or emails, please!" If you've ever applied to a job online, you've seen that line hundreds of times. Yes, it's annoying for HR reps to receive dozens of phone calls from unqualified applicants, but it's very difficult to get a foot in the door without someone at least unlocking from the inside.
If you're lucky enough to have a productive conversation with a recruiter at a job fair, get that person's card and save it. Once you have the recruiter's card, ask politely if it would OK to contact his or her to follow up on your application or talk about any open positions.
Sometimes companies will send managers or other employees to job fairs instead of recruiters or human resources staff. If you really hit it off with an employee, even if that person doesn't work in the department you'd be working in, ask if you could use him or her as a reference. This request should be reserved for someone with whom you have a substantial conversation and who is genuinely impressed by your qualifications.
For lots more information about job hunting, interviewing and résumé writing, see the links on the next page.
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- Craig, Allison. CareerBuilder.com. "Putting Yourself in the Interviewer's Seat Can Give You an Advantage"http://www.careerbuilder.com/Article/CB-1548-Getting-Hired-Putting-Yourself-in-the-Interviewers-Seat-Can-Give-You-an-Advantage/
- Hering, Beth Braccio. CareerBuilder.com. "7 Questions That Make Interviewers Cringe"http://www.careerbuilder.com/Article/CB-1700-Getting-Hired-7-Questions-That-Make-Interviewers-Cringe/
- Lorenz, Kate. "Maximize Your Job Fair Experience" CareerBuilder.com.http://www.careerbuilder.com/Article/CB-189-Job-Search-Maximize-Your-Job-Fair-Experience/
- White, Doug. "Interviewing the Interviewer." Yahoo! Hotjobs.http://hotjobs.yahoo.com/career-articles-interviewing_the_interviewer-949