Follow these tips and put your best foot forward:
1. Know what type of job you want. Don't attend a career fair without knowing what type of job you want to land. Most fair organizers publish company participant lists in advance. Investigate those organizations' needs and how they match with your skills, experiences, and accomplishments. What problems do they have that you can solve? How can you contribute? Plan to be able to articulate the match between their needs and what you can offer.
2. Be able to introduce yourself to potential employers. This isn't as easy as it might seem. Most job seekers fail to have a succinct, clear, and direct answer to the inevitable question, "Can you tell me about yourself?" Don't forget: Your answer must articulate how your skills, accomplishments, and experiences directly relate to the type of job you want to land at the organization. Focus on your greatest job search strength and make a clear bridge between what you offer and what the employer seeks.
3. Know about the company. There's nothing more appealing to an employer than prospective hires who actually know something about their organization. It's so easy to find information online; spend time researching the organization if you plan to speak to its recruiters. Do your due diligence. Know what the company values, their competitors, and what type of person would thrive working there.
4. Have some good questions to ask. Once you know the basics, it's easy to draft several inquiries to make you look smart, informed, and on target. Has the company recently had some positive press? Comment on it! Make a point to let the recruiter know you've done your homework. Ask intelligent questions to help the company's representative remember you positively.
5. Know about the recruiter (if possible). If you can identify the recruiter who will attend the career fair, then look her up on LinkedIn ahead of time. Do you share an alma mater? Does she list any special interests or causes? Make notes and plan some conversation starters.
6. Look the part. It is absolutely crucial to dress professionally. This typically means a business suit that fits, a clean, pressed shirt or blouse, and polished shoes.
7. Have copies of your resume, but expect to be told to apply online. You can't show up at a career fair without copies of your resume, but don't plan to drop them off with the recruiter in lieu of applying online. If the recruiter accepts your resume, it will probably be to write a note to remind him about your conversation. Most companies have stringent requirements when it comes to applying online. Your application will go through the applicant tracking system and, if you include the right keywords in your resume, you'll have a good chance of landing an interview.
8. Swap business cards. Even if you're not currently employed, create a professional business card with your name, a headline that illustrates what you do, and your contact information. (Be sure to use a professional email address.) If employers don't want to take your resume, you can still drop off a card to help them remember your conversation. Be sure to pick up business cards from everyone you meet. Make some notes so you don't forget what you discussed with each recruiter.
9. Follow up. Send a follow-up note that references your meeting and conversation. (The notes you took from the fair will come in handy for this.) Remind the recruiter of your qualifications, explain that you applied online for the job, and reiterate your strong interest in working at the organization. Don't forget to connect with recruiters via LinkedIn after the event, to be sure to keep in touch and make it easier for them to contact you later. Be sure to create your own, complete LinkedIn profile before you touch base.
You can't keep yourself top-of-mind if you don't follow up. You may be surprised by how few people actually take this key step. It can make a difference between landing an interview and landing in the proverbial circular file—the trash.
10. Adjust your attitude. What kind of impression will you make at a career fair if you pout and have a negative demeanor? Even if you're feeling down about your job prospects, make an effort to smile and act positive when meeting people at a job fair. No one wants to hire someone who seems bitter or unhappy.
Miriam Salpeter is a job search and social media consultant, career coach, author, speaker, resume writer, and owner of Keppie Careers. She is author of Social Networking for Career Success. Miriam teaches job seekers and entrepreneurs how to incorporate social media tools along with traditional strategies to empower their success.