• Career fairs can be useful for getting an employee’s perspective on a company that might interest you; or maybe to get insights into what new things the company will be doing. Career fairs can also be useful practice grounds for making conversation, networking with people, practicing your English, and potentially connecting with alumni from your school.  But beyond the general company information angle, job fairs have pretty limited value for international students.  Here’s why:

    Career Fairs Have Limited Value for International Students

    1. Most company representatives at career fairs are from human resources.  If the company has a policy against sponsoring H1B visas, then you’re likely to encounter a brick wall.  HR people generally aren’t the ultimate decision makers on hiring (as I explain in my book) and they aren’t likely to give you contact information for hiring managers in their company.  Sometimes, hiring managers will be at job fairs.  This improves your chances of connecting with a decision maker, but it won’t do too much to change the fact that…

    2. It’s hard to stand out in a crowd.  Career fairs are loaded with job seekers asking the same questions. It’s very hard to stand out, or to get the real attention of the company representative.

    3. You’re likely to get directed online. “Take a look at our website,” will likely be a part of any conversation you have with a career fair representative.  You don’t need to go to a career fair to get this advice.  Many companies now refuse to collect hard copy resumes because of government non-discrimination regulations; so they instruct all interested applicants to apply online where they can better manage the process.  I explain in my book why applying online is a poor investment of your time.

    Notwithstanding the previous information, if you decide to attend a career fair, here are some tips on how to get the most out of the experience.

    How to Make Career Fairs Work for You


    1. Use the day to set up one-on-one conversations for later.  It’s hard to have a memorable conversation at a career fair.  Use the time to try and line up a future conversation when you can make a real impression.

    2. Seek out companies that have no traffic.  Don’t waste your time waiting in line to speak with representatives at the investment banks, consulting companies, consumer products manufacturers and all the other firms that your fellow students are fighting to get into.  Yes, I know that these are the companies you want to work for, but a career fair isn’t the place to impress someone with all you have to offer.  As I mentioned earlier, the reps at the booth have been answering the same questions all day.  Instead of moving in with the herd, find the company booths that have no student traffic.  You’ll have time to have a meaningful conversation, to get some questions answered and the person at the booth will be grateful to have someone to speak with.  Company reps don’t like standing in front of their booth talking to no one.  It makes them feel unpopular, and many will pretend to be busy by playing with their mobile phone, sitting behind the booth and reading some papers, and lots of other things to make it look like they aren’t just standing there.   I know; I’ve done this myself.  When you see someone like this (and you will), make a point to check in.  You’ll be remembered positively.  And at the end of the day, your objective at a career fair is not to insert your resume into a company’s recruitment machine along with everyone else’s.  It’s to make a meaningful contact that can lead to further opportunity.

    3. Don’t lead in with your resume.  Keep it in your back pocket until it’s asked for.  I’ve had many resumes thrust into my hands by eager international  students looking for a job. I’d much rather have a conversation with someone about their background, than have to try to read a resume while they’re talking to me.  As I’ve said many times before, you’re much more effective at marketing yourself than your resume ever could be.  When given the option, you speak first, and have the resume ready just in case someone asks for it.  You can read more on the usefulness of resumes here.

    4. Do something memorable.  I’ve worked a lot of career fairs, and the people I remember (even to this day) are the ones who spoke to me about something other than what jobs we were hiring for, if we sponsored H1B visas, and how they could get a job at my company.  Those were the questions I was constantly answering at the event, so at the end of the day, I couldn’t remember one ‘asker’ from the next.  The memorable people were the ones who connected with me personally.  One offered to grab me some cool giveaways from one of the other booths.  One charitable woman, seeing that I had a massive line of people waiting to speak with me and realizing that I wouldn’t be able to leave my booth for ages, brought me a bottle of water.  Another guy I remember came by at the end of an event and made some comments about how long of a day I must have had.  We started chatting about non-business stuff, and he made an impression.  Company reps respond positively when they encounter someone at a career fair who isn’t immediately about “get me a job.”  (Note: if you’re going to talk about non-business stuff when the rep is trying to work through a line of people, make sure it’s quick!)

    As I’ve always said, people get jobs in many different ways.  So, I’ll never tell someone something can’t be done.  But career fairs often aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.