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In any job search, the personal touch still counts. While many job seekers these days start their search online, many opportunities can still be found at a traditional career fair, which often feature hundreds of employers eager to land top candidates.
Walking into a crowded room crammed with multicolored booths and employee recruiters can be a bit overwhelming, but an effective face-to-face talk with a potential employer may ultimately be what sets you apart from the competition, says Bob Cramer, president of Career Concepts USA Inc., which this year plans to host more than 330 job fairs nationwide for sales and marketing professionals.
"You really have to think of yourself as a walking, talking, breathing resume," Cramer says. "Nothing replaces meeting someone face to face, and it's in that first two to 10 minutes that they decide whether you are worth their time to take the next step."
For starters, preparation is key. Get on the Web, find out what companies will be at the job fair and pick out about five to 10 that you want to visit.
Cramer recommends first "stretching out" with a few companies that may not be in your top five in order to practice introducing yourself and talking to recruiters.
"It's not about you just finding a job," he says. "It's about finding a manager that sees you as a talent. The most important thing is to try and separate yourself from the crowd in any way you can."
Arriving early is also a good move. You may avoid the longest lines, and you'll catch employers while they're still fresh.
Dress the part
With so many job hunters on the prowl in one place, how can you distinguish yourself from the competition?
Showing up wearing flip-flops and shorts will certainly make you stand out from the crowd, but not in a good way.
Kate Zabriskie, founder of Business Training Works Inc. in Port Tobacco, Md., which specializes in helping people improve basic skills essential to business success, such as communication, writing and business etiquette, says maintaining a professional appearance is vital.
"Pick the most conservative outfit you own, and be sure to cover up any tattoos," Zabriskie says. "Looking like you just woke up out of bed is a huge mistake, no matter which company."
Attending a job fair with a friend or spouse is OK, but don't spend the whole visit walking side-by-side with them.
"The best thing to do is separate from that person," she says. "Dragging a friend or spouse along with you can slow you down and distract you from getting the most out of the job fair."
Most of all, it's essential to stay focused and upbeat. When visiting a company, focus on what the recruiter is saying and don't get distracted by what is going on around you. And, most importantly, always smile - companies are looking for energetic employees.
Do your homework
Research each company you plan to visit, so when you talk to a recruiter you're knowledgeable about the company, are aware of what it is looking for and understand how you can provide value.
"A mistake as simple as mispronouncing the company's name can really be a disaster when talking to a recruiter," Zabriskie said.
Also, don't discredit small companies. A smaller company that you've not heard of might offer the perfect opportunity for you, but you may never find out if you don't research the company or talk to them.
"If you prove to be a talented asset for a smaller company, you are even more exciting to them than to the bigger outfits," Cramer said.
Many job fairs are a first step for college students or recent graduates looking for their big break.
Even though a career fair can often feel like the "American Idol" of job recruitment, it's still important to clearly and concisely sell your personality and skills to potential employers.
Pat Sullivan, director of career services at Devry University in Orlando, Fla., says students and recent graduates should consider their introductions as 30 to 60-second "commercials" that convey interests, personality, character and abilities.
"Be prepared to articulate to a recruiter how you can provide value to their company," Sullivan says. "Demonstrate this by showcasing specific examples of your experience, such as previous internships, class projects or leadership roles and explain how this experience has helped to prepare you for the responsibilities of the position you're discussing."
It's also key to respect the time of the recruiter and not ramble on about yourself for too long.
"Being able to present yourself in a clear and succinct way will also be helpful in leaving a lasting impression with the recruiter, who is likely to meet hundreds of students in one day," she said.
Attending a job fair is only the beginning. Give each company a copy of your resume, and don't forget to get business cards from each recruiter you speak with. Follow up a few days later with an e-mail or personal "thank you" card.
"Although most people are only sending e-mail messages these days, a personalized note can still be very effective," Cramer said.
Job fairs can help build up your network of contacts
If you're attending a job fair, you're probably planning on making a good impression on one of the many recruiters who will be looking for top talent. But if you want to get the most out of the job fair, you should also pay special attention to your peers.
"It can be intimidating, but by introducing yourself to a few people, you'll be expanding your network and your chances of getting a job," says Christian Lherman, a recruiter in Chicago.
And to make yourself a welcome contact for someone else, keep this in mind: True networking isn't a one-way process. Instead, you should be offering the same level of career support to others that you expect to receive yourself.
"You should realize that you'll need to be an active participant in the process," says Robert Rasmus, an executive recruiter in Cleveland. "It's a two-way street. If it's not, your network won't last too long. Your contacts should appreciate your effort in providing information and support for their career goals, not dread your, 'So, what can you do for me' phone calls."
Rasmus also cautions against expecting instant gratification.
"It's unlikely someone will have a job waiting for you when you call," he says. "The idea is to build a network of contacts that you can cultivate throughout your career for advice, job leads and support."