Ask Annie

5 ways to make the most of a campus career fair

October 19, 2012: 10:28 AM ET

Graduating from college in the spring? The job market for the class of 2013 is super-competitive, but standing out from the crowd at a career fair can help.

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I'll be getting a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering next spring, and I'm nervous about my chances of having a job offer in hand by then. With a lot of student loans to start paying off, I really have to be working right away. So I have two questions: First, my school is having a career fair next month, with recruiters from about 50 companies. A zillion other students have already signed up. Do you have any suggestions about how not to get lost in the crowd?

And second, I've had a couple of job interviews already, with two different companies where I think I'd really like to work. It's been about a month now, and I haven't heard anything back from either one. Does that mean they're not interested, or what? — Dixie Chick

Dear Dixie: Not to add to your anxiety, but you're right to be nervous about finding a job -- and smart to have started looking already. As you probably know, a much-publicized Associated Press report a few months ago said that more than half (54%) of 2011 college grads were either unemployed or underemployed, meaning stuck in jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree, and the class of 2012 doesn't seem to be faring much better. In September, unemployment among Americans ages 18 to 29 stood at 11.8%, well above the 7.8% average for the workforce as a whole.

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On the bright side, however, employers expect to hire 13% more new grads in 2013 than in 2012, according to preliminary results from the National Association of Colleges and Employers' annual survey of hiring managers. Moreover, your choice of major gives you an advantage. "Those most likely to increase their hiring of new college graduates include employers in chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing," notes Marilyn Mackes, executive director at NACE, adding that demand will be particularly strong for new grads with business, computer science, and all types of engineering degrees -- and that employers "are looking to college campuses to supply their hiring needs."

Which brings us to your career fair. "The No. 1 way to make a career fair work for you is to make sure you go," says Alison Doyle. "Often seniors are so busy that they skip it, which is a mistake. Juniors should go too, because companies often look for interns at these events." Doyle, a longtime human resources executive and now About.com's resident career expert, has written several books on job hunting, most recently Alison Doyle's Job Search Guidebook.

Even if the list of employers scheduled to attend doesn't wow you, she says, go anyway: "You never know who you'll meet there, and who might be helpful to you down the road. A job fair is also a great place to practice presenting yourself to hiring managers."

A few suggestions for making the most of the event:

1. Research the employers who interest you. Pay special attention to the careers section of each company's website, and think about which opportunities there would best fit your strengths and interests.

2. Prepare your "elevator speech." This is a 20-to-30-second sound bite that sums up your talents and skills. If you aren't sure what those are, think back to successes you've had so far -- including any leadership role you've played in an extracurricular activity (and yes, sports do count) -- and analyze what helped you achieve them.

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3. Dress appropriately. If in doubt about what to wear, it's safer to be overdressed than clad too casually. Clothes don't make the man (or the woman), but wearing business attire will send a subtle message that you're taking this event seriously.

4. Be enthusiastic. If you're genuinely interested in an employer, end the conversation by saying so, and express your interest in exploring opportunities at the company. All else being equal, the most eager candidate often has an edge with employers, Doyle says.

5. Follow up after the fair is over. Don't forget to ask for contact information from every recruiter you meet. Then, as soon as possible, send an email -- or better yet, a handwritten note -- briefly conveying why you believe you'd be the right hire. Ask when you might be able to meet again.

And speaking of following up, Doyle says, in response to your second question, that "it's not at all unusual to interview with a company and hear nothing for several weeks afterward. Even for seasoned job seekers, getting hired these days is a long, drawn-out process. And big companies especially are interviewing on so many campuses that it takes them a long time to reach a decision. Some may be holding off on making offers because they aren't quite sure yet what their staffing needs will be next spring."

That's why it's important to stay in touch with them. "You don't want to bombard them with messages, but you need to follow each interview with a thank-you and then ask if there is any more information they would like from you," says Doyle. "Send a short note every couple of weeks, to make sure you're not forgotten in the press of other applicants."

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While you're waiting to hear back, she adds, don't stop looking. "Keep going because, until you get a firm offer, you don't know what else is out there that might interest you even more. If you pin all your hopes on one or two companies, and those offers don't materialize, you'll have to start looking all over again, which will put you behind [your competition]. You need to have lots of irons in the fire." Good luck.

Talkback: Have you ever gotten a job through a career fair? If you're a hiring manager, what impresses you most at these events? What do you look for in potential hires? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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