As you step out of the comfort zone of education and into the job market, it can be difficult to bridge the gap between academics and the “real world.” School gives you the knowledge to do the work, but actually landing a job involves connecting with employers and (gulp) selling yourself.

While some students are comfortable with self-promotion, many budding professionals find this a truly daunting task. Having had personal experience with this phobia, I know the idea of talking to dozens of recruiters, surrounded by a sea of applicants, can seem like a special kind of nightmare. Luckily, like most phobias, this one can be conquered. You just have to expose yourself to it, and for most of us, this starts with career fairs.

Many schools host an annual career fair and they are invaluable for connecting with potential employers. For the wary introvert (I see you hiding back there), these events can be panic-inducing, but you can master them. You just need to be prepared.

To get some tips on conquering career fair fear and making the most of the opportunity, I spoke to Andrew Bascome, a Career Development Assistant from George Brown College.

Set long-term goals (and be prepared to state them)

What skills do you want to gain? Where do you see yourself in five years? You need to ask yourself some of these tough questions to be able to set goals, both for the career fair, and your job search.

“Recruiters place a lot of importance on finding an employee that will be a good fit for the company long-term. These kinds of questions are sure to be asked, so be prepared to answer them,” Bascome says.

Do your research

Career fairs can vary wildly in size and breadth of employers. Most fairs, though, will have a list of participating companies posted in advance. Take advantage of this list to do some digging. Look into relevant companies to get some background on who you’ll be speaking to, their products and services, what positions they have open, and what positions you’d be interested in. It’s also a good idea to look into recent company news and developments. The more you know about them, the better your conversations will be, which can make you feel more confident, and help you stand out from the crowd.

Have a plan of attack

A good way to organize your approach is to use an ABC list strategy. Create a shortlist of companies you want to meet, and then rank them based on your level of interest and their relevance to your field. If, for example, you want to get a job in banking, you might rank the large national banks under the A category. Companies that fall under the B category would be the next step down (in this case, smaller specialized banks like Tangerine). The C category, meanwhile, can be reserved for any banking-associated companies, like Money Mart.

“Separating the companies in this way gives you an idea of the relationships within the industry, as well as an idea of the experience you’ll need to work your way up the list from C to A,” Bascome says.

Arrive early and dress the part

The expression “the early bird gets the worm” exists for a reason, and it’s especially true at a career fair. To make the most of the event, arrive at the fair early, preferably right when the doors open. Not only does this demonstrate eagerness, it will also help you avoid the longer lines that develop later in the day.

“Getting there early gives you the chance to leave an impression on the recruiters before they’ve gone through a day’s worth of interviews and may give you some extra time for an interview,” Bascome says, adding that it’s important you dress the part. “Business casual is the norm, and always pack extra resumes, a pen, and a business card,” he says.

Conquer the jitters

From personal experience, the prospect of selling your skills to a potential employer is intimidating. Fear of embarrassment might seem silly, but when you’re in the grip of it, it’s easy to feel helpless. To fight this feeling off, start the day with one of your C-list companies, just to get into the swing of things. If it doesn’t go well? Big deal. It wasn’t one of your ideal companies anyway.

Another good idea is to get into a conversational flow by talking to other applicants or event organizers. Every connection is a good connection and you never know where a conversation can lead. More importantly, this will get you talking and out of your self-doubting head.

When you do finally reach that company on the top of your list, you may still feel like a bundle of nerves (even after all your preparation). Remember, though, the recruiter is looking for people like you. That’s the reason they are there.

“You have to always keep in mind that they’re interested in hearing about you. You don’t need to be overly charismatic, just focus on being confident, pleasant, and eager. Listen carefully and be sure to get contact details from the company,” Bascome says, adding that you should avoid bringing up salary.

“Bringing up salary in the short time you have will leave recruiters with the impression that money is your main focus. Center your questions on the position and what it entails, not what you hope to make from it,” he says.

Avoid clustering in groups

At job fairs hosted at your school, it can be tempting to group together with your friends or fellow applicants. Avoid the temptation.

“Grouping makes you blend in with other job seekers, and is to be avoided. Focus on making yourself stand out and developing connections with recruiters,” Bascome says.

It’s also important to avoid checking your phone, even when between booths. Recruiters are giving up their time to speak with applicants, and they want to feel like you’re giving them equal respect and attention. If you have to check your messages or take a call, leave the fair.

Follow up after the event

The work doesn’t end after the career fair. Within 24 hours, contact the companies you left a resume with and thank them for their time. Opening a line of communication will help your chances of standing out from the crowd.

“This is the most important step of the process,” Bascome says. “Recruiters will be meeting dozens of other applicants in a day, following up keeps you fresh in their minds and sets you apart from the pool of applicants.”

Good luck!


Cecil Stehelin is a Business Marketing student at George Brown College.