What to Wear to a Job Fair
You’ve got the skills. You’ve got the charisma. You've got your resume ready and proofread, and you’ve got your career path all mapped out. But there’s one big question that’s still on your mind: What should you wear to the job fair? It may sound like a small detail, but it’s not. Your clothes can say something about you, they can make an impression on a prospective hiring manager, and most important of all, your clothes can give you confidence. And when it comes to landing your dream job, confidence is everything.
Deciding what to wear to a career fair can be a challenge—a challenge made all the more difficult during the current global pandemic. Since many career fairs are taking place virtually or remotely rather than in-person, or perhaps outside in a socially distanced fashion as opposed to indoors in a more formal setting, there is even more to consider. But for the purposes of this article, we’re going to provide tried-and-true advice that should hold true no matter the format or location of the career fair that you are planning to attend.
What’s the purpose of a job fair?
Job fairs exist for a few different reasons. Job fairs exist for a few different reasons. For college students looking for their first job or an internship, a job fair is a prime opportunity to make connections and meet employers from a number of different companies and organizations within a short span of time. This benefits a college student immensely, as there are multiple opportunities to talk to a potential employer, present your resume, and discuss if there is a job opening that could be a good fit. You may learn about a new and exciting company that you’ve never heard of before, or you can make a direct connection with a recruiter from an organization that you’ve had your eye on. A career fair can also serve as invaluable practice for you to perfect your interview skills, as each interaction is like a mini interview—kind of like career speed dating! So make sure to show up with your job fair elevator pitch and resume ready to go. It is also helpful to have a list of insightful questions to ask recruiters at the career fair, so you are prepared to ask about their company and the different roles they have open.
On the flip side, employers attend job fairs because they want to meet you! They are actively searching for talented and motivated candidates for internships and entry-level positions who will grow into the leaders of tomorrow at their companies. This is especially true for career fairs that take place on college campuses, as these locations provide recruiters with direct access to smart and qualified degree-seeking students and recent grads. Remember that employers are looking to make a good impression on you, too.
Which brings us back to clothes. How should you dress to both fit in and stand out from the crowd at a job fair?
What to Wear at a Job Fair Interview
Let’s start with an important piece of advice: Treat a job fair like you would treat a job interview. That means you should arrive with the same level of professionalism, from how you plan to communicate with employers to what you plan to wear. You are always one connection or one conversation away from landing your perfect job or dream career, and at a job fair those chances are multiplied, so be ready.
Dress for the job you want—The easy advice here is to say, “dress professionally.” But the truth is, professional dress can vary greatly from job to job, from career to career, and from person to person, so it’s important to consider your own personal career aspirations. Is it your dream to be a teacher? A physical therapist? A small business owner? An engineer? Employee No. 1 at the next big tech start-up? Do a little research and consider what the top-level professionals in these fields wear to work every day (and let’s consider a point in time when most professionals are not working from home) and dress for that job.
At the same time, it should also be pointed out that even if you consider yourself the next Mark Zuckerberg, wearing your comfy jeans and the T-shirt you slept in last night is probably not the best choice. Once you’ve made your first million, go ahead and wear your flip-flops to the board room, but that may not be the best first impression at a job fair. Regardless of the industry, a hiring manager is going to appreciate that you’ve put the necessary thought and effort into dressing for the occasion and making a solid first impression. Whether that impression is a dress, pants suit, suit and tie, a clean and pressed button down, or simply your best pair of jeans and non-athletic shoes, it is up to you to dress appropriately for your dream job.
Be you and stand out—There is plenty of career advice out there that suggests you should wear your hair a certain way, or not show your tattoos, or avoid “loud” clothes or certain patterns, but this is 2020. The most important thing you can do is be you—because you are unique and being your true self gives you confidence. You also want to stand out from the crowd and show prospective employers what makes you special. Uniform outfits and hairstyles can cause you to blend in rather than stand out.
Now, to be clear, there are a multitude of things you can do to stand out and fuel yourself with confidence. What you wear and how you look is just one way. So wear that gray suit if you want to. Just be prepared to make the type of personal impression or ask the types of questions that will help you stand out from the last 15 people the recruiter spoke to.
Do your homework—Ultimately, the most important thing you can do to prepare for a career fair has nothing to do with your clothes or your look. The top thing on your job fair to-do list is to be prepared. Find out who is going to be at the career fair representing which companies. This will put you in a position to give your best elevator pitch, to ask insightful questions, and to dress for the job you want—in a manner that is aligned with your true self.
Leverage your resources—If you’re an undergraduate student or even a recent college graduate, make sure you are taking advantage of all the resources that are available to you through your college. For example, business attire can be expensive, so North Central College created the Cardinal Career Closet, which provides free lightly used professional clothing for students to keep. In most cases, the clothes—from suits and blazers, to business dresses and skirts, to dress shoes and belts—are donated by alumni, faculty, staff and friends of the college. In addition to providing the clothes, North Central’s Offices of Student Affairs and Career Development are on-hand to assist students with putting together the appropriate look for their career search.
2019 North Central College graduate Alice Zordan took advantage of the Cardinal Career Closet prior to attending an Associated Colleges of Illinois (ACI) Career and Internship Fair. “I attended workshops and prepared my resume weeks in advance, and I was one of the few people dressed as one should be for an interview,” Zordan said. “The impression recruiters got was that I was ready for a challenge in the job market. Among dozens of students who showed up in comfy clothes, they saw readiness in how seriously I took the fair.” Consequently, the career fair ended up connecting Zordan to a summer internship. “Resources like these let students know that their college is truly there for them, to see them succeed,” she added.
Don’t not care—Yes, “Don’t not care” is a double negative, but there’s simply no better way to say it. If you’re going to a career fair, care. Period. Care about putting your best foot forward—in terms of what you wear and the thought and effort you put into making a positive impression with a prospective employer. Even if the career fair is taking place 20 feet from your dorm room, avoid the temptation to roll out of bed and meet with employers in your pajamas. Or if you’re going to hit up the career fair on your way from practice to the dining hall, hit the showers first. No offense, but recruiters would likely prefer to talk to you about summer internship opportunities while you’re wearing something other than your sweaty workout gear. By attending a career fair with a serious mindset, employers will take you seriously, too.
Don’t stress—It’s important that you care about making a good impression, but it’s also important not to stress. Being yourself is the best way to get the job you want, and the job you want is the job that will make you happy. So do what comes naturally. Be you. Making a good impression is important, but the best way to do that is by showing off your smarts and being well prepared for an interview. No outfit is going to do that for you. What an outfit can do is give you the boost you need to be your best you.
It’s a complicated world out there, and there’s no one-size-fits-all advice for landing your first job or the all-important college internship. If you’re a college student or recent college graduate, make sure that you are taking every advantage of your College’s career resource or development center. Their goal is to help you have a successful transition from college to career, and to leverage their resources and connections to alumni, businesses, and career recruiters for your benefit—whether that means helping you polish up your resume or helping you find the right outfit to wear to the job fair.
Jeremy Borling is the director of communication at North Central College. He has spent his more than 15-year career in communications working in the fields of higher education and financial services. He has a BA degree in journalism from North Central College, and a MS degree in communication from Boston University.