Top 5 questions to ask at career fairs
Career fairs are exciting. You walk into a room filled with booths and people just like you, dressed in their best business wear. Every booth and every company recruiter you see could be the first step towards a career goal and an amazing future. It’s a time loaded with opportunity. Or it’s a virtual fair, and you’re getting serious facetime with a whole host of potential employers to help you identify a company that would be a good fit. You have been through the online college application process and maybe even a few years of schooling, and you are now advancing towards your end goal--getting a job!
Career fairs can also be intimidating. You can’t help but wonder how smart, talented, and qualified all those other people in the business world are. Could they be outperforming you? Are they getting to a job opportunity before you can? What if you miss the perfect potential employer for you, or worse yet--what if you’re talking to an employer and you say the wrong thing? Especially at a virtual fair.
The good news is there’s an easy way to counter these anxieties and get yourself right back to the excitement: prepare. Like so many things in life, you get out of a job fair what you put into it. The more ready you are going in, the more confident you’ll feel. That’s how you make your best impression. And it’s why we offer tips on how to prepare for career fair events in general, what to wear at a job fair, and how to create the best elevator pitch for career fair use.
The other good news is that interviews at career fairs aren’t like job interviews in the sense that companies are not comparing you directly with other people for one specific job. They’re trying to get a feel for any potential employees they meet and find outstanding individuals they may want to hire in the future. So the only person whose performance you have to think about is you.
The other difference between career fair interviews and a standard job interviews is that they’re much more two-sided. It’s a time for you to find out about employers and decide if you want to work there. They should be trying to impress you as much as you impress them. The best way to get both accomplished is to have good questions to ask at a career fair ready at all times.
Let’s get into it and get you ready to put your best foot forward at your next fair.
Questions to Ask at a Job Fair Interview
Maybe the most important thing to keep in mind is that career fairs are long days. As tense as you may be as a prospective employee, you’re only in there for an hour, maybe two at the most. The employers are there for several hours, over which they’ll talk to lots of people. They’ll tire quickly, and all the names and faces will run together. If you want to stand out, you need to do something to distinguish yourself. Being ready with good questions to ask at a job fair is a great way to do that.
1. Ask about one job, not all of them.
Valla Aguilar, director of marketing at North Central College, provided a list of questions she likes to hear from prospective job candidates that show they’re already thinking of themselves doing a particular job:
“What are your short and long term goals for this position? Describe the ideal candidate for this position. How do you measure success for this position? And/or how will my performance be evaluated? What are the biggest challenges this role will encounter? Where will my workspace be, and who will I interface with the most on a daily basis?”
When you tailor them to fit a specific position, these kinds of questions will make you come across as confident you’ll be hired but not expecting to coast. You want to know what it takes for someone to succeed and be more than just any employee. For most positions, companies want natural leaders who are goal-driven and ready to excel from the very first day.
2. Ask questions that show you’ve done research.
Now, of course, to ask about a specific open position will require some prep work. You’ll need to look up the companies that will be at the career fair and see what they’re looking for. It’s very much worth the work because too many people approach a booth, introduce themselves, and provide general information about their skills, then stand back and let the employer take it from there. That is how you fade from a company recruiter’s memory.
And don’t make the mistake of actually asking if they have an open position or what jobs they currently have available. It speaks well of you if you already have those answers and shows you don’t want to waste their time.
North Central College Director of Communication Jeremy Borling said the right questions to ask at a career fair show professionalism and commitment. “During an interview, I hope for an applicant to ask questions that show they've done some deeper digging into the position beyond just reading the job description,” he said. “Asking thoughtful questions is an opportunity to show that they've done their homework and have thought about how their knowledge and experience connect to the role in a deeper way. If an applicant … only asks basic questions that are otherwise answered within the job description, it can be a signal that they lack sincere interest in the role.”
This can be as simple as asking about details on a recent accomplishment for the company, especially if it’s something you heard about in the news. You can also talk about how much you like the company’s products or services and what they plan to offer next. Or look for a strategy or guiding principle that’s talked about on the company website and relate it to your own qualifications. Tell the recruiter it’s important to you because of your experience and ask why it’s so important to the company culture.
On the other side of the coin, a career fair is a perfect time to find out what isn’t in a job description, which is how well you will fit in at the company. Jobs are often less about raw skills and knowledge and more about making connections. People who work well together tend to get a lot more positive work done than otherwise talented people who just can’t get along. That’s why your questions to ask recruiters at career fair events should definitely cover company culture.
Stav Ziv of The Muse wrote, “If you’re new to the working world, you might not know exactly what you’re looking for (and that’s okay!), but you can still use these kinds of questions to feel out whether a company sounds like a place you can see yourself spending most of your waking hours.
“When you ask questions about culture—and throughout your conversation—make sure you’re attuned to body language, hesitations, and what’s not being said, in addition to the actual verbal response. … Small cues like pauses or a perfectly inoffensive but (rehearsed) answer can raise questions to look into more later.”
Ask how the company views diversity, gender equity, work-life balance, and collaborative work vs. independent projects. Ask if they’re okay with employees spending time together outside of work, how relaxed the atmosphere is around the office, or how comfortable supervisors are with employees coming to them with problems or questions. You can judge if what they say (or how they say it) fits in your comfort zone, and they’ll be impressed you’re thinking on a level deeper than everyday tasks.
3. Ask about growing in the role.
You may feel a career fair is way too early in the process to be asking about the future, but doing so fulfills two purposes. First, it tells you if a company is a place you can be serious about staying for a while. Second, it lets the employer know that if they hire you, you’re not likely to quit at the first sign of a better deal.
A great standard question is “What are the opportunities for advancement?”, according to Dave Roos of howstuffworks.com. Roos wrote, “When recruiters go out in search of new hires, they're looking for two key characteristics: flexibility and loyalty. The ideal employee will be somebody who can handle a wide variety of tasks, is open to evolving roles, and will stick around for the long haul. It's expensive and time-consuming to recruit, hire, and train new employees. If you want to impress, you need to convince the recruiter that you're eager to make a long-term investment in the company's success.”
Then there’s questions about your career path. You want to make sure there isn’t a barrier to getting a better job right above you or around you--that the company regularly promotes from within and is willing to shuffle talented people to different positions within the company to make sure their role is a good fit.
Along those same lines, you also want to ask about training. Does the company provide opportunities for professional development? Do they do on-the-job training? This is tricky because you don’t want to come across as under-qualified and hoping to learn the job as you go. Instead, you want to give the impression that you know a lot and because of that, you’re excited to learn more and that you want to get better for the sake of yourself and the company.
“Lead off the question by telling the recruiter about a positive experience you had with a previous employer, where a training program led to increased productivity or a particularly successful project,” Roos said. “Even better, come prepared with an example of a skill set that you're eager to acquire and how that new knowledge would directly benefit the company.”
4. Ask questions of the person you’re talking to, not just the company.
When you’re at a career fair, carrying around copies of your resume, wearing the same outfit you see a half dozen other places in the room, and repeating the same tight, carefully-prepared 30 second elevator pitch, it’s easy to forget that everyone there is a human being. That includes you, and it also includes the recruiters you’re talking to. While they are there to speak for their company, it’s okay to ask them for their own opinions. In fact, it’s really important that you do.
Roos contends that a little consideration goes a long way with recruiters. “As a general rule, people love talking about themselves. Recruiters are no different,” said Roos. “Since they spend 90 percent of their day talking about the company or listening to applicants tell their own employment stories, it's nice to give the recruiter a chance to tell his or her own story for a change.”
Recruiters may be surprised, but likely pleasantly, if you ask what they think. If you manage to turn it around, so you’re really interviewing them, that makes for a memorable encounter. And you always want a recruiter to remember you for good reasons. After all, the people back at the office (like the hiring manager) are taking their word for what they find out at the fair, so however, you impress them is great.
You also want to use the opportunity to get an honest picture of what it's like to work at a company from someone who knows firsthand. Their answer, or again the way they say their answer, could fill in missing pieces from a job posting or the company website. Maybe you're able to identify during your conversation that it’s a big company, but it’s a looser atmosphere than people think. Maybe there are secret perks like flexible hours or company gatherings that you only find out about once you’re hired. Or maybe, unfortunately, they’re stuck in their job and give you the impression they’d rather be working anywhere else. All of these are golden pieces of knowledge to help you make your plans.
5. Ask how you can follow up.
No interaction at a career fair should be complete without making sure you exchange information with a recruiter. If they’re any good at their job, they should have business cards with them and offer you one, so if they don’t, be sure to ask and give them yours in return. Then you should request the chance to reach out to them later and find out the best way to do so, whether by phone, email, or some other method. It will more than likely be email, but whatever they say, stick to it. Don’t look them up on social media or drop by the office, unless for some reason, they ask you to.
Remember that you’re asking for permission to contact them, so if they turn you down, that’s that. The same goes for if they say you can drop them an email, and then they don’t respond. Job fairs, whether it’s fair or not, are a little like speed dating. Hopefully, you can sense when you’ve really connected with someone, but sometimes it’s just not there. Don’t force it--it’ll make you appear desperate and unprofessional.
That said, if you do make a connection, it could end up being a permanent one that opens a lot of doors for you. But you never will if you don’t follow up. Speaking of which ...
Questions to Ask When Following Up with a Recruiter
Emails to a recruiter after the career fair should be pretty standard and look a lot like the cover letter to a resume. You should mention your qualifications and why you think you’d be a good fit for the role they’re searching for, and above all else, thank them. A thank you to a recruiter won’t get you a job, but not thanking them could easily lead to your name going to the bottom of their pile and miss out on a job opportunity you could have been great for.
Beyond that, you can ask what the status of the job opening you talked about with them is. If they said they aren’t hiring now, but might be soon, you can follow up on that. You can also ask for an expected timeline for filling a job. Not all companies are created equally, and some (especially big companies) have a long hiring process. It’s good to ask and keep yourself on a recruiter’s radar but have patience. You can even reference what you talked about at the career fair and ask how a project is coming along for the company.
Whatever you do, make sure you follow up quickly, like within a day or two of meeting the recruiter, and always be professional and respectful.
If you have other questions about questions, the Career Development website at North Central College is a great resource for helpful information on career fairs, both in-person and virtual, as well as interviews, resumes, networking, and much more.
Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 10 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.