If you’ve ever been to a career fair, then you know they can be pretty stressful events. You work hard on your resume, put on your best professional outfit, and then plunge into a room full of employers and candidates in an effort make yourself noticeable.

Being put on the spot is never fun, but after attending a few career fairs you can really begin to see who the standout candidates are right away – before they even open their mouth. That’s because in a career fair situation, where hundreds of employers and candidates are mingling in a high-stress situation, the candidates who do all of the “little things” correctly will quickly rise to the top.

Think about it: if an employer only has 5-10 minutes to interact with you, and they are able to identify a myriad of weaknesses during that window, the odds are pretty small that they are going to offer you an interview. The candidates who succeed at career fairs are not perfect (after all, there is no such thing as the “perfect” candidate), but they typically display excellent attention to detail, self-confidence, and professional polish.

Based upon these observations, I’ve identified a laundry list of what I call “Career Fair Killers” – common, seemingly small mistakes that can make a big impact on your overall appearance as a candidate. These missteps certainly are not the only blunders made at career fairs, but hopefully they will help you think about any small factors that YOU may have overlooked!

1. The Sad Resume

So you’ve got some stellar experience on your resume – fantastic! But, have you paid enough attention to the formatting? Many candidates bring resumes to the career fair with an outdated format (tables, anyone?), an inappropriate email address (such as sugarkitten@college.edu), or some type of picture/clipart feature on their resume. No!

Take the necessary time to learn what is appropriate for a resume and update it accordingly – if the employer trashes your application as soon as you walk away from their table, then you have completely wasted your time and energy by attending the career fair.

2. Short Skirts and Long Jackets

Please do your best to wear clothes that are appropriate and clothes that fit well when attending a career fair. Ladies, this means a dress skirt that is at least knee-length or, ideally, a pants suit. Conservative is always better than risking something inappropriate. Your professional qualifications, not your body, should be the primary focus of the conversations you have with employers.

Gentleman tend to have the opposite problem – I often see men attending the career fair with suit jackets or pants that are baggy or mismatched. I understand this issue – dress clothes are not cheap, especially when you are first starting out in your career. However, I encourage you to procure a properly fitting, matched suit if at all possible. Proper dress will do a great deal to help you project a complete professional image.

3. Bed-Head, Eye Shadow, and Cologne: Oh My!

This sounds a little silly to say, but grooming is SO crucial to your first impression as a job candidate. If you have great looking professional attire but your hair looks like you’ve just rolled out of bed, your mane is probably all the recruiter will be able to focus on during the conversation. Cut it, comb it, and get it out of your face – candidates flipping their bangs during the conversation need not apply!

The same goes with make-up and cologne – keep in mind that you’re not going to a nightclub, you’re going to have a professional interaction with an employer. Keep your makeup conservative and use minimal cologne or perfume (if any). Giving the employer a headache from your after-shave will probably make you memorable for all of the wrong reasons!

4. Socks and Hose

As mentioned above, success at a career fair is all about attention to detail. It kills me to see a male candidate with an otherwise professional appearance sporting neon socks (or white socks, or NO socks) with his loafers. Being memorable is important, but you don’t want the recruiters to be referencing you later as “the guy with the socks” (and trust me, they will). Other common faux pas for men include wearing a bowtie or wearing sunglasses to the career fair. The career fair is not the time to take fashion risks, be edgy, or be overly casual – remember, less is more.

For women, the “less is more” rule also applies to your accessories. Again, be conservative when choosing jewelry, handbags, etc. However, there is one thing that you should add: panty hose. If you’re wearing a skirt to the career fair, panty hose is an expected accompaniment that completes the professional look.

5. Cell Phone Etiquette

One often-overlooked detail of career fair attendance is cell phone etiquette. For example, if you’re standing in line waiting to speak with an employer, you probably shouldn’t be texting or checking your Facebook page on your smart phone. Instead, put the phone away and use the time to review your resume and focus for the conversation ahead.

Perhaps even more egregious is the career fair cell phone call. I often overhear students talking to their friends on cell phones at the career fair, either in the bathroom or walking about the venue. I realize a successful interaction with an employer often gives you an emotional surge, but if an employer overhears you saying “Hey Mom – I KILLED it!” or “Hey Bro! What it is? What it do?” then they probably will not be left with the best final impression. And for the record, those are both real examples of phone conversations overheard at a career fair!

6. The Sad Resume, pt. 2

Okay. Let’s assume that your resume is properly formatted. It is sparkling, up-to-date, and very professional-looking. Then you walk into the career fair carrying this precious document in a tattered binder, a manila folder, or – heaven forbid – a brown paper bag. Think again!

Remember that presentation is just as important as content when interacting with recruiters. An unprofessional dossier gives you an amateurish appearance, and the problem is particularly bad if your flimsy folder causes your resumes to get crumpled at some point along the way. For maximum professional polish, opt for a leather padfolio instead.

Updated: 20/03/2017

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