How to tackle a careers fair

Mike Barnard's essential tips

You might think speaking to employers face-to-face before your interview is an outdated part of the graduate recruitment process. Researching and applying for jobs can be done online and companies even arrange interviews via automated emails.

But graduate employers still value meeting their potential new recruits, and that's why so many take the time to visit universities across the country for presentations and careers fairs. According to the UK Graduate Careers Survey 2012 by High Fliers Research, 100 of the leading graduate employers marketed their vacancies at an average of 19 universities each last year.

Whenever there's a company presentation or careers fair in your area, you should always consider attending. Presentations help you learn more about a particular company, while fairs let you research your options by speaking to representatives from a variety of industries, and the firms within them. So what should you do to prepare for a fair?

Career fairs come in all shapes and sizes, from gatherings in university buildings to large-scale shows at external venues. Firms set up their stalls with branded backdrops, glossy brochures and some freebies to entice you. The organisers also often hold CV workshops, presentations by employers and career advice seminars.

While it's unlikely you'll be interviewed on the spot or be offered a job as a result of meeting somebody at a fair, they are valuable ways to gain further insight into a company's culture, opportunities and business. Fairs are also a great way to make contacts � if you use them to their full potential.

Do your research beforehand. All the shows have websites listing the exhibitors, so if there are companies you're particularly interested in it's well worth familiarising yourself with what they do. Having a level of understanding will ensure a positive impression; not doing so will achieve the opposite. Don't be the hundredth person to start a conversation with a recruiter by asking: �So what do you do?"

Be well dressed, as if for an interview, and take copies of your CV to hand to recruiters as you talk to them. Your CV is a visual aid to what you say and recruiters may even take it back to their desk at the end of the day.

Be prepared to answer questions about what areas you wish to work in, and what draws you to them. Some people can speak naturally and at length about these matters. If you're not one of them, run through your ideas before the fair. Have some questions to ask the employers that interest you too - even if they are the same you ask every employer. But try to relax: employers will value a smile and confident answers to their questions more than a well-rehearsed sales pitch.

Don't approach your favourite employer first. Chat to others that interest you less to get into the swing of things. If you have a good conversation with someone, ask for their business card or email address and follow up your chat with a further note to underline your interest. Provided you are courteous and strike the right balance between professionalism and enthusiasm, it won't do any harm to your application, even if it's not able to influence the outcome.

Careers fairs are ideal information-gathering venues and offer great opportunities to speak to employers - don't miss your chance to impress and perhaps make an important contact who could open the door to your career.