How to get the most out of school leaver jobs fairs and employer events

How to get the most out of job fairs and employer events
School leaver careers fairs and open days are a great way to meet employees at companies that interest you if you’re thinking about a higher apprenticeship or school leaver programme. Here’s how to get the best out of them and impress potential employers.

Websites such as TARGETcareers are a great starting place for finding out about school leaver programmes, but to get answers to all your questions it helps to meet recruiters and other employees face to face or via a digital platform. Many employers attend careers fairs in different parts of the country, visit individual schools or hold events at their own offices, such as open days or open evenings. Careers fairs and open days moved online during the coronavirus pandemic and it is likely that some of these will continue to be held virtually because they allow employers to meet a wide variety of students without travelling around or being limited by the size of a physical venue.

Careers fairs and events aren’t just about gathering information – they are also a great opportunity to get noticed by employers for the right reasons. If you impress them they may ask for your name and contact details and either send you more information that will help you or watch out for your application and recommend that it goes onto the ‘invite for interview’ pile.

Having a good chat with company representatives – and getting to see their offices, if the event is held there – will also give you a feel for whether you’d actually like to work there in practice. Do you like the people? Would you feel at home?

Q. How should I prepare for a careers fair or an open day?

A. To get the most out of the day and make a good impression, do the following in advance.

  • For careers fairs, get a list of which employers will be attending and identify those that interest you.
  • Find out about the employer(s). What industry do they work in? What specific products or services do they offer? (Do an internet search if you don’t know what the terms mean.) What do their apprenticeships involve?
  • Once you’ve done this, work out what questions you want to ask that you haven’t been able to find the answers to.
  • Decide what to wear. (See below).
  • If you’re thinking of bringing a parent along, check if that’s OK. (See below.)
  • Make sure you know where you need to get to and plan your journey, leaving plenty of time. This is particularly important if you’re expected to be at an event when it starts. (At careers fairs you can usually turn up whenever you like.)
  • Make sure you have a non-embarrassing email address set up in case a company asks for your contact details.

Q. Can I bring my parents?

A. In general you can bring your parents to careers fairs and employer events. However, with events (eg open days or open evenings) do check with the company beforehand, as sometimes you need to attend by yourself.

Q. Should I bring my parents?

A. Just because you can (usually) bring your parents doesn’t necessarily mean you should. If you want to bring them (or they insist on coming) establish ground rules in advance.

To make a good impression you need to have conversations with recruiters that show you’ve researched the organisation and ask sensible questions about the opportunities on offer. You can’t do this if your mum is the one doing the talking. So ask your parents to hang back, listening in if they want to but allowing you the chance to shine.

Likewise, if you are attending a virtual careers fair, your parent could browse the digital platform with you and advise you on good questions to ask. Then if you choose to ask questions to recruiters directly, you should do this by yourself – especially if you are using the video chat function.

Q. When’s the best time to attend careers fairs?

A. Careers fairs aimed at school leavers are likely to be pretty packed if you go during school hours, with hundreds of other pupils being bussed in from miles around. If a fair goes on into the evening or there’s one at the weekend it is likely to be less busy then and you’ll have a better chance of some quality time with the companies that interest you.

If a fair is being held virtually, the number of attendees doesn’t matter as much. However, if you want to book a one-to-one slot with a recruiter the times available to you will depend on how popular different time slots are.

Q. What should I wear?

A. If you attend a careers fair with your school and you normally wear school uniform, that’s probably how you’ll have to dress. If you can choose what to wear, there’s the option to go in a suit if you want to but only a small number of students do. Normal clothes are fine, as long as they are clean, in good repair, not too revealing and not part of an extreme look.

If you attend an open day or open evening at an employer’s office, consider smartening up a bit. This is particularly a good idea if you know that the school leaver programme you’re considering would include having contact with clients – recruiters like to feel confident that you would turn up to meet clients looking presentable, so looking business-like before you join creates the right impression. You could wear a suit if you have one or a smart pair of trousers or skirt with a shirt or blouse if you don’t. If you opt for a skirt, knee-length is best if you have the choice.

If you are attending a virtual careers fair or open day event that involves having your webcam on for live video chats, make sure that your head and shoulders look smart and that the background is reasonably tidy.

Q. Everyone I want to talk to looks busy – what should I do?

A. Company representatives are there because they want to talk to you. If they’re busy talking to other students, go and join the group and listen, but wait for them to finish their conversation – or invite you to join in – before speaking.

Q. I’d feel more confident approaching companies at careers fairs if I were with my friends – is this OK?

A. If you’re attending careers fairs with your school or with a group of friends, split up before you start talking to companies. You can’t have a one-to-one chat in a group of ten, so you’ll miss the chance to have your questions properly answered. You’ll also lose the opportunity to make a good impression. At best, you’re unlikely to get noticed as an individual; at worst, your mates may get bored of being on their best behaviour…

Approaching companies by yourself will show them that you are confident and independent. If you’re really not comfortable doing so, take just one trusted friend (or parent) along with you.

Q. I’m not sure whether I want to do an apprenticeship or go to university. Is it OK to say so?

A. If you’re undecided between doing an apprenticeship and going to university before starting your career it’s fine to say so. Employers who run school leaver programmes often also run graduate schemes, so they are likely to be very happy to help you consider which route would suit you best if you want to join their company. If long-term career progression is important to you, it’s also fine to discuss whether you could get as far up in the company if you joined as a school leaver as if you joined as a graduate.

Q. Is there anything it’s not OK to ask?

A. Most questions are fine as long as you word them in a positive way. For example, ‘Would there be the opportunity to…?’ or ‘Do higher apprentices tend to…?’ sound more positive than ‘Would I have to…?’ However, avoid answering questions that sound as if you haven’t done even very basic research into the company (eg ‘What do you do?’) or that risk sounding rude (eg ‘Why should I work for you?’).

If you’re after a bit more general information, you could try phrasing your question ‘I notice your company does X – could you tell me a bit more about this?’. ‘X’ could be anything from ‘management accounting’ to ‘sponsors its school leavers through a software development HND’. The fact you have heard about ‘X’ shows you have done some background research.

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