Navigating Career Fairs as a First-Year Student

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Nathan Wilson, Assistant Director, Duke Career Center
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Career fairs are perhaps the best vehicle for connecting job seekers and employers. They give students direct access to employer representatives, and employers direct access to an entire crop of eager job seekers. Win-win. Slam dunk. Home run.

But what if you’re not currently seeking a job? What if you’re a curious first-year student without a declared major? What if you have absolutely no clue what you want to do, much less where you want to do it?

The Greek poet Hesiod warned,
“It won’t always be summer; build barns.”

You may not be looking for a job now, but you’ll be kicking yourself later if you don’t think about your career until the last minute. Attending a career fair as a first-year student can pay tremendous dividends down the road, even if you aren’t sure what road that will be yet.

Gathering intel

Rather than wondering what it might be like to work for a certain company, why not ask someone who actually works there? Talking to employers directly provides a snapshot into what a company’s culture is, and how you may be a fit there. Have questions? Go to the source. Career fairs are one of the most direct routes to employers and many of the representatives are Duke alums.

If you are attending in a purely exploratory capacity, prepare some broad questions you may ask employers that focus on the industry as a whole. The insight you receive from someone who is already on that path can be eye-opening.

If for no other reason, it is wise to attend a career fair early in your time at Duke so that you can see what one looks like before you actually attend one in search of a job later on. Being comfortable and knowing what to expect can make a huge difference once you’re actually in there, resumes in hand, dressed in your one, finest suit.

Laying a foundation for the future

If there are companies with which you are already familiar and that you may be considering down the line, speak to the representatives with the goal of laying a foundation as a future candidate. You may not be applying now, but you may run across the same person in a year or two when you are applying for an internship or job. Imagine the advantage that you have going into a career fair and already having contacts within the companies in attendance.

Career fairs offer more than just full-time positions for graduating students

It may be natural to assume that a “career fair” is only for job-seekers. Employers may use them in search of interns and part-time employees as well.

Based on the most recent data collected from outgoing Duke alumni, a whopping 62 percent of Duke graduates in the Class of 2016 reported having two or more internships or work-related experiences by graduation. Students often assume that all of their experiences must be related to their degree (or future position), but this simply isn’t true. There’s another old saying: “When you don’t know what to do, do something.” Having a diverse set of experiences allows you to stand out as a candidate. Moreover, it will help you better understand yourself and where you may see yourself after graduation.

Expectations of a career fair should obviously be different for first-year students compared to those who are ready to apply. However, they can be immensely beneficial if you understand the purpose of attending. Gaining industry knowledge, networking, and discovering opportunities can all be done with a small investment of your time and energy.

So attend career fairs and do something—build your barn.

Duke’s Fall Career Fair is September 20, 2017
Get more information from Duke's Digital Career Fair Guide (made for mobile)

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