United States universities love to host career fairs, and businesses from all sectors of the economy love to recruit from them. However, international students studying in the US are often less enthusiastic about attending career fairs because of work authorization requirements and other hurdles that may discourage them from applying.
We encourage international students to think differently! University job fairs have opportunities for all students to become better job candidates — from building a network to practicing interview skills — and can even help international students find internships and post-graduation employment in the US and back home. Read on to learn about job fairs at US universities and how to use them to level up your career opportunities as an international student.
What Is a Career Fair?
Universities and colleges across the United States host career fairs to bring students and potential employers together with the common goal of recruitment. These expos can be general — hosting a variety of employers in various employment sectors — or specific to an area of study or even a student demographic, such as international students and first-year or sophomore students. For example, the University of Illinois Chicago has an independent career center just for engineering students, and their Spring 2023 Job and Internship Fair hosted more than 125 employers!
Until the pandemic, in-person job expos were popular on US college campuses: more than 90% of schools hosted at least one, with an average of 208 organizations in attendance. That number dipped during COVID-19, but rebounded by 2022, with more than 80% of reported schools planning in-person events. However, you don’t have to be physically on campus to attend a career fair. Colleges and universities in the US averaged 4.8 virtual and 2.9 in-person career fairs during the 2021–2022 school year.
Who Attends Career Fairs?
While the general perception is that only juniors and seniors attend career fairs — students readying to transition to post-graduate life — there are many benefits to attending these events earlier in your educational journey.
Chrissy Renfro, associate director of career development at the University of Wyoming, thinks career fairs are a great way to build awareness of your life goals, interests, and values early enough to influence your areas of study and career track. She encourages students to begin the process of self-exploration as early as possible.
“We welcome students to utilize our services at any point in their college career,” said Renfro in a recent UWYO Magazine interview. “We help students find jobs, even part-time student jobs on campus, which is a great way to start developing some of those skills you will need. We help you identify and apply for internships, which is another great way to get that real-world experience as an undergraduate. We also help with resume writing, preparing for job interviews, and negotiating a salary. We have career fairs where you can connect with employers and start having those conversations.”
Employer Networking Possibilities
Employers are the second half of the career fair equation, represented by recruiters and sometimes by university alums working for an organization. Recruiters could be looking to fill positions locally, nationally, and even globally. If a potential employer or career looks attractive, you can ask questions and learn more about life at that company or in that role.
For first-year and sophomore students, a career fair is a low-risk opportunity to expand your network and develop relationships with recruiters, not to mention find out about internships and other options before graduation. For students preparing to graduate, it’s a chance to find their first career opportunity after earning their degree and to see how well their resume stacks up against other applicants.
A Career Fair for Every Career
Many career fairs consolidate potential job recruiters by area of specialization and study, which is helpful to students who have already decided on a major or career path. For instance, at UMass Boston, a Carnegie Classification R2 High Research university, students in STEM and health care professions can attend a virtual expo featuring more than 100 organizations with jobs or internships in the following areas:
Computer science and IT
Exercise and health science
Students enrolled at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida— ranked the #4 hospitality program globally — benefit from innovative on- and off-campus events that draw global leaders in hospitality, such as an Entertainment Exploration Experience Festival. At other events, such as Disney Day and Universal Day, students can connect with a single global brand on a deeper level.
Don’t fret if you want to attend a career fair but don’t yet know your future career. Expos and similar events are great opportunities to learn more about what excites you professionally and can even help you decide what to study. Many colleges and universities hold career events that cater to all students and interests, with recruiters and organizations representing several employment sectors. York College of Pennsylvania— ranked one of the best regional colleges in the Northeast — is one of many schools that holds career fairs inviting all enrolled students, regardless of their area of study or class level.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Next Career Fair
First-year students and seniors often have different objectives when attending a job fair. With an undeclared major and three more years of university ahead of them, first-year students may not feel the same pressure to find the next step in their careers as juniors and seniors. However, regardless of where you are on your educational path, the following tips for before, during, and after the career expo can help you put your best foot forward.
How to Prepare for a Job Fair
Write, assess, and review your resume: One of the most important things you can do before attending a career fair is to examine your documents. Have friends, career center advisors, and professors take a look at your resume and suggest how to improve it. Remember, your resume is a living document and should change as you do. Make sure to include any new volunteering, work-study, internships, or other roles you think are essential.
Practice what you will say during interviews: Practice makes perfect, right? Practice can make you sound more confident during your elevator pitch to a prospective employer. Talk to the advisors at your school or pair up with a friend and ask each other questions. The more sure you are of what you want to say, the more comfortable and relaxed you will feel.
Do your research: Which employers are attending the expo? Remember to look up employers to see if you might be a good fit. A quieter booth means more chances for one-on-one conversations with recruiters, whereas a popular booth may have more roles available. Many career fairs will say ahead of time whether featured employers consider international students or recent graduates on Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT) — including the 24-month STEM extension to OPT.
Learn more about CPT and OPT and the difference between the two >
The Day of Your Career Expo
Dress for success: Looking the part is half the battle. Wear freshly cleaned business attire when attending a career fair, and be sure to look your recruiters in the eye and give them a firm handshake.
Print several copies of your resume to bring to the event: Have around 20 copies printed and ready to hand out. Some career centers also advise you to get business cards and portfolios made to appear even more professional; however, having your resume is sufficient.
Practice, practice, practice: This is your opportunity to work on your interview skills, get feedback regarding your resume, and discover the differences between you and the candidates your dream job is currently hiring. For some students, this can be the most challenging part of the career fair process — especially if you are more introverted — but take solace in knowing that it’s OK to try new things, make mistakes, and even fail a few times while learning how to interview well.
We coach students to think about the job interview as a two-way street. Instead of the employer deciding whether or not you get in, you’re also deciding if you want to work at that place. Is it a good fit for your goals and values? Think through those things ahead of time to ask questions.” — Chrissy Renfro, associate director of career development at the University of Wyoming
Next Steps After the Career Fair
Establish contact with a thank you: Always reach out and say thanks. Being grateful is not just good form. It’s also a great chance to continue the conversation or make a new connection on LinkedIn. When you email, ask if it’s OK to continue the discussion with questions about ideal candidates and what you need to do to make yourself more attractive for similar roles.
Remember and apply what you learned: Feedback from career fairs comes in many forms, from resume criticism to interview pointers to simply observing and talking with the students that get employed or find internships after the event. (What are they doing that you should try?) Keep an open mind, and don’t be discouraged or take it too personally if you don’t immediately find your dream job. Instead, think about what you’ve learned, and how you will apply your learning to the next career fair.
Try again: Instead of attending only one career event and crossing the prospect of finding a certain role off your list, take what you learned and bring it with you the next time. Does your resume look a little thin? Find some volunteer, work-study, or teacher’s assistant opportunities so you can add more substance to your resume. Did you forget what to say during the interview? Take notes, keep trying, and you are sure to improve.
Finding Your Calling
Your goal may be to find and successfully land an H-1B role in the United States or a highly specialized job that allows you to stay in the US and work. You may be looking for a role back home after graduation, with the learning, experience, and global outlook that comes with a degree from a US university.
Whatever your long-term professional ambitions, a career fair is your chance to see where you stand and learn what you must do to take the next step forward. Remember, as an international student, only some roles may be available to you as an F-1 visa holder. Still, there are many ways you can network, build interview skills, and learn more about yourself and your career ambitions.
Shorelight can help you succeed in your career search >
*Photo credit University of Wyoming