What to do and ask at university careers fairs

The amount of pictures coming up on our LinkedIn feed has reminded me that many recruiters from all over the country are doing their rounds of hunting down their next intake of graduates.

It is very easy to get carried away looking for freebies, but remember the recruiters are keeping an eye on you and your demeanour, so with that we give you some tips on how to make the right first impressions.

Doing your research:

Nearly all universities publish a list of all the companies participating in the careers fair. Finding out information about the large companies in your field should be trivial.

There will be many more small and medium first which you will not have heard of, and that's fine, but do try to get a feel of what they do.

You should aim to spend a minimum of 30 minutes per company researching their details.

The basic information you should look up are:

  • What is the core business? (you may be surprised that McDonalds' core business is actually through rental of land to franchise owners, rather than selling food!)
  • How many employees do they have?
  • What is their legal structure? (i.e. Is it a private or public limited company, or partnership)
  • If they are a public company, what is their annual turnover and profit? How does that compare to other companies an a per-employee basis? (this information will be freely available on their investors pages)
  • Where are their headquarters, and what sort of relation do they have with their outstations?

Dressing up:

You will not be expected to wear a suit to your own university fairs, but dress in something reasonably tidy, unoffensive and politically neutral. You might not win a job interview at the careers fair but you can certainly lose one. Recruiters have an incredible knack for remembering faces and people.

Dressing in something like an ironed polo shirt, jeans and closed shoes (trainers or leather shoes) will be perfectly adequate.

Asking the right questions:

Repeat after me: Your goal is to interview the company as much as possible! 

They have the chance to interview you after you submit your application, if they choose to, but you need to know whether it is worth your time and effort to do so.

The careers fair may be the only face time you will get with a recruiter or current employee until after you have passed multiple rounds of CV assessments and telephone interviews, so you need to make the most of it.

If you ask mediocre questions you will get mediocre answers. You will need to ask a mix of questions over the course of 5-15 minutes to make a judgement on whether this company is worth your consideration. For both sides it is better to find out the suitability in the first 15 mins, than to go through a whole application procedure or even start your job, and to be disappointed later.

Obviously the one thing all graduates want to know is how much the starting salary is. Some companies give this information up front and some don't. If it is not offered in their brochure, don't ask right away but leave it to later in the same, or another conversation.

Better perhaps is to ask a series of more revealing questions about the company's culture and attitude towards your career. The more specific the information the better.

Try these questions instead:

How does your company demonstrate commitment towards Initial and Continuous Professional Development?

Try to listen for specific examples of what graduates have done, especially if it unusual or atypical of what you expect from a company of their type.

Large companies may have the financial resources and contacts to do a one-off Earthwatch programme, which is of course very fun, but is that really going to help your day-to-day learning over the course of 3-5 years?

How much time per year do you set aside for formal training?

If a company cannot answer this question then stay well away. Really.

It is the recruiter's job to know what the policies of the company and departments are (which will no doubt vary between specialisms), and they should be able to tell you a number like “10-20% of your time in your first year” or “20 days per year”.

Smaller and medium sized companies are more difficult to judge, but you need to know one thing in your favour: they will want you to stay in your job in the long run, and if you go through the training processes only to leave 2 years into your job, then it will hurt them really badly. So if they are truly serious about hiring someone they should put more resources aside to train you, even if they are not formal courses. Examples are mentoring schemes, budget to purchase books etc.

Tell me what a [insert specialism] graduate's career progression might look like for the next 5 years

Clearly this has no standard answer, and recruiters will know that too. But once again you need to listen for interesting bits of information which show whether the recruiter is giving a stock answer or has done his/her research into current developments at the company (for instance if they just signed a contract for a multi-million pound project in another country) in your specialism.

Other less-obvious questions:

These are particularly telling of a company, so try your best to get an answer out of the recruiter, but don't worry if you can't.

  • What is your staff turnover rate?
  • Tell me how your staff appraisal system works
  • Tell me what the policies for consideration of promotion are
  • Do you operate a formal and transparent internal job market?

The recruiters will definitely know the answers to the above, but you may need to be patient and work your way towards these questions. They are definitely not standard graduate questions…but look pretty impressive if you do end up asking them!


Through a combination of preparing yourself prior to a careers fair and asking the right questions during it, you can find out a lot about a prospective employer. These in turn will help you submit a much higher quality application, and increase your chances of progressing to the next stages of assessment.

You will quickly realise the information you have is far more valuable than knowing what your starting salary might be.

We have a Student Zone in our Forum which you can ask anything or give any other advice. Please do participate, there are no silly questions!

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