College career fairs, like other in-person events, took a huge hit in the early stages of the pandemic, but their rebound may be surprising for some.

During the 2020–21 academic year, colleges with plans for in-person career fairs dropped to 7.5 percent as a result of the pandemic, according to a report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE). In the following academic year, that number surged back to 62.3 percent.

Although the percentage of in-person college career fairs soared by nearly nine-fold, the events were much smaller in size and some colleges only allowed a select number of their schools to hold one, Shawn VanDerziel, executive director of NACE, told Built In.

In other words, colleges were just starting to get their feet wet again, he said.

4 Tips to Stand Out at a Career Fair

  • Dress in business casual, depending on the norm for your industry, and pay attention to your personal hygiene.
  • If available, get a map that shows where each of the employers’ booths are located; circle the ones you want to meet with and plan your strategy.
  • Have your elevator pitch ready to go when meeting hiring managers and recruiters. Tell them about your skills, past projects, internships and what interests you about their company.
  • Don’t forget a thank you! And ask about how to stay in touch for future internship or job opportunities. 

The University of California–Berkeley, for example, plans to hold its first full-semester of in-person career fairs with its schools this fall, compared to the spring career fair, when it was largely virtual.

Intuit’s Kellie Nickovich, senior manager of university relations, told Built In only a few schools that Intuit works with held an in-person career fair last fall. But this fall, most of the colleges that Intuit works with are offering an in-person option for students and employers.

“There are definitely more in-person engagement opportunities this fall, but not to the level we saw pre-pandemic. I would say about 75 percent of the colleges are offering it and there is still a subset of students who may not be comfortable with coming in person,” Jeanie Arciaga, senior university program manager at Roblox, told Built In.

The rise of virtual career fairs as an option and also the changes of student preferences are contributors to this shift, said NACE’s VanDerziel.

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College Career Fair Attendance Dropping

Over the last two years, student attendance at job fairs has dropped pretty dramatically from pre-Covid levels, VanDerziel said.

Indeed, that is the case for McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas–Austin. Last year’s virtual career fair had fewer attendees than the previous year, said Sarah Nathan, managing director of recruiting for the business school. She added, anecdotally, that she’s heard students are very interested in attending career fairs in person.

This fall, the University of Texas–Austin is planning to hold a number of its career fairs in-person, including the one for its business school McCombs.

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Meanwhile, some University of California–Berkeley students found virtual interviews have a downside, said Marvin Lopez, director of engineering student programs at UC–Berkeley. Some students were shut out of interviewing with their desired company because all the interview slots were filled up before they could register, compared to an in-person career fair where they could organically find opportunities to connect with a company representative.

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How Student Attitudes Toward Career Fairs Are Changing

An estimated 75 percent of McCombs’ students want an in-person career fair option, based on their comments, Nathan said. But according to a study from NACE, nearly 70 percent of Black students believed virtual interviews would provide a better outcome for their internship or job interview.

“A student of color may be thinking about the kinds of bias and discrimination that may come about walking into a gymnasium filled with recruiters where a majority may be white.”

“We found that Black students, whether they had ever participated in a virtual or an in-person recruiting experience, believed they would have a better experience and learn more from a virtual one than [white students],” VanDerziel said. “A student of color may be thinking about the kinds of bias and discrimination that may come about walking into a gymnasium filled with recruiters where a majority may be white.”

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Pros and Cons of Students Attending College Career Fairs in Person

There are three top benefits of attending an in-person college career fair, VanDerziel said. For one, students can read the reactions of recruiters more accurately. Students also can meet more employers than you could at a virtual career fair where time slots are harder to get. And, lastly, you can meet other students at the career fair and get their advice or support, VanDerziel said.

“I think, with the pandemic, we saw an appetite and opportunity to engage with students virtually, but nothing beats in person either,” Arciaga said, pointing to the fun activities, dinners and mixers Roblox hosts when it attends career fairs and how it further drives a personal connection between the students and the company.

In some cases, the pressure of being in-person is actually a downside for students who are more introverted. They might prefer, and get more out of, a virtual interview, career experts said.

Attending in-person career fairs requires more time, planning and strategy than picking a time slot for a virtual career fair interview. For example, you need to think about your entire appearance, transportation and weather. Rather than just a shoulder-up view and if your internet connection is stable.

 

Pros and Cons for Employers Attending In-Person College Career Fairs

Employers are going to do whatever it takes to find talent, and if they can gain a competitive edge by going onto campuses to reach more students, they’re likely going to do that if they have the ability and resources, VanDerziel said.

Companies can bring their brand to life at in-person college career fairs, as well as entice students to learn more about the company, Nickovich said.

But one thing in-person college career fairs aren’t likely to do is generate an increase in the volume of resumes that employers take home, she added. That’s because students are already familiar with using social media and other means to get their resumes to employers, she said.

“Now that we’re returning back to live engagement, don’t be shy. Definitely go out and take advantage of all the free swag and food that the recruiters put out there, because we’re all very excited to see everyone in person again.”

Attending in-person career fairs is more expensive for employers than conducting video interviews and a good student turn out isn’t guaranteed, VanDerziel warned. So there’s a bigger risk for companies with in-person events.

Talent recruiters for companies like Roblox and Intuit offer some sage advice to students and recent graduates attending college career fairs this fall.

“Now that we’re returning back to live engagement, don’t be shy. Definitely go out and take advantage of all the free swag and food that the recruiters put out there, because we’re all very excited to see everyone in person again,” Arciaga said.

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