Face it; job fairs are the meat markets of the job search world. When the economy tanks, they are filled with desperate people trying to find a job—any job—and overwhelmed recruiters who barely look at an applicant before passing judgment. But unlike the job fairs you went to in college, you aren’t likely to get hired based on whom you meet there.

Two conversations after a recent job fair in Philadelphia made me realize that there are a lot of myths and misconceptions on both sides of the table. A disillusioned job hunter told me that he “should’ve gone home when I saw the line to get in. The place was a zoo. There’s no way anyone can make a good impression at one of these things.” From the corporate recruiter came, “I am so sick and tired of people showing up at these things desperate for a job right now. Their resumes are out of date; they just throw them on the table and expect us to call them. Or they’ll interrupt a conversation or try to monopolize my time. Don’t these people realize what we’re trying to do here?”

Just in case you don’t, here it is in a nutshell: For the corporate recruiter, job fairs offer an opportunity to reach interviewing terminal velocity—the highest possible number of prospects in the shortest possible amount of time. For applicants, job fairs provide an opportunity to meet a large number of hiring employers.

The following are some myths and realities about job fairs. Use the truth to save you time and to help you reap greater rewards from your efforts at the events.

Job fair myths and the truth behind them
Myth: Everyone who attends a job fair wants a new job.

Truth: Usually a full 50 percent or more of the attendees at job fairs are “window shoppers” who are just browsing to see what is available.

“Candidate attendance is definitely up,” said Mike Jurs, a spokesman for BrassRing. The career-events firm’s two-day job fairs typically draw 10,000 to 12,000 people—although a May event in Silicon Valley drew 15,000.

The events themselves are also getting larger. You can feasibly cover a job fair with 300 employers in one day. You can’t cover one with 3,000 employers, so do your homework. Go online to find out which companies are exhibiting and form a plan of attack in advance.

Myth: You can’t make an impression on anyone at a job fair.

Truth: Job fairs are not “get acquainted sessions.” They are multiple interview sessions where candidates are sized up quickly, based upon appearances and first impressions. Even the two- to three-minute greeting and exchange of sound bites is considered a real interview. You are being evaluated, whether it is for thirty seconds or thirty minutes. While it can be seriously depressing to have just two minutes with recruiters after waiting in line for 30 minutes, it is your chance to shine and to find out whether their objective is to find candidates or to make offers at the job fair.

Myth: A successful job fair means you come out with a job.

Truth: While some companies make offers at job fairs, it is much more likely that the most you can hope for is another interview.

Myth: Job fairs are only for college students and entry-level employees.

Truth: Career fairs and open houses typically look for basic, entry-level positions, such as counter help. Job fairs look for the same kind of professionals that recruiters target: the degreed professional with at least two years of experience in a high-demand field. Watch the name of the event closely, and you could save yourself some time. The advertisement for the job fair should also give some hints as to its focus.

Myth: Job fairs are just a place for companies to get a stack of resumes. They’re a waste of time.

Truth: Job fairs are excellent places to network and exchange information regarding where openings are and aren’t. They are great places to research companies in a specific region or industry. They are a place for you to check out a lot of companies in a very short period of time, the same way the recruiters check you out. For both sides of the table, a “no” decision can come a lot faster than a “yes,” so if you can eliminate a bunch of potential companies, then you can focus on the rest.

Myth: Job fair interviews are the same as any other job interview.

Truth: They’re not. If you’re going to ask questions about the company, do it at the table, not in the one-on-one interview. The job fair interview is a place to make your mark, so have your “handshake pitch” ready. A handshake pitch is a 30 to 60 second introduction that tells a recruiter who you are and what you’re looking for.

There are three types of interviews that take place at a job fair: the screening interview, the mini-interview, and the full interview. Companies may or may not be prepared to do all three types.

The screening interview usually lasts three minutes maximum and is often conducted at the front table. Employers want to take a look at the resume and make an initial impression before making decisions as to whether they will move to the next step.

Your strategy should be to quickly point them to the key areas in your resume that reflect their needs. What needs? The needs they’ve been talking about for the last six candidates. You need to show the employer why they should hire you or you’ll never get to the next level. This is the time to use the handshake pitch, keeping it short and succinct. Ask for a business card and ask if they’d like to talk more.

The mini-interview lasts about five to ten minutes and is usually conducted at the employer’s booth. Be prepared to give a full introduction of your background and quickly position yourself as someone who is a good fit in relation to that employer’s needs. The recruiter will usually want you to elaborate on the information contained in your resume, so be prepared to give a full explanation of anything on your resume. However, keep your full explanations short. To a recruiter, there’s nothing worse than a candidate who won’t get to the point or who just keeps talking. Make sure all your answers position you as the candidate that meets the employer’s needs.

Full Interviews may or may not be conducted at the job fair. It may take place at the booth, behind a curtain or screen, or in another place entirely. Most employers use the full interview only as a secondary interview. In other words, you have to be invited to the interview based on the previous screening interview or mini-interview. Be prepared for 20 minutes or more, but probably no longer than 30 minutes, since most employers have a tight schedule to keep.

Take this interview as seriously as you would any other job interview, but remember the venue. Recruiters here are more pressed to make a quick decision, so while doing well might lead to a new position, you don’t have time to recover from a mistake. At the end of the interview, if you are truly interested, let the interviewer know and ask for the job. Assume that he or she is also interested.

Unless the employer brought its technical or line managers in to do the full interviews, do not consider it a waste of time if all you went through was the screening or mini-interview. Many companies use job fairs to get down to the real potential candidates, who are then asked to come to the company site for formal interviews.

Myth: Just bring stacks and stacks of your resume to the job fair—that’s all they want.

Truth: For best results, you should have multiple copies of your resume in two formats, regular and scannable. However, papering the hall with your resume won’t get you better results, it’s just more to lug around, and it doesn’t leave a very good impression.

Instead, decide beforehand how many companies you realistically think you’ll be interested in. Add a few extra copies. Make sure you’ve used real resume paper, not just plain copy paper.

Being an IT pro and sensitive to how a company might be actually using technology, you might want to have scannable versions of your resume ready, because many companies take the resumes from the job fair to the office and scan them.

You should also bring your appointment book with you so recruiters can schedule additional interviews with you. If you really want to look prepared, bring a bag of some sort to put all the goodies in, it looks a bit more polished than a plastic giveaway bag.

More tips for job fair success
The following are more tips that may help you make the most of your job fair experience:

  • Save time by registering online. Not only does it save time checking into the event, but if registration includes a place to put your resume, or a link to your online resume, it will go into a database that’s accessible by all the participating companies; so you may hear about opportunities from firms you didn’t get a chance to meet.
  • Take money. While parking is usually free, this is an all day event, and you’ll need to get lunch or refreshments at some point. There are only so many chocolate pieces you can eat from display jars.
  • You never know who is standing in front of you or sitting behind you, so be nice to everyone. You never know who you’ll meet. One successful candidate got his job after talking to a recruiter in the lunch line.
  • Bring a couple of pens and a pad of paper. For best effect, carry the pad in a portfolio case or something similar. It gives you a place to put things and take notes.
  • Wear interview attire and comfortable shoes.

One last myth…
Myth: The companies who want you will contact you after the job fair.

Truth: If there is a company (or two) you’re seriously interested in, follow up with them. That’s why you got their business card, remember? You will probably need to remind them who you are, so during the job fair make an effort to take a minute after you’ve left a recruiter to make notes on your conversation. You may even want to bring a mini-stapler to attach business cards to your notes. Organizing as you go will save time, avoid errors, and allow you to remember key details later.

But don’t be so organized that you treat the recruiters like pieces of meat; they can dish it, but they can’t take it. One candidate made a point of getting the recruiter’s business card, stapling it to a piece of notepaper, and then writing additional notes next to the card. Sounds great, until you realize what the recruiter saw: a line of business cards stapled down the side of the paper, and his was just the next one in the stack. The candidate never made it to the next interview.