7 Kinds of Questions to Ask at a Career Fair to Make a Great Impression

Monday, October 11, 2021

by Stav Ziv at The Muse

Let’s be honest: Walking into a career fair can be incredibly intimidating. Look at all those people who have the power to give you a job one day! Look at all those other people who want some of the very same jobs you want! No one would blame you for feeling overwhelmed.

Start by considering that the recruiters on the other side of the table (literally or metaphorically) are people just like you. Then remember that you’re unlikely to elicit a job offer on the spot from any one of them. Put those things together and you’ll lower the stakes for yourself and do what might actually help your career: have great conversations.

“Remember that recruiters are humans, not robots. They like having conversations,” says Victoria Morell, a Muse career coach and Associate Director of Miami University Farmer School of Business Careers. “You always want to leave them with, ‘Oh I want to learn more about that person.’”

Easy to say, yes, but what do you actually say when you’re face-to-face with a tired recruiter who’s already spoken to 47 other prospective applicants today? At a career fair, your goal is to get the information you need to decide if a company or role is a good fit for you, while also leaving a good impression that could help you get one step closer to nabbing that job.

Here are seven kinds of questions that will help you do just that.

1. Ask About a Particular Role

Most people will come up to a table, say hello and give a little spiel about their background, and then ask, “Do you have any open roles?” according to Muse career coach Chelsea Williams, who in a previous position at an asset management firm attended dozens of career fairs to look for talent. “The recruiter will sometimes say, ‘We do. Check the website.’ That’s not a powerful way to maximize your time,” she says. And it tells the recruiter that you didn’t take the time to do any research and you’re not serious about their company.

Don’t be one of those people. You can stand out right away by taking a different approach. Spend some time ahead of the event looking through the list of companies attending, finding a handful that seem most enticing to you, learning what you can about them, identifying any roles that seem like a good fit for you, and ideally submitting your application before you walk in.

That way, you can use your time to delve deeper into anything that wasn’t clear in the job description and to gather information beyond what’s available online, which could help you continue to evaluate whether it’s really the right fit and come in handy later if you move forward in the interview process.

You can try to get right to the heart of the matter by asking, “What are you truly looking for in this role if you could have your ideal candidate?” Morell suggests. Not only can you get the inside scoop on what’s most important to them, but it also “gives you an opportunity to say, ‘Oh, this is how I’ve done that!’”

Try questions like:

  • Is the [open role] you currently have listed more focused on [some function or aspect of the company] or [some other function or aspect of the company]?
  • I noticed the job description for [open role] listed [some vague item] in the responsibilities—what do you mean by that?
  • In a typical day, what does [open role] do?
  • What’s the biggest challenge the new [open role] can help solve?
  • Who’s the manager/direct report for this role?
  • What’s this team’s biggest goal in the next six months?
  • I don’t have a traditional background in [field or function] but I have worked on [something relevant]. Would that be a good fit for [open role]?
  • I noticed you didn’t have any [type of role or roles on a specific team] open just now. What kinds of opportunities in those areas do you foresee down the line?

2. Ask About the Hiring Process

A one-on-one conversation with a recruiter is also a great opportunity to glean some information and calibrate your expectations for the hiring process. Muse career coach Brad Finkeldei once interviewed for a consulting job in a hiring process that had eight stages. “They really want to make sure it was a good match culturally,” he says. Knowing something like that up front would help you get a sense of the kind of timeline you can expect. (And you might decide to send out some more applications while you wait!)

Try questions like:

  • What does the hiring process for [open role] look like?
  • Can you tell me a little bit about the different stages in the hiring process for [open role]?

3. Ask About Their Experience

One of your main goals going into a career fair should be to use it as a starting point for building long-term relationships, says Muse career coach Clayton Wert. To that end, you “don’t just want to talk about yourself all the time. Be insightful and curious about the other person,” he says.

The person you’re speaking with works at the company. Ask them about their experience there! You might learn something about the culture that you could never glean from a job posting or website alone. Plus, says Muse career coach Kristina Leonardi, “the more authentic and personable and relatable you can be the more memorable you can be.”

Try questions like:

  • How long have you been at [Company]?
  • What do you like about [Company]?
  • What’s your favorite thing about your job?
  • What do you really enjoy about this role in particular?
  • What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your role or at [Company]?

4. Ask About Growth and Development

You may be a student or recent graduate looking for your first real step into a new field, but you won’t be a newbie forever. It’s worth asking not just about the role you’ve applied for, but about how you can learn and grow and do more down the line. “It lets the recruiter know you’re thinking about the future and the long-term with the company, that you’re really invested in what your future could look like there,” Morell says.

Try questions like:

  • What does growth and development look like at [Company]?
  • How does [Company] support its employees as they look to grow and level up their skills and responsibilities?
  • I imagine that [innovation at the company or change in the industry] will change how you’re working on [project or product]. How are you developing your workforce to keep up with this?
  • How does [Company] work to upskill and reskill its employees?

5. Ask About the Company’s Products, Services, or Recent News

Nothing shows you’ve done your homework like casually mentioning something timely about the organization. “Go to the company blog when doing your research, find a recent article or press release, and reference something the company’s currently going through,” says Wert.

If the company’s just reached a major milestone, released a new product, or announced some great news, he suggests going in and saying, “Congratulations, that’s awesome! Hopefully it makes doing your job easier. What do you think this means for you?” Or you could say, “I saw you’re launching [new product]… That’s great! What do you think that’s going to do?”

And if you have a genuine personal connection to the company’s products or services—whether it’s been your favorite thing since you were five or your mother’s always talking about how much she loves it—share that with the recruiter and use it to lead into a question.

Try questions like:

  • I recently read an article about [event, announcement, or news related to the company]. What was it like to be a part of that?
  • I know you’ve just announced a strategy change. How is that shift taking place internally?
  • I love [product/service], I use it all the time! How do you think it’s going to evolve in the next year?

6. Ask About Company Culture

Whatever role it is that you have your eye on, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You’ll be working with colleagues, a team, a department, and an entire organization that has a unique culture. One of the most effective ways you can use your time at a career fair is to ask questions that’ll help you understand a company’s culture and determine if it’s the kind of environment you want.

It’s not necessarily about the culture being good or bad, it’s a matter of finding a match. For example, you might be looking for a highly collaborative atmosphere or, on the flipside, you might prefer to work independently 95% of the time. In either scenario you’ll need a different kind of work culture to thrive.

If you’re new to the working world, you might not know exactly what you’re looking for (and that’s okay!), but you can still use these kinds of questions to feel out whether a company sounds like a place you can see yourself spending most of your waking hours.

When you ask questions about culture—and throughout your conversation—make sure you’re attuned to body language, hesitations, and what’s not being said, in addition to the actual verbal response. “Especially as a recruiter, they’re going to be pretty well rehearsed. They’re there to sell the brand and positions,” says Morell. But small cues like pauses or a perfectly inoffensive but canned answer can raise questions to look into more later.

For example, Morell says, “if you ask about diversity and they only mention one kind of diversity or their statement feels very much like a corporate statement on diversity, that could be a red flag.”

Try questions like:

  • What kind of person is most successful at [Company]?
  • What does communication look like at [Company]? What kind of technology do you use for communication?
  • What kind of culture is there around feedback at [Company]? How do people like to give and receive feedback?
  • Diversity is really important to me. How do you support different identities?
  • I saw photos of [volunteer, diversity, or social event] on the company’s Instagram account. Can you tell me more about that program?
  • Do people hang out outside of work on a regular basis?

7. Ask How You Can Stay in Touch

Now that you’ve had a fantastic chat, wrap it up by ensuring that this doesn’t have to be the last time you talk. Make sure you know the person’s name and take a business card (if they have one) or ask how you can keep in touch with them and the company. That way, you’ll have a contact to reach out to if you don’t hear back about your application.

And you can also start developing long-term relationships. Who knows, “you might connect back with them at a time that’s not as busy and get coffee,” Morell says. Even if there’s not a perfect role for you at this company now, or if this one doesn’t pan out, you never know what might open up in the future.

Try questions like:

  • What’s the best way to stay in touch with you?
  • What would be a great next step to take after meeting you here?
  • Who can I follow up with about [open role]?