I just returned from a job fair at a mid sized university here Ohio. Overall, it was a great experience, and I was pleasantly surprised with the amount and level of talent that attended. Similarly, I was impressed with the number of companies that attended.

According to the directory, there were over 100 companies, ranging from startups to Fortune 100 organizations, spanning relatively staid industries to rapidly growing and evolving business in internet marketing and advanced health care technology.

Pretty obvious to me the talent mismatch is real!

(See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzUz9B6ct7g for a good illustration of the talent mismatch – the ability of companies to find the right people in the right place at the right time.)

As a parent of a recent college grad and a soon to be college grad, I wanted to coach about half of the students:

DO dress appropriate and professional for the type of company you are targeting. Spike heels and mini skirts don’t play well, even with fashion merchandisers. Business casual is fine for most college job fairs; business formal is a plus. Similarly, even if you did just roll out of bed, don’t look like it.

DON’T wander up and down the aisle without a clue as to who you might want to talk to. I am not looking for lost puppies to take in. I am looking for folks with a foundation of interpersonal skills and technical knowledge that will help my company to be successful.

DO Have a few companies pre-identified and do some light research on them and have a factoid or two ready: “I saw that you just came off your best year ever. That’s great. How come it was such a great year for you?”.

DO introduce yourself and shake my hand. Look me in the eye. Smile. Even if my company and your goals are not an obvious fit, companies can often hire people with the right personal characteristics and train them on their business.

DON’T throw up on me. In other words, don’t walk up and immediately start talking about all your background and make me listen to five minutes of stuff that might not be relevant. I will likely interrupt you. A simple greeting goes a long way: “Hi, I am Sally and will be graduating in March with a Bachelor’s in Economics. What types of people are you looking to join your company?”

DO have a couple general questions ready for any company you speak with: “To be honest, I am not at all familiar with your company and what you do. Can you give me an overview?”.

DON’T worry about knowing everything. You are a recent or soon to be college grad, and I don’t expect you to know much, if anything, about my company.

DON’T fret about your GPA or the fact you haven’t had an internship other negatives that you might have. At this point, I am more interested in your poise and foundation of knowledge. We’ll sort out the rest later.

DO talk to as many companies as you can. The more experience you get in the informal setting of a job fair, the better off you will be when you get that formal interview.

DO leverage your career services group and others that can help with technique. If you are nervous, or not sure what to say, do role plays with others in the same position as you – one time you are the candidate, the next time you are the hiring manager. If you are fortunate enough to know somebody that is a recruiter or HR professional, talk to them for advice and prep.

Admittedly, a lot of the above sounds a bit harsh and abrupt. The person at the booth won’t be rude or mean to you; after all, all companies want to leave you with a positive impression. At the same time, companies invest in attendance and want to maximize the benefit their participation. Given this, both the employer and candidate need to quickly come to a decision whether there might be mutual interest. This isn’t good or bad; it just is. You don’t want to waste your time talking to me if I can’t help you out.

In summary, recognize that a job fair environment is more like a big social gathering than a formal interview. Be yourself. Ask questions. Be inquisitive. Engage in a dialog. Establish relationships.

It might take you somewhere you never even thought was possible.