What is a Virtual Career Fair? A first step in helping you find the opportunity of your dreams

In recent years, virtual events such as career fairs have become increasingly popular, particularly in light of the shift toward remote communication and engagement as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But with dozens of virtual platforms, hundreds of events, and thousands of employers, it can be hard to figure out exactly where to get started.

Knowing how to properly navigate a virtual career fair is a key first step to helping you secure the opportunity of your dreams. Though they may seem intimidating at first, virtual career fairs offer a unique and rewarding experience to both representatives and attendees. 

What is a virtual career fair?

A virtual career fair is a type of informational or recruitment/outreach event that connects recruiters and candidates in a virtual space. Attendees can learn about various organizations or sponsors and career opportunities from the comfort of their own home, with all of the ease afforded by a virtual platform. According to an article from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, virtual career fairs have experienced a sharp rise in use and attendance, with more than 90 percent of employers reporting having attended a virtual career fair in 2020.

The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) is one of many organizations that offer virtual events for prospective candidates.

ORISE is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) asset that connects the most talented and diverse college students, recent graduates, postdocs, and faculty to STEM internship and fellowship programs closely aligned with the interests of a variety of research facilities and federal agencies. These STEM internship and fellowship programs are key to the recruitment and preparation of the next generation of our nation’s scientific workforce.

“ORISE has been supporting workforce development programs since 1947 and has touched over 100,000 people through Science and Education programs,” said Mandy Basal, associate director in STEM workforce development at ORISE.

“While there are many factors that make ORISE unique, one element that stands out is that many ORISE mentors have been ORISE participants themselves. Their passion and dedication to advancing STEM research makes ORISE opportunities exceptionally rewarding and valuable to future participants.”

For ORISE, virtual events such as career fairs provide a unique platform to showcase their opportunities and facilitate connections between prospective candidates and mentors.  

“Virtual career fairs are an excellent opportunity to connect with us,” said Leslie Fox, a section manager in STEM workforce development.

“They are an online and convenient way to meet our ORISE program staff and our federal sponsors offering STEM, policy, and technical-based internships and fellowships. You can even meet with peers and alumni who can answer questions about ORISE’s best-in-class experience, its value for educational and career impact, and why it is unique.”

Virtual career fairs and events have allowed ORISE staff to meet with more than 3,000 interested students and alumni since fall 2020, many at diverse universities and colleges out of travel range for a traditional, in-person fair. Most recently, virtual career fairs at ORISE have highlighted up to 60 exhibitors with more than 2,400 attendees. 

What can I expect during a virtual career fair?

Screenshot of an ORISE virtual career fair

Most virtual career fairs function similarly to in-person fairs, but in a virtual setting. You can expect booths for organizational representatives, informational resources, webinars, panels, presentations (live and/or recorded), and opportunities to privately chat with representatives or discuss your questions with larger groups on a public board. The event may also include opportunities to connect with program mentors, recent participant alumni, and other attendees. You may even have the chance to make peer connections with others in your area of research or who are planning to intern in the same program or federal agency.

Virtual career fairs offer many advantages over traditional, in-person events. Virtual events allow representatives and candidates to connect early, offer increased accessibility, and facilitate connections between individuals who might not have otherwise met.

The biggest advantage is you aren’t limited by just the events being held close to where you currently live. Virtual career fairs have opened up opportunities for organizations to recruit from all over the world in one session.

A virtual environment also removes many of the stressors present in traditional, in-person events. Attendees can still speak directly with the subject matter experts and access virtual resources but without the hassle of fighting traffic, searching for parking, or walking across campus in your best suit in 85-degree weather.

Virtual spaces also help even the playing field for attendees. Where in-person events can be intimidating and chaotic, virtual career fairs hopefully ease any social anxiety concerns people have about traditional career fairs.

How should I prepare for a virtual career fair?

Being properly informed and prepared is fundamental to ensuring success on the day of a virtual event. Below are some important steps you should take to get ready to attend a virtual career fair:

  • Register ahead of time. Don’t miss out on an event just because you forgot to sign up! Register early to ensure you have a slot, and to give yourself plenty of time to prepare.
  • Do your research. Read through the list of companies or groups attending the fair and visit their websites to review their general information. Pick your top five based on your interests and needs and plan to visit their booths. Check the event agenda to help organize a tentative schedule. Some events, like those at ORISE, allow you to view the resources before the actual event to help give attendees a head start on identifying and researching their top choices. Prepping in advance will allow you to prioritize talking to people during the event, rather than reading or downloading files.
  • Brainstorm questions. Make the most of your limited time by preparing a detailed list of questions to ask. Try to avoid asking questions easily found on a website and instead focus on asking about typical projects, core skills and competencies that participants receive in the program, the mentoring experience, types of professional development that may be offered, and how to identify what the selecting mentor may be looking for in their evaluation of an application. Consider ranking your questions by importance to ensure you are able to gather all of the information you need.
  • Test your equipment. Run a video and sound check, verify your registration, and review any training materials or information provided by the event sponsor. If you encounter any issues, reach out to event technical support for assistance.
  • Prepare your space. Clean up messy or distracting backgrounds and try to eliminate any potential interruptions. Ask your roommates not to disturb you, put your pets away, and set your phone to silent, for example. Your background can leave just as strong of an impression on representatives as you yourself—make sure that it’s a positive one!
  • Dress for success. Whether you’re chatting with representatives via text or video, wearing clothing that is reflective of your identity and aligns with the context of the opportunity you are seeking can boost your confidence and get you in the right headspace for a professional event. Feeling polished and prepared will help you leave a strong and positive impression on representatives. Plan your outfit a few days in advance so you will not be in a rush on the day of the event and consider having a backup prepared in case of unexpected stains, tears, or other wardrobe malfunctions. Need a few examples? Look online or speak with your career center at your academic institution for tips. Some may have items they can loan you for the event/interview and/or may have discounts with local retailers you can use.

What can I do to succeed during the event?

Screenshot of an ORISE virtual career fair

You’ve registered for the event, you’ve completed everything on your preparation checklist, and the day of the event has finally arrived—what now?

  • Check the event schedule. Take note of any webinars, presentations, or informational sessions that may be offered and plan your time accordingly. Additionally, check for any content that may have been added last minute to ensure you do not miss any relevant opportunities or information.
  • Visit each booth and browse through as much content as possible. Don’t limit your time and attention to a few booths—visit as many as possible in order to maximize the value of your virtual career fair experience. A benefit to virtual career fairs is that they allow you to process content at your own pace, which will help you identify the best opportunities for you.
  • Chat with representatives. Although you will be able to gather a lot of information just from browsing through booths, chatting with representatives is the best way to learn more about a company and its opportunities. Representatives may also be able to offer you additional resources or career advice, or point you toward an opportunity that matches your interests. Remember to keep personal information and details in private chats, or ask to follow up later via email for more specific questions.
  • Multi-task. Because you can’t physically see the line of people ahead of you in a virtual event like you can in an in-person event, you may experience a slight delay as you wait to chat with representatives. Take advantage of the virtual format by visiting other booths to browse through content while waiting in line to chat. One of the best parts about virtual events is that you aren’t stuck standing in front of one booth—you can roam the virtual space at your leisure, and maximize the value of your time. If there is a wait, consider looking for booths that are less busy at that time. Ask about areas of research, the culture, what they like best about what they do—you may find a new “favorite.” And don’t forget to see if there are opportunities to chat with peers and network with your fellow attendees!
  • Take notes. While chatting with representatives, be sure to write down any important information. What makes their company or opportunities unique? What benefits do they offer? When will they accept applications? Taking notes during the event will help you determine what opportunities match your interests and needs and will help prepare you to apply after the event.
  • Ask how to follow up or for contact information. If you think of questions after the event has ended, need help with an application, or just want to learn more, having a way to follow up will be crucial. Remember to ask for contact information, and don’t be afraid to share your own! If you meet someone you’d like to connect with further, consider adding them on LinkedIn—just be sure to include a note of when you met and why you would like to connect.

Final thoughts

Remember that most virtual events are designed to be informational resources and not hiring events. Virtual career fairs offer the opportunity for students and graduates to learn about companies and explore career options and are best when you attend with an open mind and willingness to learn.

Don’t be afraid to take a look at a company or program you’ve never heard of before, or to chat with representatives about an opportunity you might not have otherwise considered. Most importantly—don’t forget to have fun! According to Fox, the most rewarding aspect of hosting virtual career fairs is the attendees’ enthusiasm.

“I love that we see students and alumni that are open to and excited about this new format,” she said.

“It shows their adaptability and willingness to navigate a new way to connect. That spirit of discovery and flexibility, and being able to adjust to differing environments while still demonstrating strong communication skills, is so important for the future of STEM—whether remote or onsite!”

Upcoming events at ORISE

Watch for upcoming recruiting and informational events in the ORISE Calendar of Events or in the ORISE GO app. Remember to check your university’s career services page or listings in Handshake, and follow ORISE on social media and LinkedIn.

To learn more about upcoming events and opportunities with ORISE, please reach out to ExperienceORISE@orau.org

ORISE Event Attendee Code of Conduct

Learn more about the ORISE Event Attendee Code of Conduct that applies at all ORISE live and virtual meetings, conferences, forums, and meeting-related events, including those sponsored by ORISE or in conjunction with other organizations.