Dear Sam: After spending 13 years with my last employer, I was recently laid off. The job search process is new to me. There is a local career fair that I thought would be a good kick-off to my search. What should or can I do to prepare myself for the event? – Jack

Dear Jack: I’m sorry to hear about your recent job loss, and think the career fair will be a great way to start your search. Career fairs can be overwhelming so preparing for it is a great way to make the most of the opportunities that will be there. At the very least, getting out for the day, dressing professionally, and being prepared to sell yourself, will do wonders to your psyche and self-confidence. As an additional bonus, you will get a head start on sharpening your interviewing and networking skills. I am seeing a resurgence of event-based recruiting so likely this will not be the sole career fair you will attend.

Here are some tips to make sure you get the most out of the experience:

1. Review the list of exhibitors. You will need to do this for several reasons. First, when you walk up to a booth it will be impressive if you know something about the exhibitor. The worst question to ask a prospective employer is, “What do you do?” Do some research to learn about the company, taking the time to review recent press articles so you are aware of the direction the company is heading. You can also peruse the career section of their website to get an idea of what positions they may be seeking to fill. This will be important when you are telling the employer what you can do for them.

2. Customize your cover letter. While you are researching the exhibiting companies, gather their contact information and even a human resource manager’s name if at all possible. Use this information to customize your cover letter to each company, doing so will immediately tell the recruiters you have gone the extra mile and are very interested in working for them.

3. Prepare your sales pitch. Develop a succinct answer to the question, “Tell me about yourself.” By doing so you will maximize your time with the recruiter versus stumbling and taking five minutes to say the same thing. Tailor this statement to suit the needs of the employer; in other words, don’t spend your time telling them what you want to do or your life history. Focus this statement on the value you can offer the employer, highlighting your core competencies, and providing concrete examples reinforcing your claims.

4. Map out your strategy. When you get to the career fair, find out where each company of interest is exhibiting and map out a strategy to visit each booth. Don’t be discouraged if you see long lines. If you need to, return at a more convenient time, keeping keep a list of the exhibitors you have visited so you don’t leave the fair forgetting to speak to one of your prospects.

5. Ask for business cards. Upon closing your discussion with each hiring manager, politely ask for his or her business card so you can follow-up on the opportunity with a second copy of your resume and a phone call.

6. Dress for the job you want! Despite a career fair often seeming less formal than an individual interview, you should still take the time to dress for the job you want. Take this opportunity to put your best foot forward, both on paper and in person. Remember, you are essentially going on an interview (and competing against hundreds of others), so take the time to dress well to make a great first impression.

By preparing yourself for the career fair, you will make the most of this opportunity, engage yourself in a professional environment, and better equip yourself for future interviews.