I've been asked to plan and run a high school career expo. Any tips for organizing a successful one? I want to make it a meaningful experience not only for students, but for everyone involved.
I remember attending career expos when I was in high school. Like most students, I spent the day walking around with a group of friends, wandering aimlessly, and stopping at various tables with little direction. Regardless of the fact that there were some wonderful people and organizations represented at the event, I just didn’t know enough about myself and where I would best fit in the working world to take advantage of the information that was being provided by exhibitors. What a wasted opportunity!
If you’re responsible for planning a career expo right now, you’re probably asking yourself how to avoid a similar situation with your students. I’ve spent some time looking at what works at these events and what doesn’t, and I’ve got some simple ideas to make your career expo a successful venture for all involved.
As you begin to plan for your career expo, consider incorporating some or all of the suggestions below to encourage student engagement, improve exhibitor interactions, and to create an event that is meaningful for both your students and attending exhibitors. Creating a successful career expo event is going to take a substantial amount of planning, so you’ll also find a detailed checklist to help you stay on track, stay organized, and manage your time wisely.
The first thing you’ll need to do is to start pulling together your A-team. Seek out each and every career expo stakeholder group: parents, student clubs/organizations, teachers and staff, community leaders, career development specialists, local business professionals, and higher education institutions. Recruit enthusiastic individuals who are interested in helping to plan, promote, and/or sponsor this event to make it a success. Also consider reaching out to local retirees who may be willing to volunteer. They can be a wonderful resource due to their years of wisdom, desire to help, and flexible schedules. Once you’ve formed an official career expo committee, leverage each member’s networking connections to help you develop a list of exhibitors. Developing a powerful committee of people who are interested in helping the next generation succeed in life will result in a more fruitful experience because you'll expand your time and your reach.
Make the experience meaningful.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that one career expo is just like the next. There are a few steps you can take early on to ensure that your career expo is molded to the interests and goals of the current student body. Here’s how:
- Gather and implement information about student interests. Tailor the career expo to your current students so that they become more invested and excited about the career expo. Remember, the right connection with the right person at a career expo can shine a light on career possibilities that were unseen before, and result in an experience that gives them hope for the future.
- Conduct a simple survey to quickly and easily gather relevant information about your students. Ask questions related to their general and specific career interests, their desired level of education attainment, why they’re interested in attending the expo, what questions or concerns they have about the event, their top three goals for the event, and the like. Not only will you gain useful insights based on their responses, but your students will also benefit from taking the time to think these things through.
- List potential exhibitors in your survey and ask for suggestions. This simple step will help generate excitement among the students because they will help shape the event. You can amplify this excitement by following through and inviting their suggested exhibitors to your career expo.
- Increase students’ self-knowledge. A self-concept is grown through self-knowledge and discovery. Students (and adults) are more likely to find happiness in their career if they first can see a clear picture of themselves; their interests, hobbies, passions, etc. Once they understand themselves, they can begin to see where they will best fit into the workplace and the world.
- The Kuder assessments are a great tool to start this process, as well as exploring occupations based on interest assessment results in the Kuder Career Planning System®. Ideally, all students attending the expo should complete interest assessments and have the opportunity to explore corresponding occupations well in advance of the career expo. When students arrive at your expo armed with individual education plans based on their individual future goals, they’ll be able to make connections with exhibitors that are inherently more meaningful; a win-win for everyone!
Have a theme.
Give your career expo a theme that adds value to the event. For example, one option to consider is organizing your career expo around students’ Holland codes and inviting employers and schools that complement students’ preferred work environments. This will help students find their way to businesses or schools that align with their interests, and they’ll be able to talk to representatives who will help bring it all to life. Here’s how:
- Make simple cardboard signs for each of the Holland codes. On the day of the expo, place Holland code identifiers (Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional) at each booth that correlate to occupations and majors.
- Print each student's top three Holland codes and include brief descriptions of the characteristics associated with each personality.
- Encourage students to visit the exhibitor booths with Holland code identifies that match their personal Holland codes.
Prepare students well.
This may be the first time many high school students have ever attended a career expo. So it’s important to take some time to teach students the basics of professional encounters. Here’s how:
- In the weeks leading up to the event, devote class time or host special pre-expo workshops. Prep students on how to dress for the expo, how to shake hands when meeting, the importance of maintaining good eye contact, and the basics of engaging in small talk through mock interviews.
- Explain to the students how they should plan to use the Holland code identifier system to learn more about opportunities that will be of interest to them personally. Create a list of exhibitors that will be of particular interest for the student to visit on the day of the event.
- Help students get organized. Provide students with a set of questions to ask when visiting a booth, plus a worksheet and folder where they can keep track of the name of the employer reps they meet, take notes on their discussions, and store business cards and resumes.
A career expo presents a unique opportunity to open students’ eyes to career possibilities and to give them a sense of hope for a better future. This is something to get excited about! Your enthusiasm will be contagious as you share the good news with others. Here’s how:
- Advertise your career expo. Take advantage of social media, local radio stations, local newspapers (and their online calendars), and print fliers. Get people talking about all the great exhibitors that will be present and what a wonderful opportunity this will be for the students.
- Host small celebrations to promote the upcoming career expo. Use your creativity and implement short activities to generate excitement. Some ideas include:
- “Guess the career” posters where students text in answers to career posters scattered throughout the school or on campus.
- Invite actors (or drama students) to perform a short skit or song about the expo; challenging students to find five peers with a Holland code similar to their own. Once they have formed a group, ask them to visit the office for a small prize.
- Create a worksheet of Holland codes that correspond to school faculty and staff positions and encourage students to match codes to the individuals.
- Host a celebration at the conclusion of the event. Hand out awards and/or prizes at the celebration event based on who visited the most booths, or who made the most networking contacts, etc.
As you invite local employers and postsecondary institutions to your expo, invest time in providing them with some helpful tips to make the day a success. Here’s how:
- Remind them that adults can be intimidating. High school students may be too shy to stop and interact, even if the exhibitor’s booth represents an area of career interest.
- Encourage them to make themselves as accessible as possible. This can be a simple as removing any barriers that are usually set up to separate the student from the exhibitors (such as tables) to create a more welcoming space, which is helpful when people are meeting one another for the first time. If a table is necessary to hold computers, pamphlets, and other materials, encourage exhibitors to set up a table in the back of their booths. Encourage them to stand by their display while keeping a comfortable cushion of space between themselves and the flow of student traffic. Simple steps to create a welcoming space can improve the odds of a successful connection between strangers!
It’s show time.
Finally, the big day is here. If you worked diligently through the checklist and carefully planned all the details of the event, today will flow smoothly, and without a hitch, right? Well, that’s what we hope for, but more than likely, you will run into a snag or two today. Not to worry! Follow the plan, prepare for the typical day-of-the event snags, and keep yourself available to resolve issues as they arise throughout the day. Here’s how:
- Prep your door greeters. Plan to have several volunteers available to greet exhibitors at the door of your venue and show them to their booths. Also be sure to assign volunteers to remain stationed at the door to greet guests at the door as they arrive.
- Make sure your cell phone is fully charged. You’ll have many people trying to contact you with problems, changes, and other issues as they arise. You need to be accessible, so make sure your phone is ready for the big day.
- Be sure everyone is present and accounted for. Check to see that your volunteers are present and in their assigned locations. Anticipate that someone will have an emergency today and will not be able to make it. That’s why you’ve paired your volunteers up and added extra staff to key positions.
- Mix and mingle. Ask a few volunteers to plan to spend the day moving around the floor of the expo to answer any questions, encourage timid students to interact with exhibitors, and make sure things are flowing smoothly in general.
- Replenish supplies. Make sure business representatives have all that they need to set up at their locations. It’s a good idea to have a bag filled with supplies since many of the exhibitors will need to set up their stations: tape, staplers, pens/pencils, paper, markers, paper clips, and other basic supplies.
Keep up the momentum.
Don’t drop the ball once the big day is over. Nurture connections with students, volunteers, and exhibitors and build on your career expo’s success. Here’s how:
- Extend your thanks. Reach out to all your volunteers and exhibitors with a special thank-you note or gift, depending on your budget. These people were instrumental in making this event a success, so let them know how much you appreciate all they’ve done. Keep in touch with career expo volunteers and be sure to check in with them and update their contact information on a periodic basis – you’ll want to reach out to these wonderful people again.
- Keep students on task. Devote class time or host post-expo workshops to help students follow up with exhibitors, prep for informational or admissions interviews they’ve scheduled, and hone their networking skills.
- Measure your success. Follow up with students, volunteers, and exhibitors through brief surveys tailored to each group. Ask for their honest feedback on the quality of their experience. Take note of things that went great, and things that could be improved upon next time. You’ll thank yourself when you’re asked to lead the career expo again next year!
A career expo can be a powerful way to help students become career ready. The best way to make sure your event runs smoothly is to pull together a strong support committee, understand your students and their aspirations, plan early, and follow through on the details. Hosting a career expo will demand a great deal of time and energy, but the right support and tools can make all the difference.
Career Expo Checklist
Print this free resource and keep it handy as you go about planning your event.
- college and career readiness