Students are arguably more stretched than ever before. Many work part-time to help pay living costs while studying hard to get a good degree. Not surprisingly, career plans may be put on hold until the last piece of work is submitted or final exam is sat. The annual round of UK summer graduate recruitment fairs gives new and recent graduates a not-to-be missed chance to meet employers with vacancies to fill.

The largest fair is organised by the University of Manchester and this year takes place on 11 and 12 June. It features 190 companies, as well as some higher education institutions with postgraduate opportunities.

A range of graduate employers accept applications from graduates of any subject; a relief to those with a non-vocational degree who may have wondered how it would help them get a job. But competition for graduate employment remains tough. Although the Association of Graduate Recruiters’ 2008 winter review predicted an increase in graduate vacancies, a high percentage of employers anticipated difficulties filling vacancies due to not enough candidates having the right skills. Commercial awareness is chief among skills in short supply. Understanding that businesses operate in a competitive field influenced by economic and industry developments is a crucial starting point for anyone seeking to make the transition from university graduate to company employee. Reading company reports and keeping up-to-date with business news is essential preparation for any job application.

Other key “soft skills” include communication, problem solving, team work, use of initiative and negotiation. Applicants often struggle to tease these out of experience they’ve gained through part-time and voluntary work, work experience, internships and extra curricular activities. A part-time job, for instance, may be more relevant when described in terms of meeting or exceeding sales targets, standing in for a manager, coming up with a new promotional idea and so on.

Extensive information on writing CVs, covering letters and applications is included on the careers pages of the University of Manchester’s website Receiving feedback on an application or CV is important and can usually be given by the careers service of the university attended and at the summer recruitment fair itself. Preparation in advance of a fair pays dividends. Information on exhibitors at the Manchester fair is updated daily and is available via the website.

Although most job applications are now made online, it’s a good idea to have copies of a CV ready to hand out. Dressing professionally signals to an exhibitor that the individual wants to make a good impression, especially if they’ve done their research and know something about the employer. An “I’ve read that you do” introduction will always win against a “What do you do?” one. Having struck up a conversation, the candidate can mention in an application that they found it helpful to meet a representative, which indicates that they have a genuine and informed interest in the company.

However, according to one major graduate recruiter, making the right impression is a two way process. If they want the best candidates, they too need to leave their mark. Graduate employers will always compete for the best talent and can’t afford to be complacent. A significant number of recent graduates will work for an SME, a small-to medium-sized enterprise with fewer than 250 employees. A graduate recruitment fair may offer a chance to meet businesses that can’t afford big recruitment drives. Here, there is greater justification for asking, “What do you do?”. One Manchester SME has commented that they’ve had some great recruits who got interested after chatting to them at the fair.

Meeting employers at a fair is good practice for meeting them at interview. It can be daunting for a new graduate to present themselves as a potential employee for the first time. They need to feel and look the part, have worked out what they want to say about themselves and what questions they’ll ask. A balance is needed: appearing confident without being cocky; displaying enthusiasm while listening to what’s being said; being relaxed but not too laid-back. All common sense, but as this is how the employer forms a picture of their suitability, it’s common sense that’s worth practising.

Louise Sethi is from the Manchester Leadership Programme, Careers & Employability Division, The University of Manchester