How to Prepare to Attend a Professional Conference as an Undergrad

How to Prepare and Plan to Attend a Professional Conference as an Undergrad | Attending a Conference as an Undergraduate | Tips at ShellyRawlings.com

OCT. 26, 2016 — Hello from Atlanta! Today I’m writing from my hotel room in the heart of Hotlanta as two fellow staffers at our university’s student newspaper and I attend this year’s College Media Association (CMA) conference. I’m so grateful that our school has funded this trip, where we’ve gotten the chance to meet real industry professionals from outlets like CNN and The Weather Channel as well as other college bloggers, journalists, writers, and photographers. (There’s been a lot of talent all in one place this week!)

This is by no means the first conference I have attended during my undergraduate experience—I’ve been to the Virginia Music Educators’ Association (VMEA) conference in Norfolk, Virginia, and the International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) at James Madison University—but this was the furthest from my hometown. (And, it marked my first ever experience on a commercial plane!)

Getting ready for this trip took some preparation and planning, and it can be daunting if you have no idea what to expect. That’s why I’m here to help!

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Whether you’re attending a conference to learn more about your craft or you have goals to network with peers and industry leaders, these tips will help you make the most of your upcoming adventure:

1. First, you need to know what to pack.

If you’re going out of town for the conference, you’ll need to make sure you pack all your basic necessities—like toiletries and clothes—but also it’s important to pack the right outfits and important conference items.

Even if the only conference attendees will be other college students, you’ll want to dress professionally. You don’t necessarily need to pull out your formalwear, but some nice slacks or a cute sundress will ensure that you don’t stand out from the crowd in a bad way. (You’ll also feel a lot more comfortable talking to presenters and industry moguls if you’re not wearing jeans or shorts.)

It’s also easy to forget when you’re trying to remember your toothbrush and hair straightener to bring the items you’ll need for the conference itself. This includes things like business cards, notebooks (and pens), and your planner. With these tools, you’ll be able to keep track of all your upcoming sessions and jot down any notes you may want to refer back to later.

Another tip I’ve learned after going to a few of these: Even if you’re not a fan of pen-and-paper, whatever you do, do not take your notes on your laptop or phone. It gives off an unprofessional, informal vibe and will quickly earn you some side-eye from other conference attendees—not to mention, some speakers can find it distracting. I’ve found it’s more acceptable to download an app on your iPad or tablet (I like Penultimate on iPad) that allows you to write with a stylus to take notes. A slim tablet can also be easier to carry around than a bunch of bulky notebooks.

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2. Next, it’s time to plan your trip.

Nowadays, many conferences have smartphone apps to help you browse all the sessions offered and plan them in your schedule before you even arrive on site. If so, take advantage of this! Peruse the conference schedule to identify which presentations look most inviting to you, and add them to your personal schedule. You don’t have to make any final decisions, and you can always switch last-minute if you prefer, but this will help you plan ahead if you need to do any traveling between sessions.

Remember as well that you shouldn’t feel obligated to attend certain sessions just because your friends or colleagues are; make sure you go to the ones that you feel will be the best for you and your personal career goals. Also—don’t forget to allot some time for you to eat lunch! (You won’t learn anything if all you can think about is how hungry you are.) 

Me speaking at James Madison University and Eastern Mennonite University’s International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) at JMU in the spring of 2016.
A few of my newspaper buddies and I on our flight back from Atlanta in October 2016. (Thanks to the awesome flight attendant who gave us extra pretzels and took this photo!)

3. Get your act together.

This seems like it should be a no-brainer, but when you’re at a professional conference, you need to act professionally—in and out of the sessions and conference venue. Chances are, many fellow attendees will be roaming around the town after hours, and you don’t want them to recognize you the next day as “that crazy girl from last night.”

Even if you’re in a sour mood, be cordial and polite to everyone you interact with—even the hotel staff. People will notice, and it could affect your career long-term.

4. Take time to reflect.

Once you get back home from the conference, it’s great to reflect on what you’ve learned. See what professional goals you were able to accomplish while away, and add any new connections on LinkedIn. It can also be beneficial to go through your notes and pull out bits and pieces that you want to apply to your life (or maybe even blog about). Reflecting will help you absorb and apply everything you heard at the conference, so it will all stick with you much longer.

Here’s the takeaway.

By preparing ahead of time and being open to reflection after the fact, you’re setting yourself up for success not only at your upcoming conference, but also as you move toward transitioning from college to career.

Did I miss anything? Share your experiences with me in the comments below!

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