It was 9:15 and I had just arrived at the gym where the career fair was set to start at 10:00. Company representatives were setting up their wares in the background and enjoying the provided bagels and coffee, chatting with each other before the rush set to begin at 10. Arriving at my company's booth, I tossed my bag down and leaned over to fill out a name tag. As I stood up, I was greeted by a sheet of paper being shoved in my face. "Here is my resume!" Bob said as he transferred the paper from my face to my hands. I was then greeted with a 2 minute monologue explaining why Bob would be the perfect candidate to work for my company. Eventually I was able to get a word in edgewise, introduce myself, and ask him to come back in 45 minutes when the fair started. As I walked over to get my much needed bagel, I reflected to myself that Bob would really have to be super impressive to get an interview when he came back to our booth.
Career Fairs should not be hard. When recruiters come to a career fair, it is with the sole mission to find students who they can interview for jobs. When students come to career fairs, they do so to find a company willing to give them a job. But a lot of the time both sides leave disappointed. I received my first interview for my current company at a career fair, and have now worked at several as a recruiter. There is plenty that can be said about how recruiters can improve in how they reach out to students and other candidates. But in this post I'd like to point out a few simple things that students can do (or not do) to stand out from the crowd and give themselves their best chance for an interview.
This is repeated a lot by career counselors, and I think its hard to understand from the student point of view sometimes. Students think of career fairs as a place to learn about companies. And thats valid to some extent. Certainly for younger students its a great way to see what options are out there. But as a recruiter the first thing I want to know about a student is "what type of position are you interested in" If they can't answer that question, no matter how impressive they are, I would be hesitant to give them an interview.
Preparing for a career fair means knowing what you want, and having at least some idea who might be able to help you get it. There's fairly little I can do to help a student who comes up to me and asks "So do you guys have any jobs that don't involve technology?" which is actually probably the most common question we receive. There's much more that we can say to help a student who comes to us and tells us that they're interested in marketing, or environmental concerns, or really anything else specific. The second student lets us picture how they could fit in and help our organization, the first student just emphasizes how they don't fit.
Never apologize for yourself
This may be the biggest problem that students have communicating with recruiters. Perhaps because of the perception of a loaded job market, students seem much more aware of how their resumes fall short compared to their peers rather than how they stand out. Unfortunately they tend to convey this to recruiters rather frequently. Bob's early morning greeting certainly had its issues, but one thing that he did really well was emphasize what he would bring to our company.
Something that students fail to understand is that recruiters are usually looking for reasons to like an applicant. They will take a chance on a candidate with weaknesses on his resume if he or she is genuinely able to show how they can fit into a company. What is a lot harder to work with is a large assortment of candidates who all have good GPAs, some reasonable experience, and absolutely nothing to differentiate themselves from others. In an interview setting a student will probably have to explain any weaknesses on their resume. But a career fair is not an interview. Its an opportunity to make an impression. That happens when a student shows that they will bring something positive and useful to the company.
Take chances, and learn from your mistakes
One of the great things about career fairs is that you have the opportunity to instantly apply new lessons you've learned. Recruiters don't have some sort of group social network that they're keeping profiles of you on. If you go to one company's booth and have a bad conversation, that doesn't follow you around to the rest of your interactions with companies unless you let it. Instead you can learn from your mistakes and hopefully get more comfortable and confident as you get more used to how career fair interactions work.
Don't try to cheat the process
Our early morning encounter was not the last I saw of Bob that day. He came back an hour later and I got to hear another, slightly toned down, explanation of why he would be perfect for my company. I asked him a few questions and as we wrapped up I told him we would take his resume and be in touch if we were able to offer him an interview. He asked if I would be able to sign him up for an interview right then. When I said that I could not, he then asked if he could talk to my coworker who was also recruiting for the same position. I politely told him that I couldn't stop him, but that I'd prefer that he left him free to talk with other candidates, and that I'd be happy to answer any more questions he had. He said that it was fine and walked away. Five minutes later, I looked over to see my coworker being treated to Bob's full explanation of why he would be a great candidate.
Assertiveness is in no way a bad thing. But being able to accept a no and learn from it is also important. Recruiters will generally be happy to tell a candidate how they could work to be a better candidate for their job, and some may even be willing to meet or exchange emails outside the fair setting to work with a candidate. If you don't receive an interview, building a relationship can be an even better outcome of meeting with a recruiter at a career fair. But trying to subvert the system will pretty much guarantee that you end up with neither. Other examples of this include trying to badger a recruiter for information they've said they don't know or can't give, talking down other candidates, or (more obviously) lying about your qualifications.
I received this advice from a speaker at Carnegie Mellon before I went to the career fair that ended up leading to my first fulltime job. It turned out to be the best thing he could have said to me. When you're in line to talk to a recruiter at a career fair, pay attention to the situation. What type of questions are they asking candidates? Are they mostly giving information, or trying to ask more interview style questions. Some companies will even ask technical questions at a career fair, and thats certainly something that you would want to know before you start talking to them.
In my case by listening I was able to learn that the recruiter I was interviewing was frustrated by the lack of Computer Science candidates he was meeting that day, and particularly frustrated that he was having to turn away qualified international students because he had a limit on how many candidates his company could sponsor for overseas work. When it was my turn to talk to him I was able to open by telling him that he could "accept or reject me on my own merits", and then focused on telling him about my undergraduate computer science degree, with a lesser emphasis on my more management focused graduate program. As a result I was able to open a personal connection and present myself as an answer to his frustrations, whereas coming in unaware I may have set myself up as just another student in the wrong degree program who was less of a fit than the international students he was having to send away.
Don't forget that recruiters are human
The first 5 points all point to this last one. Preparation is a way of showing recruiters that you value their time. When you present yourself as meeting a need rather than apologizing, you're helping them solve their problem. You can take chances at career fairs because recruiters are not automatons blindly picking the best resumes, and relationships and personal interaction actually matter. You shouldn't cheat the process, because in doing so you're treating other human beings disrespectfully. And you should pay attention because when you don't you're forgetting that this is a human interaction, and missing out on much of what is involved in it.
Bob's biggest mistake was forgetting that he was dealing with a human being. When he approached me in the morning it was with no awareness of my frame of mind or personal preferences. He was on a mission to get a job. But he severely sabotaged his efforts by overlooking the human factors of context, mood, and etiquette. If you can treat a recruiter as a human being, you'll find that they are much more likely to be your ally in getting a job.