Job Advice for New College Grads

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How To Win Big At A Career Fair

Posted by James M on November 3, 2008

Career fairs are one of the most under utilized parts of the job hunt and one for which many soon-to-be graduating job seekers under prepare.  A typical student might stop by for an hour or so between classes, browse the vast array of company booths, and escape with a plastic bag full of free stuff.  If they are industrious they may stop by a booth or two and drop off a resume.  Career fairs, however, are a great opportunity and one that you should put time and effort into.

If you have never been to a career fair, rest assured it is pretty straight forward.  There are booths staffed by representatives from various companies.  Sometimes they are from the college recruiting division, but they may be volunteer employees from some other division or in some cases the hiring managers themselves.  The number of employers varies between career fairs.  Some are more specialized such as Management Consulting or Forest Resources fairs that may only have 10 companies, while others are larger, more general fairs that could have 50-100 companies.

Career fairs are often under emphasized by students, however this is a mistake.  Career fairs represent your first face-to-face interaction with a company, often times by a representative who will be interviewing you or making a hiring decision.  In addition, these fairs offer a terrific opportunity to gain insight into aspects of a company that are impossible to find online.

Today, I’d like to talk about some of the tricks of the trade and give you some practical tips to help survive a career fair:

Make a good first impression
Treat a career fair the same way you would treat an interview–dress the part, research the company, sell yourself.  Because the atmosphere may seem more laid back don’t forget you are interacting with company representatives, many of whom are in the Recruiting or HR departments and are often the same people who do on- (and off-) campus interviews with new college hires.  It is not unheard of for a company to conduct interviews at a career fair if they spot top talent.  I have even heard of a couple of cases of companies making offers at a career fair.  You heard right.  So be on your best behavior and don’t fall into the trap of treating a career fair as a casual affair.

Dress the part
When finding a job, “dress the part” usually means you should wear a suit (for men) or pant suit or similar attire (for women).  This is not always the case if you know the dress code of a particular company is less formal, but since at a career fair you will be interacting with a wide variety of companies you need to dress to the highest common denominator.  Trust me, it makes a really bad first impression if you stroll in with jeans and sandals on, so do yourself a favor and change out of your casual school wear before hitting up the fair.

Ditch the bag
To me nothing looks tackier than a man wearing a suit who has on a backpack.  The same goes for a women in a pant suit or wearing a skirt.  Here you are in a nice, clean, pressed, professional outfit and you are hauling around a dirty, heavy symbol of the fact that you are still not part of the working world.  Do everyone a favor and ditch your bag.  You’ll look infinitely more professional and, once you liberate yourself from your bag, will feel much more free and confident.  And as a practical matter, hanging on to a 20 lb backpack for 3 hours while you’re walking around nervous as hell about getting a job isn’t my idea of fun.  So what should you do with your bag?  This easiest and most obvious choice is to swing by your house and drop it off.  If you feel you don’t have time (maybe you have an evening class after the career fair or are worried about traffic), think of other creative solutions–ask a friend to hold on to it, leave it in a classroom or lab that you know will be occupied by trusted colleagues, or see if your school’s career center will hang on to it for a few hours.  Whatever you do, leave the bag behind, you wouldn’t bring it to an interview, you wouldn’t bring it to work, so don’t bring it to a career fair.

Research the company
Do your research about a company before you go to the career fair.  If you ask simple questions a career fair, the kind that anyone can find an answer to on a company website, you are really wasting your time (and not helping your chances of impressing the recruiter).  Go above and beyond, ask questions that probe details about a company that you won’t be able to find on the internet.  It is quite impressive to college recruiters when you show your knowledge about a company early on in the job search process.

After you do your research, I would make a sheet of notes for the top 5 or so companies you are interested in, take these note sheets to the fair, and review each one just before talking to the respective employer.  Facts you might write down are key attributes the company is looking for in an employee, any specific job openings you might have seen on the company’s website, perhaps a (very) brief history of the company, the company’s CEO, recent sales, reminders of any important news stories. This information will help guide your discussion and really impress the representative if they happen to ask “Are you familiar with our company and products”, which is a very common question.

Customize your resume
This is really a nice touch.  At the very least you should update your resume’s objective by mentioning the company by name.  If you already know the position you are applying to make sure that you mention that as well.  But most importantly, instead of using a generic resume, make sure it matches the company’s values and desired skill set of the position you are applying for.  We’ll have a very large and in-depth discussion on resumes later.

Have a spiel

Have a 20 second introduction about yourself.  What you are majoring in, what interests you about the company, how your skills match the position.  When you go up to a booth at a career fair, shake the employer’s hand and give your spiel.  Because you will inevitably memorize your spiel, you’ll really need to watch yourself so it doesn’t sound robotic.  I’ve heard many a perspective employee come by and sound like Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (I just realized I am dating myself with that movie example, but it’s a classic you should pic up and watch anyway).  Try with all your might to make your spiel sound organic like you just came up with it on the spot.  You should even practice this in front of a mirror.  Be ready to abandon your spiel at the drop of a hat, it is there to get things moving. Sometimes a perspective employer may ask you a question–“Hey how’s it going, have you had a chance to check out this cool new product we brought with us as a demonstration?”  If the initial conversation gets going without you using your spiel then great!!  As you go about your discussion it is still key that you work in important pieces of information such as your knowledge about the company, why you want to work for them, and what skills you bring.

Also, note that it is best, like all your interaction with a particular company, to tailor your dialogue to the specific employer of interest. Here’s an example of what you might say:

“Hi my name is Lisa, I’m a Communications major graduating in June.  I had an internship last summer with Northwest Broadcasting Incorporated and I really enjoyed working in the video editing department the most.  While looking on your website I saw you have openings for Editing Assistances and I really think my experience at NBI as well as my strong academic background would make me an ideal candidate.  I was wondering if you could tell me more about the Editing Assistant career path.”

Yes, I know people don’t actually talk like that in real life, but I think you get the point.  You have to find the words, tone, and pacing that are natrual for you.  But remember, show your passion, show your knowledge, and sell yourself.

Be engaging
It is really anticlimactic when a student walks up only to mumble with their eyes staring at the resume in their hands.  Be confident!  Be interested!  Ask questions!  Far too many students speak in monotone voices and seem only casually intersted in what company representatives are telling them.  Yes you are nervous, but let your passion for the company and your excitment to find a job show.

What if I don’t know about a particular company?
If you are caught off guard and don’t know about a company you happen to see that looks interesting, don’t waltz up lazy and uninterested.  Trust me, this happens all the time, especially to smaller companies with less name recognition and this lacadizical attitude is really offputting.  Be bold and confident!  Tell the recuriter you were passing by, found the booth interesting and would like to know more about the company.  Work in the generic version of your speil and be yourself.

Don’t start with your top choice

This is a more subtle and often overlooked tip.  Most people who attend a career fair are eager to start talking to representatives from their short list of companies.  That eagerness in conjunction with the fact that most people are often nervous and a little awkward when first attending a career fair often spells disaster.  You want to put your first foot forward when speaking to companies at the top of your list.  So do yourself a favor and start with companies that aren’t on your list.  Work out your introduction, get a feel for the pacing of the interaction and what sorts of questions work well.  Listen to other students talk to employers and get a feel for what does and doesn’t work for them.  After you have your nerves worked out and you’ve hit your stride, then go up and talk to your top companies.

Ask Questions!

Unless your uncle works for a particular company, a career fair is probably the best place to have face-to-face interaction with a company employee.  Really take your time and leverage all of the valuable information you can get there.  Here are some questions you might ask during the career fair:

  • What do you look for in a successful candidate?
  • What are the biggest challenges to a new employee?
  • What is the structure of your interview and hiring process?
  • What is your favorite part about working at the company?
  • What was your career path with the company?
  • What is the typical career path for a [insert your position of interest]?
  • I noticed that [insert product] is launching later this year, will there be any openings to work on that project?

You can also ask follow-up questions about information you found online such as information about:

  • A particular opening you saw online.
  • An entry-level employment program such as a Rotation Program or Leadership Development Program.
  • The main location of particular work group’s offices.
  • Company diversity programs.
  • Company work-life balance.
  • Corporate citizenship practices.
  • The list goes on…

This list is by no means the final word on questions you might want to ask.  It is merely presented to give you some examples of a few good questions and to get your juices flowing.  You should prepare questions that are interesting to you and relevant to the goals of your job hunt.  Remember, you have a limited time with each employer so pick and choose a short list of your highest priority questions and ask them in order of importance to you.  If you don’t get a chance to ask all your questions you’ll have another chance during the interview process.  Also remember that many of the questions you ask will come naturally as part of your dialogue with the recruiter.

I hope that this discussion has highlighted the importance of the career fair in the job seeking process and given you the tools you’ll need to be successful.  If you have any questions or comments feel free to leave them below.

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