Career Fair Advice

February 20, 2007

Part 1 - Introduction

College career fair (and interviewing) advice that is more sophisticated than the standard “dress well” and “shake hands firmly.”

If you know any teachers, observe their first week back in school. It will likely be easy– after school you will find them slumped in a chair, eyes glazed, feet sore, hoarse, and exhausted. It’s a hard job– an eight hour performance– and you set the tone. Being a recruiter at a career fair is comparable to teaching.

For the past three years, twice a year, I have been very involved with my company’s on campus recruiting. Every year it is a mix of excitement, anticipation, and utter exhaustion. And my daily office routine does very little to prepare me for the workout.

Yes, as recruiters we are the first step in the employment journey. I understand this, so I strive for perfection: high energy, perfect recall of every candidate, etc. But, it is impossible. The typical day at a career fair is full of dozens of conversations. Only the best ones stand out.

This series of articles is both a glimpse into what I look for as a recruiter, and a guide to what works and what doesn’t. I have gathered and refined this advice over the last three years of recruiting. I write it down now because, honestly, I wish I had read something like this when I started my job search.

Some background about me. Out of college, I worked for an international pharmaceutical company for nine months, and then left to start a consulting company with two college friends. About three years later, our consulting company had grown to 20 people and was acquired by our largest client, an internet marketing company that is turning heads in the industry. I work in the Reston, VA office where we develop the software and data analysis tools that drive the company. As a result, my recruiting is focused on CS majors for software development and business analyst positions. Adapt this to your own pursuits accordingly.

Part 2 - We Are Keeping Score

The only sane way to organize the myriad resumes that we gather at a career fair is to score them. Every company has a different method of scoring resumes.

We use a five point scale, where five is the highest. A five is the candidate with the right mix of strong academic performance, real work experience, strong communication skills, a dash of wit, and a sense of modesty. A one is missing a few of these things in a big way. A zero is reserved for the guy who decided to come to the career fair in bare feet. (Ah, Carnegie Mellon, you produce some odd creatures.)

After each conversation, I write the candidate’s score and my initials on the front of the resume, and, on the back, I write a summary of our conversation to help me remember the candidate.

At the end of the career fair, my team takes the stack of resumes to the nearest restaurant. We sort the resumes over dinner, focusing on the fours and fives. If we have enough fours and fives, then we don’t ever get to the ones, twos, and threes. Usually, the goal is to narrow down the candidates to the top 10 or 15 whom we will then invite to interview with us.

I admit that sorting and dissecting the resumes like this may sound dry and clinical. What if we miss that hidden gem? I will say three things in the system’s defense:

There’s an interesting follow-up to that last item. Before you approach a company at a career fair take a look at how they manage resumes. The good recruiters will have some sort of system for recording the information that they get out of your conversation. The bad recruiters, usually the ones at companies that are in super high demand, will just serve as the frontmen to a resume drop. Usually, in this case, the people doing the recruiting are not the people lining up the interviews. So basically they take your resume, drop it in the box, and never think of you again.

If you see the latter situation, all is not lost. You can change your approach to attempt to be more memorable, or you can just save yourself a lot of time by skipping the conversation and dropping your resume into the box. Because if they aren’t making any notes, there is a very good chance that they won’t remember your conversation.

Part 3 - Be Concrete

Ad agencies, Hollywood directors, and product designers use mockups for a reason: it’s a lot easier to have a conversation about something than about nothing. When you’ve got something to talk about-even if it’s not perfect- you have something to compare, contrast, and mold into shape. You have a starting point.

Remember this at the career fair. Before the fair, think about your ideal job. Be able to visualize it, and verbalize it. Some attributes for consideration:

Small / Medium / Large Company

In small companies you wear more hats. You learn mainly by doing things.

In large companies you have a more well-defined career path. Large companies have generally been around longer, so you can learn from coworkers with more experience.

In most cases, the company’s business has a greater impact on job security than a company’s size.

Initial Responsibilities

Application design, software development, testing, operations, strategy, sales.

Type of work

Generally, any paying software development job fits into one of three categories:

Industry Vertical

Some examples: technology and communication, financial services, retail, transportation, insurance, food and agriculture, healthcare, manufacturing, education, etc.

Geographic Location

North, south, east, west. City, suburbs.

To really impress a recruiter, get clear on your ideal job attributes, then use them as a framework for discussion at the career fair. Don’t be scared to assert a preference that does not align with whatever company you are talking to. If you’ve always pictured yourself at a small company and you are talking to IBM, tell them you’ve always pictured yourself at a small company. Ask the recruiter why they chose a big company. Talk about why you are leaning toward a small company. Above all, convey an open mind. Just like a visual mockup, the idea is to make progress in your thinking, not to limit yourself to a specific idea.

Part 4 - Plan Effectively

I have known that a would work with computers since 4th grade. But even so, if you compared my effective career planning during college to the amount of planning I put into any given term paper, my career planning comes up short.

Notice I say “effective” career planning. I put a lot of effort into looking for a job, but not much time thinking about how or why I was looking for it. Honestly, it felt like when you’re in a car on a trip, and you’ve possibly missed your turn, so you have to decide whether to keep going or turn around… and I just kept going.

I don’t feel too bad now, because I see many candidates following the same strategy that I did. They know they need a job, but they don’t know the right series of turns to get one. Drawing from the candidates who we have hired and their results on the job, I’ve noticed three common patterns that signal a problem:

The Shotgun Approach

Some candidates are so worried about missing an opportunity that they throw their resume at every single job out there, even if it goes against the grain of their major. This is foolish. If you studied chemical engineering, or romance languages and literature for the past four yours, you hopefully did it for some sort of reason. You may be smart, but are you REALLY sure that a career in software engineering is for you?

The Perpetual Student

Another common scenario is the candidate who has spent the last 20+ years in school, achieving degree after degree, spending every summer writing intense theoretical papers on quantum cryptography. I am impressed, and my field will always need pioneers to move things forward. But be honest- 20+ years in academia means that you love academia. Are you REALLY going to be happy working with us to make practical business applications?

The Misguided Programmer

The saddest, to me, is the Computer Science major who is in it for money. When you think of the dot-com boom, you immediately think of the founder of a start-up out in Silicon Valley who made 10 million dollars overnight. Because of these paper millionaires, the boom created the idea that programmers are rolling in easy money. Mothers started instructing their daughters, “marry a doctor, a lawyer, or a computer programmer!” (Or, “BECOME a doctor, a lawyer, or a computer programmer!”) When it came time to choose a major, a bunch of kids who should have remained “undecided” instead marked the CS box.

One day, these misguided programmers will wake up to realize that they spent four years studying something that they will never be passionate about. When they look for a job, the only logical place to look is in software development. They are easy to spot: apart from the major and a list of classes, there is no other mention of computers or technology. In their list of computer skills, they write C, Database Design, and Javascript/HTML because they took Intro to Computer Science, Intro to Databases, and Intro to Web Design. No exploration or tinkering, nothing beyond what is required.

These are all intelligent people. If you described any of these candidates to themselves, if you asked them to write a critical paper comparing possible alternatives, I am confident that any one of them would be smart enough to navigate their future. But job market pressure has a way of clouding vision.

So the advice? As a recruiter, it is unbelievable rare to find someone who has examined their own interests, weighed the possibilities, and then fiercely pursued the opportunities that fit them the best. The candidates who do this are the ones I want to work with. In the end, these candidates will also be the happiest.

Part 5 - Two Questions

The whole point of resumes, career fairs, and interviews is to answer two questions:

  1. What can you do for the company?

  2. What can the company do for you?

Most people only think about the first question. It’s understandable, you’re at a career fair, you need a job, and you have a short amount of time to find one. But the second question is just as important as the first one. Recruiters are people, too, and they are probably not that different from you. If you guys went to the same school you may have been good friends. Heck, if you end up working at his company you may be good friends. The recruiter, if he’s good, is trying to create a win/win situation, a situation where both of you are better off if you take the job.

So while you are chatting with the recruiter, try to get both questions answered. One of the best things to convey here is that you have all, or almost all, of the skills that the company needs, but that you have also gotten a little exposure to some other advanced skills. You are interested in developing these other skills, and something about that specific company would provide you with a great opportunity to do it. A knowledgeable candidate who’s focused on his own career development? I’ll take two!

A note about the first question:

Some individuals have attempted to answer this question, to unfortunate effect, by walking up to me, handing off a resume, and then reciting a prepared monologue, usually directed at my feet, about how their experience could help my company. There is really nowhere to go from here. The candidates usually have some impressive talents on paper, but they just exhibited a lack of social skills (talking at my feet?), communication skills (conversations involve two people), and business savvy (do they even know anything about my company?). This is not the way to go.

Part 6 - The College of ??

Let’s talk about career fair physics. Because of career fair physics, five minutes researching a company before the career fair carries as much or more weight than 200 hours volunteering at the local hospital.

To understand why, I suggest flipping the script around. You would be unimpressed, and rightfully so, by a recruiter who was completely clueless about your school.

“University of Virginia? Hmm… never heard of it. Is it big? Is it any good? I’ve heard a lot about University of Phoenix. They have classes online. I saw them on a billboard. Is your school basically like them?”

It would be laughable. But that’s what candidates regularly do at career fairs. The reason that five minutes is equal to 200 hours is because if a candidate can talk intelligently about your company it signifies that he or she is specifically interested in your company for reasons deeper than a paycheck.

Compound this with the fact that most recruiters-setting aside the ones who just wanted a free hotel room-are there for a reason. Either they have enough experience to pick out good candidates, or they are passionate enough about the company to want to represent it. In either case, the company is important to them, way more important than a paycheck. They want to find people who think the company is important, too, just like them.

Part 7 - Ask for the Job

When I rented my last apartment, there were so many potential tenants that I actually had to stand in line to fill out an application. It was toward the end of a scheduled open house, so I was the last one in the room when I finished writing.

After some small talk, I turned to the owner and said, “Chad, I really like this place. I just want to let you know how excited I am to possibly live here.” He smiled, thought for a moment, glanced at the stack of other applications, and said, “If your credit report checks out, then it’s yours.”

When my company was young, we had a senior adviser who had the same advice for us again and again: “You significantly increase the chances of getting what you want if you ask for it.”

Part of being human is that something compels us to help our fellow man. We pull together. Most of us, at a deep level, want to make each other happy.

More than anything, this applies to getting a job. So many candidates try to act so professional that they come off as cold. As a result, they remain faceless resumes. But the rare candidate who really lets his or her guard down, expresses excitement about the company, and asks for the job immediately enters a different category. Their excitement mirrors the excitement I felt when I first joined my company. Their anxiousness reminds me of the anxiousness I felt when searching for a job. They become like me, I want to help them succeed.

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