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What are you supposed to do at a career fair?

Career counselors and professors keep telling me to go to career fairs and talk to the recruiters. So I dress up nice, print out resumes, pick out the employers who might be hiring people with my background, visit their website and research them ahead of time, go to the event and make small talk about business - what they're doing, what I'm doing ... and they all just tell me, "see our website".

Now, I'm not expecting to get hired on the spot, but career fairs are starting to seem pointless -- unless I'm missing something. So, what am I supposed to do at a career fair?


Any response from HR reps who've worked the other end of career fairs (sitting behind the booths, telling students "see our website") would be greatly appreciated.

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6 Answers 6

Primarily, ask questions.

Although many companies won't take resumes at career fairs, telling you to apply online, they will frequently look at yours and be able to give you answers that are unique to your situation. Especially for internships and co-ops, many positions are written generically. Find out specifically what skills the company is looking for and what someone with your skills would be expected to do on a daily basis. If the company has representatives from outside of HR (which, in my experiences, many do), ask them about their daily work, what kinds of projects the company is doing, what a recent graduate hire or intern would be expected to do on a daily basis.

Secondarily, get business cards and contact information.

You may end up looking for opportunities in the future (perhaps when there's no career fair or recruitment event), so get some information so you can reach out to the companies when you're closer to being ready to look for a position. If you have a direct line to a human (rather than a generic company HR/recruiting email address) and you can mention that you met with them at a particular event, you may find out that you're able to learn more about current or future positions.

Finally, get cool things. Some companies bring cool give aways, some of them being useful.

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@JeffO I wouldn't recommend a thank you email for just talking at a career fair. Last time I was at a career fair, I probably talked to a hundred people, and then interviewed a dozen the next day. If 10% of the people I met emailed me, I don't need 10 emails to deal with. –  Thomas Owens Jan 22 '13 at 19:09

I've worked at a few of them.

Don't expect to get hired on spot. Almost never happens (I've never seen it). The company I work for we would request CV/Resumes online only. Some people would not get to talk to certain people on the stand without a minimum educational/career equivalent (eg. PhD or higher only). In these cases this is just that certain specialists on the stand have very limited time to who they can talk to.

Everyone gets spoken to if they can get a free person to talk to them though. Also exceptional engineers we would flag for HR to see if they can push them towards a particular area/interviews if there are openings AND they put the CV online.

IMPORTANT: Despite the informality of the fair, you should treat it if you would going to an actual job interview.

Before going to the fair.

  1. Check all the companies that are going to be there. You can check them online. You want to see what they do, the company mindset, if it is a startup, how they are currently doing.

    If there is something of a particular interest they do, make a note to ask that question. Avoid any questions of a questionable/political nature. Most companies will refuse to answer them and may get annoyed.

  2. Determine if you can see every stand in time. If not put the ones you are least interested in last. If the fair is pretty big, I'd also recommend to get a map beforehand and plan out your route.

  3. Bring a carrier bag, 10 resumes (although you might not need them), business cards (if you have any), notebook and a pen (although you will get lots of them free) and a phone. I'd recommend the business cards mention something like Linkedin/Twitter/Email. I would also recommend to tailor CVs/Resumes for certain stands that you are most interested in. They will probably not take them, but if they show an interest they have something to look at.

At the Fair.

  1. The best times to hit the stands you want is early in the morning or just after lunch. They will not be as busy and the people on the stand will be more focused on you.

  2. If the stand is busy, wait your turn. Don't try to butt in on someone elses conversation, even if it is interesting. If you have questions on things you over hear wait until you can talk to someone on the stand.

  3. Don't be afraid to ask for freebies even if you don't plan to talk to anyone on the stand. :)

  4. Don't overstay your welcome on a stand. If they have answered your questions, say thanks and if there is nothing else find another stand to look at. I've seen a couple of instances where some people will just stay at the stand doing nothing.

  5. Don't be afraid to go back later if you had a further question.

  6. Make a note of what stands impressed you for later.

  7. If you get requests for callbacks/interviews arrange a time and make a note of it and the person you were talking to. If they aren't HR, it can be common they forget about you.

  8. Don't waste peoples time if you are not a fit for the company.

    For example we would often get many people interested in what the company does but didn't want a job with us. That is fine.

    It was the ones that were clearly not remotely qualified and just kept talking in the hopes of us magically saying "you are hired!". You are just wasting your time in these instances.

  9. A good question I saw (apart from asking about internships) was "What skills do I need to learn in the next six months to make myself look competitive at an interview in your company?

  10. It is common for people on the stand to be a spread of the employees in the company. So ask something like "So do you all do the same job?". It will give you an idea of who you should be talking to.

After the fair is over.

  1. From the list of interested companies, get your CV/Resume into the online system, ASAP. I'd recommend if you were talking to a particular HR person, send them an email (if they gave it), thanking them and that you put your CV into the system.

  2. Follow up with callbacks, but don't pester.

  3. Keep the names for any other fair, so that you can recall names of people. Gives the impression they made an impression.

  4. Also check LinkedIn with the people you spoke to. If they are HR/recruiters try adding them to your network.

One other thing from what you mentioned. Don't just go to ones you think are hiring. Again the majority will not be hiring on the spot. But will be looking for a list of people to check on later.

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I would add to not be afraid to name drop in cover letters to the company. Explaining how you met someone and really enjoyed talking with them is a green flag for might fit well with our corporate culture. It will not get you the job but it might get you in the door for an interview. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 22 '13 at 19:21

I agree that being a living embodiment of a website isn't useful. Not as an HR rep, but as a hiring manager (the more engineer-looking person sitting next to the HR rep), I can say I LOVE career fairs, because it can give me a good sense of the market.

Unlike your other experiences, the company I worked for WAS empowered to take resumes, although hiring on the spot was a very, very rare activity. We did, in fact, bring a hiring manager like myself so that we could have instant feedback from a technical person on how aggressive to be in scheduling follow up interviews.

Let me try to tackle two thoughts:

1 - Why am I getting told to look at the website?

The HR rep and the hiring manager can only really recruit for the jobs they have on hand, which is what they want to fill in the near term. The company and college usually work together to have job opportunities ready at the career fair so that students who will want internships or permanent placements at the end of this term can have a realistic view of the opportunities and maybe even a potential first round interview at the hiring fair. Also, it's not unusual in a big company, for HR to be briefed mostly for the local area. Demographics show that recruiting for jobs far, far away is usually less fruitful than recruiting for jobs nearby a given college.

They can't do much more than that, so if you fit into one of the following boxes, you may be getting the "please look at the website" as a last resort:

  • No job in my major/interest - This is the far and away highest reason I've had to tell students to check our website. I've always worked in a big company, so there's a definite possibility that there IS a job in the company for you, but I honestly don't know of it, because it is nowhere near the campus/division I am recruiting for. This can get misdiagnosed when the candidate comes in dead certain of the job they want to do, and we simply don't have it. It can be most confusing in a big, big company, where the candidate may rightfully assume that this division can know enough about ALL divisions to represent them.

  • I'm not ready for a job yet, I just came to learn stuff - When you're a hiring manager sitting at a booth all day, you're still pretty happy to talk to future candidates, but if you don't want a job in the next 2-6 months, I won't know what the future is... the best I can tell you about future openings is to check the website, because the business is honestly variable enough that I can't make a good prediction

  • I want serious detail that is better rendered on a list or spreadsheet - if you need details on benefits, salary, or very specific info, either we have a take-home sheet for it, or we'll tell you to check the website. Specific details are way easier for us to handle this way.

2 - What CAN we talk about, then?

This may be where talking to a hiring manager is a very different experience than talking to HR, because you are talking to a potential boss. I'd say to any company that if you haven't tried talking a hiring manager into going to a career fair, you are missing out. Quite frankly, engineers do better talking to other engineers - and I think it worked well for both sides when we could have a hiring manager on hand to talk to students.

Here's the two big conversations that I thought were most useful to everyone:

Will I like this company?

It's always hard to cover all aspects of working in a company. It's hard enough with an outsider who has a long job history, it's harder still with a college student who hasn't had much experience. But anything you can do to get a sense of the company is a real win.

Things I would ask:

  • Can you describe a typical work day or the work environment?
  • What is team work like?
  • Are there phases to the work? (better still if we can talk tech from the industry - for example, "do you do agile SW development?", "how do you structure your waterfall model?")
  • What would I be doing when I start? What would I be doing a year from now?
  • What are your career paths and specialties?

Any of these fairly open ended questions may lead to a further discussion.

As you talk, don't just listen to the answers, listen to how they are presented. Different managers from different organizations may say the same thing but in a very different way.

Think about whether this person is someone you'd want to work with or for...

Keep in mind that smart hiring managers are a little bit evil. When I have a super-smart, super likeable person on my team... guess who goes to the most career fairs? I find that the best bait for hiring smart people is to tempt them with the lure of other smart people.

Will this company like me?

The second question, because it hardly matters if you don't like the company.

But if you like what you see on round 1, start asking for tips. If you're early in your college education, you may not have a career in mind, but you can start getting tips for must take classes - particularly the electives. It's great to start building the connection between interesting careers and ways to prepare for them.

If you are in the throes of a near-term job hunt, have a resume ready and even if they can't take it, press them for feedback on gaps. Sadly, there can sometimes be a shortage of jobs in a given major, so the roughest feedback may be "switch majors".

Things to ask:

  • what's your timeline for making decisions?
  • are you looking for any particular start dates?
  • I'm an X major, do you have any advice for good coursework to prepare for a job in your company?
  • Can you give me any tips on my resume? Here's a copy.
  • Is there anything I should be aware of when interviewing?

Caveat: I say all this from the other side of the table. As a hiring manager, I have my own stack of questions - if we have a chance of hiring you, I'll have questions about your coursework, projects you did, thoughts you have about your career. I'll learn a lot from this, and start to build a sense of the students at your school. IMO, that's my "payment" for a day away from the day to day work of my team - the reality check of what students are up to these days and what they want from their first job/internship.

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If career fairs were pointless, companies wouldn't participate in them. There's a significant cost to the company in participating in the career fair. The cost paid to the university for the booth space is nominal, and the swag isn't a big expense either. The actual cost is in the time for the people who are involved with staffing the career fair.

My current employer staffs career fairs with members from our technical team as well as a representative from HR (specifically, our university relations team within HR), and that was true for my previous employer as well. For the technical team, we generally try to staff university career fairs with people who have graduated from that university. My company does take resumes.

I'm a member of the technical team, and I participate in career fairs. My participation in a career fair gives my team direct access to high-calibre candidates, both interns for the coming summer and full-time employees for those close to graduation. I get an opportunity to see what kinds of candidates come out of a university, lets me represent my team to potential candidates, and gives me the chance to identify top-tier candidates.

People who are most likely to get my attention as a top-tier candidate from that career fair usually have at least some of the following characteristics:

  1. They have researched my company to determine what we do, and thus know what kind of skills they have learned in their university program that they should highlight when talking to me.
  2. They tell me whether they are looking for an internship or a full-time position.
  3. They are clear about what type of position they are interested in. This lets me tailor the questions that I will ask to that type of position. Alternately, I might direct you to one of my other colleagues in our booth because they are on that team (or are closer to that team than I am).
  4. They tell me what degree program they are enrolled in and where they are in it.

You'll note that these four items can be covered very quickly. However, many people don't give me this information immediately, and it's information that I need to know so that we can have a productive conversation. At a very big career fair where I'm going to talk to a hundred or more people, I'm only going to be able to spend a couple of minutes with you. If I have to spend my time getting this information out of you, I'm not going to get to more meaty questions, and thus you're less likely to stick in my memory as someone who I think we should consider more deeply. "Hi, I'm Nadyne. I'm working on my MS in user experience, and I'm looking for a summer internship. I'm especially interested in a design internship at your company because I saw that one of your products uses a lot of data visualizations and my project this semester is focusing on how to visualize large datasets."

With the introductory material out of the way, how to get the most of the career fair requires you to know what you want to get out of the experience. You're correct that you're not going to get a job on-the-spot, and you might not even hear from an interested employer for a few weeks if we do want to set up a phone interview with you. Part of what you need to get out of a career fair is a better understanding of whether my company is one that you want to work for, whether we're hiring for the types of position that you'd like, and whether your skills are a good match for that position with us. Remember that you might only have a couple of minutes to talk to me, and that I want to understand whether your skills are a good match for what we do and whether my company is one that might be of interest to you, so you need to make a good use of the time that you have.

When my company is at a career fair, we do take resumes, and we've got people there from the technical team who are there to make recommendations about which candidates to pursue. I rarely tell someone to check out the website. Here are the reasons why I'll tell someone that they need to see our website instead of engaging with them more fully:

  1. They clearly don't know anything about my company. If someone doesn't know about my company, they need to know more about us before they can make a good decision about whether we're doing something that they'd like to participate in. If you walk up and say "so what does your company do?", I'll give you a quick spiel about my company, our technology and why it's important, and how awesome it is to work for us, but unless my scan of your resume while I'm giving the spiel tells me that you're definitely someone that we should pursue, I'm just going to point you to the website and move on to the next candidate.
  2. They don't know what types of position they're interested in. If someone just tells me that they want to be a developer, but they can't tell me whether they're interested in kernel development or UI development, then they probably need to get further along in their studies to be able to answer this. Alternately, not being able to articulate what kind of position they want means that they're not a high-calibre candidate for us. In the first case, maybe they'll know more next year and be a better candidate then. If it is this situation, and if I have the time, I'll try to spend some time learning more about them so that I can give some guidance about what might be of interest. In the second case ... well, maybe that candidate will be a good fit for another company. Every company has different needs, and not being a good fit for my company doesn't mean that you aren't a good fit for someone else.
  3. They're just looking for swag. Yeah, we've got it, but if that's all you're there for, then you can have it and move along. There are people at that career fair who really want one of the jobs that my company has open, and I'm going to spend my time trying to find them and convince them that we're where they want to go.
  4. They're interested in a job at my company, but none of the people who are at that career fair are a good representative of that type of position. For example, if someone is interested in a sales role, there might not be anyone there from sales. Since we do take resumes, I'll probably take your resume anyway if you've done the first four points and seem reasonably articulate, but I can't answer any questions about the sales team. I don't know what their culture is like, I don't know what kinds of skills you need to get a job on that team, so I can't evaluate you and I can't give you any information other than the most generic information about my company for you to evaluate us on. I'm sending you to the website because I can't do much else.

This is how my company operates; not every company operates this way. If a company just has HR people at a career fair, then maybe they operate differently. I don't claim that this is necessarily representative, it's simply what I've experienced as someone who has worked at career fairs at top-tier schools and will continue to do so because it is of direct benefit to my team and my company.

The last time that I participated in a career fair, my team hired one full-time employee (after they finished their degree at the end of the school year) and two summer interns from that career fair. Those hires were a direct result of my presence at the career fair: those people stood out in my mind as people who would be a great fit for my team. I know that other teams hired people from that career fair as well. Career fairs, especially at top-tier schools, are one of the ways that we can get great interns and employees.

None of this is small talk. This is a fact-finding mission, both for me as someone who's looking to hire top-tier talent for my employer and for you as someone who's looking for a job.

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First, there are more than a few possible missions one may have at a career fair:

  1. Pick up free stuff - At times this has been the biggest gain for me at a career fair is to get a lot of free stuff that the companies have with their logo printed on stuff.

  2. Talk to people at the company beyond a superficial level - Granted that you may run into the case where someone from HR can't answer a question, it is worthwhile to consider what kinds of questions would you like to ask that are at a high level stuff you want to know for whether or not you want to apply for this company.

  3. Take an informal poll to see who is using what - This would be a way to gather general information. For example, as a software developer, I may want to know which languages various companies use so that I can find the .Net shops versus the Java shops.

There have been cases where I physically dropped off a resume at a career fair and that helped get me in the door enough to get a position somewhere. Thus, I wouldn't say they are totally pointless though I would suggest considering to have a reply for if they tell you to apply through the website as this that can have the appearance of a black hole.

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Career Fairs are great for: 1) Networking: you will meet a lot of people there. It's a great chance to approach the recruiters and meet them in person. If you can get the recruiter to remember you in a positive way, your chance of getting an interview is much higher. They would rather call you, someone they think is a good candidate, rather than going through stacks of resumes.

2) Learning about the companies

3) Free Stuffs: duh!

A lot of time, students don't check out career fair until their junior or senior year. But I recommend that you try it out early. The earlier the better, just to learn, get used to it, and know what to expect.

Sources:

https://career.berkeley.edu/fairs/fairs.stm

https://www.careerdean.com/c/2/universities-host-career-fairs-jobs-the-fall-or-spring-or-it-always-geared-internshipsjobs-the-summer

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