How to handle yourself at a student career fair

When first starting out at university you don’t give too much thought on what job you will eventually land.  However as time moves on, there will be opportunities that you need to grab with both hands.   Career fairs, company campus visits, guest lectures are just some of the chances for you to get in front of a perspective employer.

Being an employer that has gone to many a career fair, I can say with a fair sense of confidence that the vast majority of students, particularly computer scientists have absolutely no idea how to cope in these situations.  To be quite frank, it is very a embarrassing affair for both student and employer a like.

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So with that, allow me to give you some handy tips on how you can handle yourself much more confidently and increase your chances of landing that internship or job interview.

  1. Look confident
    When you approach the company table or representative, keep your head up.  Do not shuffle up, or come in from the side.  You are there to be sold to as much as you are looking to sell yourself.  If you are carrying a rucksack, then put it down.  If there is no one available to talk to you, simply stand and wait.  Do not check your phone, or look around, make sure you catch the eye of the company and smile; this lets them know you are prepared to wait.

    From the company point of view, we are very interested in you already.  Someone prepared to wait to be spoken to; your chances has just gone up 10 fold.

  2. Touch the employer
    The importance of a good opener can’t be stressed enough.  However, you can do this very easily with a very simple technique.  Simply reach out and shake their hand.  A good firm solid shake.  Don’t go in limp wrist-ed. That easy.  While you do that, introduce yourself, “My name is Susan and you are?”, and before you know it, you are off to the races.  That simple gesture, that human touch, has already created a bond.  You can continue this simple opener by asking their role in the company and what areas they are responsible for.  People love to talk about themselves.  Use that.

    From the company, you have introduced yourself with the most important information we are looking for, your name.  You have planted that name in our minds.

  3. Pretend to be interested
    Introductions have now been dispensed, so what next?   You need to sound engaging.   Do not pick up any company literature and proceed to read it while someone watches.  This is one of the top mistakes most students make.  They think they are showing interest, where in actual fact, you are illustrating that you haven’t done your homework – you’ve already crashed and burned at this point – you just don’t realize it.

    Instead, ask about the companies activities.  Now you may not have actually done your homework, so keep an eye on any literature they may be printed around, posters, goodies etc.  You will find a keyword somewhere that you can latch on to and ask about.   You may already know what the company does, but they don’t know you do, so ask a question.   Make sure you wait for the answer, looking them in the eye.  Do not touch anything on the table.   Once they give an answer, listen, and ask one follow up question, this shows that you have indeed listened and more importantly understood.

    From the company side, we are now engaged with someone that is interested in us.  This person is well on their way to a successful engagement.

  4. Pretend to know what you want
    Now comes the dreaded question where most fail, we ask you about you, generally with something very general that gives you the opportunity to sell yourself.   Now, at this point in your life, you may not actually know what it is you want out of life.  You may have not found that thing that interests you. However, you don’t need to let the company know that.  Now is a great time to tell a small white lie.

    Start simple, explain the degree you are studying and maybe drop in why you choose that stream.   At this point, a little bit of intel on the company can go a long way.  Remember, no one is going to be offering you a job, or even giving you a technical interview on the spot.  You are there to gather options.   Say you are a computer scientist and you spot that the company does Java, then you proclaim your passion for Java and how you want to work in a team and learn how it works in the real world.  You can do this with absolutely anything.

    Remember you are a student.  The company does not expect you to have commercial experience.  This is the only time in your life, where your lack of experience will not count against you; so use it.   It doesn’t matter that you may dislike Java and prefer C++, but at this point in the game, you don’t want to cut off any options.   The last thing you want to do, is to shrug your shoulders and say “don’t know yet”.  You’ve just lost the opportunity if you say that.

    From the company, we are looking for people that know what they want out of life.  You may not know yet, you may change.  You don’t need to tell the company this though.  They are not going to invest in you if you one day decide this isn’t for you. 

  5. Ask for the opportunity
    It may seem silly and obvious, but asking what the opportunities are is a great engaging talking point and gives you the perfect opening to offer up your resume.   Whether that is graduate recruitment or internships, ask what is available.   Once established what is available then decide which one you are interested in.   You may decide that this isn’t for you at all, that is perfectly acceptable. Politely thank them for their time, wish them all the best and say this isn’t the right time.

    Now let us assume they take your resume, you are well on your way.  However, most fail to seal the deal at this point.  When handing it over, ask for their business card.  This is a fair exchange.  When they hand their card, study it for a few seconds, then ask if its okay if you email them nearer the time for a follow up.  Most will welcome this.

    At this point, from the company we are extremely happy, we have bagged a real potential opportunity that has made the whole effort of the day completely worthwhile.  They have shown an interest and even more so, they are going to follow up with us.  You have won, you are through to the next round.

If you follow these simple steps then your effectiveness at career fairs will go through the roof.   Follow these and you won’t even need to suit up, especially for engineering types of roles.   If you are going for a marketing or client facing type of role, a suit, or at least a tie, will go along way.

It is a very nerve racking experience.  You probably aren’t use to talking to many people at this point.  So practice.  Go up to a company table and try it.   You may not even like the company, but that doesn’t matter, use it as an opportunity to try out your new found social skills.

It is a very competitive landscape out there and social skills and engagement will land you more opportunities than simply having top technical skills.

Good luck.

PS One final tip, don’t bring a friend.  This is your career, your opportunity.  Let them make their own.