Fill in the blank: Be inspired to do your best work and be proud of it.
Career fairs are hard events. They’re hard for me as someone who is there to evaluate candidates to fill positions that my company has open, and I certainly remember them being hard when I was in college and looking for a job. Now that I’m on the hiring side of the table, I want to share with you some of what I’ve learned that might help someone on the please-hire-me side of the table.
At most career fairs, the employers are going to speak to dozens of candidates. At some of the larger engineering career fairs that I’ve attended, we have walked away with hundreds of resumes. That’s just one career fair at one university. Now imagine how many career fairs our University Relations staff go to. (For us engineers, we usually only go to one or two career fairs per year.) We get a lot of resumes out of these, and we have to figure out which candidates we’re going to call back after we’re done with our career fairs. Here are some things to do to stand out at a career fair.
- Spend the time now to get your resume into great shape. Your resume represents you. It should be clear, well-written, and underscore your unique combination of education and experience that makes me want to hire you. If your university has any resume-writing resources, take advantage of them. If not, get your friends and a trusted faculty member to review your resume. A resume that has typos in it says that you don’t pay attention to details. A resume that lists every single Computer Science course that you’ve taken does not tell me why I should hire you. A resume that says that you play intramural lacrosse makes me wonder why you think this is something that you want me to know.
- Tell me whether you are looking for an internship or a full-time position, and when you are available for this position (summer internship? full-time position starting in September?). It saves me from having to scan your resume and guessing.
- Explain why you are a great candidate to work at VMware. This tells me that you’ve done research on my company, which is always a good start. You should tell me what from your background matches up with goals for my company. Even better is if you’ve looked at some of our open positions and can thus reference skills that we often look for. Also make sure that you look at our locations. You should know the location of our headquarters and our other primary offices, and you should be comfortable with living in one of those places.
- I’ve got a standard spiel that I have ready to go for candidates at career fairs. I’ll tell you about the company, where we’re located, what kind of work we do, why it’s awesome to work here, what kind of career opportunities we have, what our internship program looks like, and so on. A candidate who already knows all of that, and we can get into details about why you would be awesome for us and who has specific questions for me about why they should come work for us is a candidate that is more likely to get my attention at a career fair.
- You should talk positively about your experience so far. If you can take something difficult and tell me what was positive about it (“I learned a lot about how to handle uncomfortable situations with others in our group project when one of the team members was unable to meet their commitments”) makes me think that you’re resilient and can solve problems.
- Talk to your professors, your department administrator, and professional campus groups about companies that will be visiting. For example, when I visit a campus for a career fair, I’ll often give a talk to a department or a class that is relevant to the user experience jobs that I have open. You’ll have an additional opportunity to talk to me, it’s usually a smaller setting than the big career fair and so you have more time to make a positive impression on me, and you’ll learn more about the company and the work we do.
Here are some things that reduce your chances of being successful at a career fair.
- Ask me what my company does. I’ll tell you (as I said, I’ve got that standard spiel), but this tells me that you didn’t do any research before you walked up to me. You’ve lowered my expectations about you, and you’ll have to work harder to convince me that you’re a great candidate.
- Be unsure about what you want out of an internship. It’s valid to say that that you’re exploring options, but that means that you should be able to tell me what kinds of questions you have about software engineering careers and how you think an internship will help you answer them.
- Start off by telling me that you don’t use my company’s products. Since I work for an enterprise software company, I don’t expect that candidates at career fairs will have experience with our products. Instead, tell me why you’re interested in working for a company that makes enterprise software. (While “I really need a job” is an answer that’s probably true and I certainly remember that feeling, please come up with something better.)
- Don’t stuff a resume in my hands, ask for a t-shirt (or whatever other swag we’re giving away at that career fair), and then leave without talking to me. That resume goes to the very bottom of the pile. If you really don’t want to work for my company and just want a t-shirt because free clothing is a good thing when you’re in school, come around at the end of the career fair. If we’ve got extra shirts at the end of the career fair, we’re pretty likely to give them out to anyone who asks, so that we don’t have to ship them back to the office.
- Don’t assume that talking to a woman means that you’re talking to someone who isn’t technical. It’s perfectly okay to ask what I do. Assuming anything about me, or any of my colleagues who are working with me at the career fair, tells me that you’re likely to make assumptions in the work that you do, too. Invalid assumptions cause lots of problems in software development (“no-one will ever enter invalid data here” is the root cause of many bugs). Doing this leaves me with a very bad first impression of you, and since our time to talk at a career fair is very limited, that very bad impression is likely to stick.
- Don’t have any questions about what it’s like to work at my company. Remember, this isn’t a one-way interaction. It’s not just about the company deciding whether they want to hire you. It’s also about you deciding whether you want to work for the company. As we talk, you should ask follow-up questions if there’s something that you hear that you want more details about. You should also have questions about the company, the team, the product, or the working environment. Not having questions tells me that you’re not necessarily as interested in working for my company as other candidates who did ask me questions are.
Our interaction at a career fair is limited. There’s a lot that you can do to make that interaction very positive. The more positive that interaction is, the more likely you are to move forward.
My talk at Women in Advanced Computing about “The Mid-Career Donut Hole” is now available to watch or listen to online. I haven’t watched yet, but I will so that I can see how well it worked and determine how to improve it.