There are tons of opportunities open to engineering students in college. Few of them however have a direct link to getting a job after graduation.
Sure, there are loads of ways to get experience and a huge amount of skills to be picked up, but when it comes down to getting in front of the right people that will ultimately lead to your first full-time engineering job, you may have to get a bit out of your comfort zone.
What I am talking about are college career fairs. In the fall, spring, and some times in between, recruiters from industry will come to your school (or one near you) to pick out prospective students to become new members of the company.
Just to give you a clearer understanding of why this is important, here are the main reasons why you should consider going to the career fair.
1. Practice at speaking professionally.
You don’t have to be witty, super charming or even incredibly smart (even though I know you guys are because you’re on this site). The point of getting used to speaking with other professionals is to be efficient in conveying a message.
The message that you want to get across to a recruiter is that you are a valuable candidate for the job. This means expressing yourself through experience, skills, and personality. This is difficult for not just engineering students but for many people. That is why the more practice you get, the easier it will be.
2. Seeing what opportunities are out there.
When I was a student, I barely grasped engineering as a career let alone knew what my dream job was. It was only until I went to my first career fair in the fall of 2010 that I got a glimpse of all the companies that were out there that needed engineers.
It was slightly intimidating, but also exciting.
By seeing and speaking with these companies, you will soon be able to understand the different uses of your discipline and help you pave your own path through school to your ideal career.
3. Getting an interview for an internship/full-time gig.
This is probably why we all stress out at career fairs. On the day of the career fair, we’re all dressed up (and many people smell like a freaking Macy’s). It seems like making the right gestures, saying the right words, and shaking a hand just right will determine whether you will be on a design team at Boeing or bussing tables at Applebees.
This just isn’t true.
Yes, getting an interview by a company is one of the main goals at a career fair but I made it the third point of this list for a reason. The prior two points are also very important and should motivate you to get out there and look around.
You may hear someone make the statement.
“I’m not going to the career fair because all of the companies are just looking for juniors and seniors. They don’t care about underclassmen.” – Totally wrong person
Are these companies going to deny students for learning more about the company or practicing their speaking skills?
So whether you’re a freshman, senior, undecided major, bald, or leprechan, going to the fair is mega useful.
Now that we have discussed what these fairs are all about and why you should be there, I want to get down into the meat of why you’re on my site.
“What can I do to at a career fair to get an interview?” -You
Here is the arsenal of tips that will give you the best chance possible to knock the socks off Ge, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Stark Industries, or any company you want to work for.
Everybody hold onto your butts.
Before the fair
Make sure you register for fair (if needed).
Don’t forget, a career fair may need to you sign up in order to attend. You don’t want to be turned away all prepared and dapper just because you didn’t realize it wasn’t a complete free-for-all.
Find something nice to wear.
This doesn’t have to be complicated. No wild tie or lucky cuff links. Just remember that we all judge each other by appearances and looking sloppy is an easy way to tell if someone cares enough to put in the effort. For men, all you need is a suit that fits.
Keep the tie a simple color and pattern and make sure the pants and jacket match. For women, either suit pants or a skirt that goes at least to the knee is the way to go. There are a lot more top options for women than men so choose something that isn’t too tight, revealing, or intricate.
Here is a more detailed run-down of professional vs. unprofessional attire by IUP.
Create a solid resume and get it reviewed by career services.
The purpose of your resume is to have something that can be both used at a glance during conversation with a recruiter as well as referred back to if the company is interested. If you will be handing your resume out at a career fair, keep it to one page. This is a recommended length that will allow you to tailor it with experience most applicable to the company.
If you want further detail on what makes up a winning resume, I recommend checking out the article I wrote recently on the subject!
Make a game plan: Research companies that will be there and where they will be.
Going into the fair itself can be a tad overwhelming. There are usually loads of students, noise, and big banners with company names all over the place. These are not good conditions for an aimless stroll (not to succeed anyways).
If there is a list of all of the companies that will be attending, make a list of who you want to talk to and where they’re located at the fair. It also helps to assess which ones are definitely in your interest to visit and which ones are more or less possibilities. This is how I planned out my visits to stay focused and organized.
Prepare questions for each company.
Like I have mentioned, companies like to see interest and value in a student. This means actually understanding what it is that the company does and how you (the prospective employee) fit into that role.
While going through the list of companies attending, visit their website and get an idea for what they do historically, what their current projects are, and the products the create. From that, write down some questions that you may genuinely have or ones that establish a connection to the company.
For example, if I wanted to speak to a company that did research and designed fuel cells, a great question would be,
“I have done projects with my university on PEM fuel cells and it is my understanding that your company had a fuel cell division in Texas. Is this a growing part of the company and do you see many advancements and growth of your fuel cells in the near future?”
Funny story, I actually used this question at a career fair with United Technologies and the reply I got was “Well actually we sold that division down last week”. That was pretty embaressing, but luckily I got an interview anyway. That is the power of showing interest!
Research networking events that occur prior to the fair.
Sometimes recruiters and students get the opportunity to meet without the stress of the actual fair (although if the whole point of the networking event is to get more notice from companies, who wouldn’t be stressed?). These usually are great ways to at least get a preview of the companies that will be at the career fair and its never bad to give them a face to remember.
Another important reason to go to the networking event is to practice selling yourself and conversation. You should practice your elevator pitch and speaking skills prior to the fair anyways but it always helps to practice on professionals.
Get the right material together.
You want to be able to stay organized so that you can store materials/ info gathered at the fair as well as have a quick way to reference your gamplan. Shell out the few cents for a folder to keep your stuff together.
- Resumes (multiple copies or tailored versions for each company)
- Business cards (your own and the recruiters
- Company info (brochures and such)
- Prepared questions
- Paper for notes
Clear plans for the whole day if you can.
A career fair isn’t something you want to rush. The more companies you talk to the better so try to get your school work done ahead of time. Giving yourself the whole day to focus on the fair will allow you have less on your mind (you won’t want to do problem sets or write a paper after a career fair anyway).
Now that you are armed to the teeth with a game plan, resumes, and talking points, its time to focus on speaking to the recruiters and expressing yourself the best way possible. Here are some tips that you will need to succeed the day of the fair.
At the fair
Apply your game plan.
At this point you should should have an idea of who you want to talk to and what you want to talk to them about. Use your list and map to hit each booth in whatever order you choose. If the line to the recruiters is too long and it’s not in your top “must meet” companies list, move on to another booth. You want to get your name out there don’t ya?
Spend time waiting in lines to review questions you wrote.
When actually in line, take that time to review the questions you planned to ask the company. They are there as a reference, not a script. Being prepared is good, but having the question already in your mind will show even more devotion and professionalism.
Use firm hand shaking, use eye contact, and speak clearly and loudly.
This is networking 101 stuff. When a recruiter shakes your hand, they want to sense confidence and excitement. Not a limp, shy child. Maintain a comfortable and natural amount of eye contact and speak loud enough that they can understand you over the hundred other conversations happening around you. Again, they want to see life!
Don’t ramble, limit your responses to questions to ~1-2 minutes.
We have all witnessed a dwindling attention span whether it was yours or someone you were speaking too. It isn’t personal, it’s just the way we are. To ensure that you have a conversation with a recruiter and not a lecture, give them 1 to 2 minutes of info at a time. This way you will give them time to respond and ask further questions.
Don’t brag or boast, show gratitude in your responses.
Unfortunately, this is one of the reasons engineers can be perceived as total jerks. Sometimes just explaining what we do or what we are interested in can come off as a “top this” statement. Instead of flat-out rattling off your accomplishment, talk about something you have done that gave you value and why you are appreciative. For example, instead of saying,
“I gave three presentations at an engineering design competition and got 1st place beating 9 other universities. I designed the whatchamacallit which was a main part of the final product.”
you could say
“I presented on behalf of my university team at an engineering design competition which was awarded first place. It was a great experience working with other students to design the whatchamacallit on the final product and it really taught me a lot about engineering design and product development.
After speaking to a recruiter, make quick notes on their business card about what you talked about.
Not only will speaking to companies let them know you exist, but it will also help you get information for your job search. Remember to get contact info from who you speak to and write down what you talked about. It will come in handy later on.
After the fair
Create your contact database.
After the career fair, organize all of the business cards and contact info that you collected into a list. I like to use a spreadsheet so that I can reformat all of the emails, names, and what we talked about into a clean and easily searchable document. You can do it anyway you want, but the key is organization.
Even if you didn’t get an interview, follow up with an email 1 week later.
It’s not always clear if a company is going to be interviewing students on campus. Use your contact database to follow up with the recruiters you spoke to and thank them for your time. If there was a question you didn’t get to or you want more information, now is the time to ask. You never know, making this simple gesture may set you apart from other candidates.
Reflect on the experience.
At this point you know how the fair went. Whether you got an interview or not, you will have a feeling that you had good interaction with the companies or it was an awkward mess. It’s not the end of the world if it didn’t meet your every expectation.
One thing that I have found useful is reflecting on the day and writing down what made me cringe and what made me feel successful. This can be used for the next fair or networking situation to get better results.
This is a lot to take in. I wanted to compile all of what I learned over my 4 years in college as well as tips I have picked up from others.
By no means do you have to do every single thing in order to get success, nor do these guarantee an interview.
These tips just give you the best chance possible to communicate well and have awesome conversations with other professionals.
To make it a bit more accessible, I put together an outline of takeaways from this post so you don’t have to trudge through the article to get the main ideas. You can download it as a PDF right here!
I want to know about your career fair experiences. Did you get an interview? Did you totally embarrass yourself? Did you get a lot of awesome free stuff? I want to hear your stories and I’m sure everyone else does too, so leave a comment!
Just in case I didn’t say it enough;
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Photos attributed to: Cover photo – Gabe Chmielewski/Mays Communications via Flikr