(Or “Confessions of a former Job Fair Jockey…”)

SMU’s annual Spring Career Fair is set for February 19 at Hughes-Trigg Student Center. Do you ever wonder what happens on the employers’ side of the proverbial job fair booth? Let me give you a rundown, in hopes that it will help students prepare.

I’ve dissected the fair into three categories – pre-event, the event itself and post-event – and examined each category from the perspective of a job fair recruiter (that’s where the “confessions” come in).

Also find “Seven Lessons Learned” from past career fairs. Here we go:

Pre-fair recruiter confessions

• Nine of every 10 career fairs I attend require me to travel from out of state, which means long security lines, lost baggage, cheap hotels, greasy food and getting lost. Since most colleges lump their career fairs into the same four weeks, I relive this up to three times a week.
• After not enough sleep, I lug my bulky materials to campus and rush to set up my display. Looks like only half of my company brochures made it, but at least the “goodies” are accounted for – after all, that’s the reason most students and alumni stop by my booth. They love the fiber-optic yo-yo that plays the university fight song!

During the fair

• I shake hands with hundreds, many of whom treat the introduction as if it were a speed dating session. Others look at their shoes while speaking or try to find the next booth to visit.
• During one fair, I calculated that students asked me the same question 141 times: “So what does your company do?” It is the worst question because it shows a lack of research and focus. On the flip side, imagine how elated I am when a student says: “I learned that your company has a widget manufacturing operation in Canada. I am from Toronto; can you tell me how I might use my degree in manufacturing operations in a program such as yours?”
• Students who are able to direct a conversation get added to the “call-back” pile. That means they introduce themselves, describe how their backgrounds fit with the company’s bottom line and end with one good reason they match the criteria in the job description that was posted for this fair. Now, that is how to stand out from hundreds of candidates!

Post-fair confessions

• When the job fair starts winding down, most recruiters want to pack up: There are flights to catch, traffic jams to beat and food and water to consume. Don’t be the person hanging around when I’m taking down my display, and don’t ever follow me to my car.
• Once recruiters return to the office, it takes a few days to check notes and review resumes, which are then either forwarded to a hiring manager or dumped into an online database. Plan on days, even weeks, for a hiring manager to contact you.
• Recruiters appreciate thank-you’s by e-mail or snail mail. Sometimes they respond when job candidates call and request that their thank-you’s and resumes be forwarded to a hiring manager. (Sometimes not; but you don’t know if you don’t ask.) If recruiters do offer the hiring manager’s e-mail, send the manager a thank-you and offer additional information, such as references and work samples.
• Never use a “back-door” method to find the name of a hiring manager, and never contact a manager if his or her name wasn’t advertised. One time a student from a job fair bypassed me, called the hiring manager and attempted to negotiate a higher salary over the phone. Imagine my surprise when the manager called me, thinking that I provided his contact info. Imagine the manager’s surprise when he learned that I didn’t and that the student was trying to manipulate our hiring system. Imagine the student’s surprise when he was removed from consideration.

There you have it! Confessions from the recruiter’s perspective, which I hope, will help you prepare for your next job fair. As is the case in any form of business, trying to understand the viewpoint of your colleague or customer will give you the tools you need to succeed. Why? Because you can analyze and remedy intangible variables that most people don’t recognize.

Seven lessons learned

1. Bring all of your materials (resume, transcripts, references, contact information), and organize your thoughts and questions.

2. Visit recruiters at the start of the fair, when they’re still fresh and lines are short. That gives you the chance to meet with your top companies, with time to spare for your “B” companies. Did you ever see candidates running from booth to booth, working up a good sweat? Do you think people in this category get a follow-up interview?

3. First impressions count more than ever. Act as if the recruiter you are speaking with is the only recruiter in the room. Practice your introduction, your handshake and your 15-second answer to “Why you stopped at this company booth.” It will help grow your confidence.

4. Remember the three R’s: research the company, relate your qualifications to the company’s hiring needs and respect the recruiter’s time.

5. Don’t network as the fair is closing its doors.

6. Follow up with a thank-you note to the recruiter and call to make sure it was received. When you call, ask questions about the company’s resume review process.

7. Be assertive, but never aggressive.

Learn more on February 11 at the SMU Career and Internship Fair Prep Day.

troy-behrens-sm.jpgTroy Behrens, Ed.D., is executive director of SMU’s Hegi Family Career Development Center. He writes “Career Learning” for SMU Parents online.

• Send your career questions to tbehrens@smu.edu.

Hegi Career Center counselors are open for questions and comments at their blog.
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