How to Work a Career Fair as a University Student

The Intent Media team just returned from a trip up to Ithaca, NY to recruit Cornell Engineering students for several open junior software engineer positions. We met a lot of smart, talented, and motivated students, and we learned a lot about campus recruiting along the way. Here are a few early impressions I had that might help other university students as they navigate this unusual world of technical hiring.

What is the Company Like?

Take the time to stop at the less busy booths at a career fair. There are no lines to wait in, and those recruiters will have more time to have a long discussion with you individually. At a larger company you will be rushed and it is unlikely they will remember your conversation.

Think about the type company you would flourish at and specifically research those firms. Big companies have great mentorship and guidance programs, but you will likely have an impact on a very specific feature in the product and may not be given a lot of flexibility in implementation. Small firms might have a smaller impact overall, and you will likely be required to work independently and creatively. You may be expected to design and implement entire systems without a lot of coaching. Capitalize on your strengths and find roles that will stretch your weaknesses.

What separates a good candidate from a great candidate are their incisive, thoughtful questions. Turn the short interview around and act confident--as an engineering student you might have several offers and it is incumbent on the company to impress you with how great they are.

Average candidates ask more obvious questions like:

  • Do you have any jobs?

  • What does your company do?

Great candidates ask challenging questions like:

  • I know you sell ABC. How do you tackle the competition from companies like XYZ?

  • Why is your company ranked as a Top Place to Work in NYC?

  • Tell me about a current challenge you all are facing (bonus: weave in a skill you have that could help solve it!)

There is so much more to a company than it's brand and the salary. Understand the leadership, the team, the culture, the side perks, the location, the technical challenges, and the business challenges. You will end up with a better job and will appear more attractive to interviewers.

What are You Like?

Think about what differentiates you from all the other people coming to the booth, and highlight that. Mention the amazing internship you had the previous summer. Call out if you are at the top of your class or win coding competitions with your friends. Remember, the smaller the company, the less GPA matters. Big firms often need a simple number to “weed out” resumes, while smaller ones will be more interested if you have a unique background, skill set, or area of interest.

Great candidates can balance honesty and salesmanship. Remember, you are a highly sought after candidate and have something of value to provide to employers. On the other hand, you might be fairly junior and not have extensive experience in a specific area. Call out your strengths loud and clear on your resume. However, if you do not really know a language, do not claim that you do. Authenticity and confidence are more desirable than exaggerated claims.

When You Meet the Team

Finally, have a conversation, not a script. The person you are talking to is a human, not a robot, and wants to hire humans, not robots. For example, this sounds scripted:

“Hello, my name is Bob Smith and I’m a senior graduating in 2016 from the X University College of Engineering with a major in Computer Science and a minor in Data Analysis from the College of Arts and Letters and I am interested in Full Time employment.”

This is a much more natural intro:

“Hi, I’m Susan! I’ll be getting my CS degree next year and after browsing your website I was really interested in learning more about the XYZ role you have open.”

Do your research, ask tough questions, sell yourself, and treat your interviewer like a human. Hopefully this has been helpful. Good luck as you interview!