Ah yes, the career fair. Let’s trot along a series of stalls where we will learn nothing more about a graduate programme than what could normally be attained by visiting the company’s website – the widely accepted view, and an easily accepted one at that. But being a graduate and unemployed, I cannot afford to take this stance. I’ve got to pull out every stop I can if I’m going to remedy this situation.
In this post I will outline my strategy for successfully visiting a career fair. What do I mean by “successfully”? Being offered an interview, a job? No. I don’t think recruiters attend these fairs with the idea of handing out invitations (but that’s not to say it can’t happen). My objective going to these fairs was to learn more about the companies/programmes that interested me, to network with those company’s representatives, and to hopefully come away with a leg up on the competition.
Last week I made the arrangements to attend two career fairs. I would attend the University of Bristol’s Investment Banking and Management Consultancy Fair as well as the University of Manchester’s Business, Finance and Management Fair. First off, some short reviews.
The Bristol fair could have been done a lot better. It was held at the centre of campus in the brilliantly gothic Wills Memorial Building, I’ll give it that. But the main chamber was just too small for the amount of people and the amount of booths. At times it was impossible to just stand there and take in where you wanted to go next because people were just constantly bumping into you. And when you finally had made up your mind about who you wanted to go to it was impossible to move anywhere because it was just shoulder to shoulder masses of students – poorly dressed students. How, you ask, should you dress for a career fair?
Lesson #8: Suit up.
If the representatives are wearing suits, you wear a suit. If the representatives are going casual, you wear a suit.
The Manchester fair on the other hand was very well done. The venue was the very spacious Manchester Central Convention Complex (GMEX) and the only shoulders I bumped into were those of the recruiters themselves. There were in total 72 exhibitors from a wide variety of industries ranging from 3M to Unilever (ooo exciting, tape and soap).
So how did I do? Well, Bristol was a waste of time. I find investment bankers very hard to talk to. You really have to know your stuff in order to make an impression. And odds are, all their recruits are coming from Oxbridge. I didn’t even dare approach Goldman Sachs or Lazard. But I did smirk every time I passed the Lazard booth and not a single student was engaged with them. I hoped this was due to my fellow attendees sharing the same sentiment as I, but sadly it was probably more to do with these guys not even knowing who Lazard were. The price you pay when you neglect to do the milkround I suppose (I have never seen Lazard on campus before). But on that note, that’s simply what a lot of these firms are doing: giving the impression that they participate in the milkround. The sad truth is that at the current moment in time, these companies are only taking an amount of graduates countable on a single hand.
But please don’t accept what I am saying here and give up. I was once a very optimistic investment-banking disciple. But years of rejection have taken their toll. I still continue to apply, but from the safety of my own home (own home, that’s a lie, I’m a graduate vagrant).
I was a lot more prepared for Manchester. Not as prepared as I could have been, but somewhat prepared to say the least. I had read some articles that stated the key to navigating a career fair was to do the following:
1. Researching all the companies you wish to speak to and any current news items related to them
2. Making a list of questions to ask each recruiter
3. Bringing along tailored CVs for the types of jobs you are looking into
4. Being prepared to interview with the recruiter there and then
5. Leaving each recruiter with your contact details
6. Sending a thank you note to each person you speak with
You can automatically forget about #3 and #4. The articles may have been written about American career fairs, but in the UK I have never been asked for my CV or had an interview on the spot. But once again, that’s not to say it couldn’t happen. So I bring some standard CVs along with me regardless.
Note: There are a lot more hints and tips for success at a career fair and these are but a handful. Please see the link for more information.
I had with me a list of all the companies I wanted to speak to, their current affairs, as well as my questions. Right? Not exactly…. How was I prepared then? Well, I didn’t exactly need to bring with me a list of companies, the event was 6 hours long; I had plenty of time to meander about (however, recruiters do get tired, so I try to hit up my most well-liked ones in the early hours). My questions would mostly be from memory. I had a list of basic ones but nothing specific. My strategy would be to try and keep things casual and build up a rapport with whomever I spoke to. But do not underestimate the power of a good comment about some piece of news regarding the company. For example, I was speaking with the recruitment woman from the FSA, and I inquired as to what was to come of the FSA, as I had recently read an article stating that it was to be abolished. She really appreciated the question, and told how I was one of only a few who asked it. This is how you stand out.
The point of a career fair from a graduate’s perspective, in my opinion, is to stand out and get the company to remember you. But how do you get someone to remember you when you’ve only got about 10 minutes of face-time, and without resorting to showing them that neat party trick you picked up last weekend?
You give them your networking card.
I designed these myself and had them printed by a company called Moo.com (obviously with my real information). The website allows you to use their online tools to customise your own cards or you can upload your own original images/text. To do the latter, some design suite experience is needed (I used Photoshop CS2). They weren’t cheap, but the quality was well worth the price (there are lower cost printers available, and most certainly costlier ones too). But that’s what matters with a business/networking card. Cheaper printers will give you cheaper products. And for anyone familiar with Bret Easton Ellis’s work, we are all judged by the quality of our card.
Note: The great thing about business cards is that no one ever throws them away. Have you ever thrown away a business card? For my sake, I hope the answer is no.
I found that when I designed these, I didn’t have enough details for a business card. I didn’t have a) a business; b) a title; c) an address or d) a fax-line…? But you don’t need any of those. A networking card is different. We are advertising our self, not a business. Or alternatively, we are advertising our self as a business. Invest in my business; invest in me.
You’ll also notice that I have included, along with my mobile number and email address, my “profile”. Welcome to the 21st century. I’m taking the networking card to the next level here by including a link to my LinkedIn page, where any interested party can view my professional CV. I’ve also included by degree title. You could include your degree division too, but if that’s not your strong point, it’s probably best to sell yourself in some other way.
Okay, we have ourselves a nice crisp networking card. Will this win over an employer alone? Of course not. The networking card is not a new thing. But your job is to make yours better than any other that may find their way into Mr. Buffett’s pocket. You need a USP.
Ever hear of business cards with something on the often-neglected reverse-side? I thought about this for a long time – something to catch the holder’s attention. A ruler? A list of metric to imperial conversions? Lascivious action shots of Ellen Wong?
Mr. Buffett probably wouldn’t accept my CV, but there’s a good chance he would accept my networking card. So the obvious answer would be to put my CV on the back of my networking card.
The important question though is, do these things actually work? Well it’s not a question of do they work. It’s more a question of do they help. Before I ended the conversation with a recruiter, I’d collect their information, and hand them my card. They all took it willingly, albeit some a bit confounded. However, I noticed that when I drew their attention to the back where my CV was, they grew quite interested. I even received a few “hrrms”.
As mentioned, with every person I speak to, I ask for their contact information, “should I have any further questions”. Some just direct you to their company’s careers website (means you’ve failed to network), but most will be happy to give you their email address. For this I carry a small notebook and pen, always ready in my right-side pocket. And I make sure to have it in hand so that I don’t fumble trying to find it when they oblige my request (I make mistakes so that you don’t have to). One truly memorable fumble was handing an Accenture rep a John Lewis business card instead of my own. This, after telling him how I was only applying to management consultancy firms.
The story doesn’t end here though. So what, you gave them a flashy networking card complete with your full CV in hand. They get 10 a week. What more can you do?
You go home and make a list of all your new contacts and the things you spoke about at the fair. Better yet, you already made notes on what you spoke about after turning your back on the booth. You then email every single one of those you met with and personally thank them for meeting with you, how great it was to speak about XYZ, and how you look forward to getting the chance to meet with the company again. You then apply to the company within a week, and send a follow-up email, reiterating this.
I sent out all my thank you emails on Monday and two days later I’ve received responses from over half. In one response, the person I spoke to mentioned that they had passed my name and interest onto the hiring department. In another, I was asked to personally send them my CV.
So the evidence presents a strong case for networking cards and thank you notes. You must remember that only a tiny fraction of people do this, and employers really appreciate the extra determination.
So how else can you succeed at a career fair? Well once again, recruiters are looking to see your motivation. Just like in a job interview, those that stand out are those who have researched the firm and are adamant on getting a job with them. For instance, I approached the John Lewis booth and spoke about my admiration of their partnership structure. They loved this. But save the really good stuff for the HR recruiter.
Every booth should have someone in it from the firm’s HR department. It’s good to speak to people from the department you want to work in, but at the end of the day, it is the HR person who is going through the applications and sending out the interview invitations. So make sure to find out who this person is and build a rapport with them. If you know who is in charge of looking at the applications as well as someone in the department you are applying to, you can really boost your interview chances by having the correct HR addressee at the top, as well as being able to include your conversation with the respective employee as a motivation to applying.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my career fair adventures. If you’d like help designing your own networking card, I have reasonable hourly rates (hey, I’m broke). This is by no means a complete guide to career fairs (or a guide if that), so if you have had any success with your own strategies, please post them below. We could all use the advice.