No matter what university you attend these days, you are bound to have a number of options when it comes to career fairs and company presentations. Given the time of the year, I'm going to start my blog with a series about fairs in particular, and how to make the most of them. Let's jump straight to on-the-day:
What to wear?
Let's start with the boring stuff. You should look tidy and neat, but the majority of companies do not expect you to show up in a suit to a careers fair. There are some advocates for wearing something distinctive - a tartan scarf, a purple shirt, a brooch - so that you can be remembered - "oh, you mean the one with the red chunky necklace?" - in conversation later (because believe me, there will be conversation). But, be careful, there is a fine line between a distinctive shirt and 'quirky'. And you want to stay on the safe side of quirky for most graduate jobs.
What you need to bring, even though you probably wont need them:
- Some copies of your updated CV
- Business cards, if you have them
- Pen and paper
- For your top 5 employers, a printed copy of some of the details from their graduate website so that you have the exact details and programme names to hand so you can demonstrate that you have done your research... even if it was only when you were hidden around the corner 5 seconds before reading through it.
Once you have figured out the stands you want to visit, do a fly-by. Figure out who is manning the stand. This is generally quite easily done. There are three types of attendees at a company's stand at a careers fair. One or two will be from the graduate recruitment team, at least two graduates from the last 2 years or so, and maybe a couple of people from 'the business'/'the line'. This basically means someone from a manager or slightly more senior level in the company. They are fairly easy to categorise into one of these three. The recruiter is often a woman - it is a HR-based career that even in this day and age, is still dominated by women - although don't take this as a given. There is nothing more career-limiting than assuming the Partner is the grad recruiter....
They are easy to spot. Keenly wearing their company name badges when the pros often just pocket them absent-mindedly. Graduates love attending these events. A year ago, they were in your position... wondering where to go next, and then figuring out how to get there. Now they are sitting pretty in a top graduate job with a new ready-made set of friends to spend their steady income on overseas holidays and nights out with. They are a mixture of relieved, overwhelmed, out-of-their-depth and just a little bit smug too. And who can blame them? It's tough out there.
All of this means that they are a great source of information. Being on the 'other side' at the assessment centre is still fresh in their mind. The reasons they decided to join, the people they met along the way, how their first impressions are different to their expectations.... Use the conversation with the grads to ask the questions that you should not ask a recruiter or senior staffer (sorry, but that's the reality....): "What are the working hours really like?", "How much travel is involved?", "What's the social scene like?", "What type of work do grads really get in their first six months?", etc. The repercussions of asking a grad these questions are usually minimal. And if you need to know the answer before you would join the company, then they need to be asked. If they like you, they will do what they can to give you tips on how to join them.
Making a great impression on a business representative is the gold at the end of the careers fair rainbow. Business reps are the 'customer' of the graduate recruiters. They are not always ones for due process around applications. If you make a good enough impression, they will want to get you into the company, or even into their team. I once had one hound me for weeks after an event where he talked to a girl called "Carly wearing a pink coat" (not being a pro at the graduate recruitment thing, he did not get any further detail from her...). He made me go through all the applications from that university and interview all the Carlys... Thankfully her name wasn't something more commonplace! Anyway, four Carly interviews later, I found her and she got through to the final assessment centre stages with us.
To make an impression on a business rep you will have about 2 minutes. (If I'm being completely honest, I would probably say you have about 10 seconds - the length of time it takes you to ask your first question - but let's assume that it is early in the day and they are still engaged). You need to ask a question which demonstrates recent knowledge of the company/industry, without just showing off (although obviously this is what you are trying to do). It also needs to be a question relevant to the job, an answer you need to know to help you decide whether to apply / what to apply for. Do the best you can in the short time you have to build a rapport with them. Concentrate on where you are, don't get distracted or start thinking about the next stand. These two minutes could change your life. I might sound melodramatic, but I've seen it too many times not to stress the importance of first impression. Don't press your CV or business card on them. If they didn't ask for it, then they've been instructed not to take them and are following orders. If you haven't slam-dunked on getting them to take your details, don't beat yourself up. Most of them don't. And you have plenty more chances at the job.
The vast majority of grad recruiters are on your side. They do the job because they enjoy working with young people and are excited about the vitality and new ideas that you will bring to their company. Help them to help you. To make a friend of them, don't ask anything that you can get from the website - timescales, what programmes they offer, how to apply, etc. Talk their language by asking about key competencies they look for, what the different stages of the interview process are. What tips would they offer to a candidate for succeeding to get a job at their company? Again, make sure you write down that information as soon as you leave the stand. Any info you get from the graduate recruiter is info that you have over the many other applicants (often thousands) who will apply without having met anyone from the company. We will talk another time about how to use this during your application.
As you leave the stand, take a copy of each brochure. They are great for using later when making an application to talk the same language as them. If it's a busy fair, don't take up more time than you need. Don't hang around staring longingly at the stand. Once you've got the information you need, step aside and move on. Perhaps listen to someone else's question & answer if it is a really busy fair and people are having discussions in groups.
Finally, as soon as you move away from the stand, if they are a company that you might want to work for write down the name(s) of the people you have met - even if it is only briefly. Quote that person's name in your cover letter / application. A letter/app definitely catches the eye if it says "A conversation with Joe Bloggs at the LSE careers fair on Oct 6th advanced my knowledge of your graduate programme....etc", or something to that effect. This is definitely one way to make your app different to the hundreds of others a recruiter will see in a day. (Note: this does not mean saying "I met Joe Bloggs and he encouraged me to apply" (unless he did, which would be great....))