Monday, September 16, 2013

How to Own at Engineering Career Fairs

It is that time of year again! The sweet smell of panicking students wafts through the air as they nervously mumble their elevator speeches to themselves on their way to class. Maybe it feels like you just did this last month, maybe this is your first time. Regardless, let me welcome you into the world of career fairs.

Engineering career fairs in their purest form are a very different beast from any other type of event. Eager students will wait in lines for over two hours for a chance to talk to a recruiter for two minutes. There isn't any pushing or cutting the line (which I hear happens at business fairs) because engineering jobs all comes down to your skills, not your aggressiveness.

The range of what companies expect and look for in a prospective intern/employee is fairly extreme. Some companies won't take you seriously if you don't make the effort to wear a suit,  and others will pursue you harder if you come in an old set of sweat pants and a tie-dye t-shirt. The latter company tends to believe if you show up in your pajamas, you are probably smart enough to not need to compensate with style. Other companies will see this as unprofessional and lazy, and will immediately disregard you as a potential employee.

So how do you know how to prepare yourself? Get in touch with your inner nerd and research the companies before you go! When I attended fairs I made a spreadsheet with the company name, field of work, open positions, and ranked each one in terms of my interest. With a little additional research on my top ten picks, I would go into the career fair prepared to make everyone feel I'd come specifically to see their booth.

I realize that  this might sound over-the top to you, but even if you aren't feeling particularly inspired you should at least do the following:
  • Print plenty of copies of your resume.
  • Leave your cellphone behind. You don't need any extra distractions and the risk of your alarm going off is not worth it.
  • Prepare an elevator speech which highlights your qualifications.
  • Wear a conservative outfit, with shoes you can actually walk in.
  • Get somebody else to approve your makeup and hair before you go inside. Don't wear clown and/or street walker levels of eye shadow and lipstick.
  • Bring a professional looking bag to carry all of the "swag" (aka crap) that the recruiters hand out.
In "normal" career fairs this is the end of required preparation. But in engineering career fairs, it is not uncommon for employers to require on-the-spot verbal or written exams to prove basic technical competencies. If you really have your heart set on a position with a specific company, research this beforehand, too. Study any of the languages, computer programs, or skills your dream company has listed as preferred because these quizzes can really cover anything.

For example, when I was a freshman in college, a recruiter handed me a paper after five minutes of talking about my resume: "If you don't mind, I'd like to ask you to take this quiz so we can determine your level of programming skill and where you would best fit in our organization."

Me: "Sure,  no problem."

I sat down at their quizzing desk and read the first question. It wanted me to write a short programming script to solve a problem in a language I not only didn't know, but had never even heard of. I didn't know the syntax, I didn't even know if it was object oriented or not. All I could think of was how awkward it would be for me to just cut my losses, slink away from the desk, and just pretend it never happened.

I glanced up, the recruiter was standing with her arms folded, watching me. Fuck. This was going to be really awkward. So I just wrote the answer in a different programming language, and on the last page I scribbled the word "Sorry."

I stood up, smiled, handed it the damning exam to the recruiter after having come up with no inconspicuous ways to accidentally drop it in coffee or otherwise destroy it, exchanged a few pleasantries, and then booked it away from their booth as fast as possible. Needless to say, I didn't send a follow up email.

Everyone has an awkward experience sometimes. But just go ahead, collect yourself, and move on to the next booth. The very next group I talked to that day had an exam on systems that I excelled at and I walked away with an interview for the following day.

So my advice is: do your homework, and then go in confident of your skills, look those recruiters in the eye and convince them of the truth: they would be lucky to have you on their team.

Break a leg!


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