Do Your Homework Before Attending a Career Fair

In his 15 years with Esri, talent acquisition leader Jason Otero has represented us at many recruiting events. I recently asked him to share some of his advice for getting the most out of attending a career fair.

What’s the best way for a career fair attendee to prepare for meeting potential employers?

Oftentimes what we find are people who come up to the table prepared to talk about themselves. They’ve got resumes in-hand, they’re dressed appropriately, and they have all their ducks in a row. But what they tend not to have done is research the organizations they want to meet. What gets a recruiter’s attention is the person who comes up with a keen sense of interest in the company and can explain how their background, skills, and interests align with the potential new organization and, specifically, the job opportunities they’re interested in.

When it comes to research, going to a company’s web page is good, but understand that it’s a marketing tool. What you see on that first page, or even within the first click or two, is going to be high-level and potentially not as helpful as case studies or white papers that describe what the company does, why they do it, and who their customers are. That’s the kind of information that’s really going to help you in an interview.

What are your feelings on researching a company through other means, such as Glassdoor or LinkedIn?

It’s important to know what’s being said about an organization. Typically what you’re going to find is a variety of information, probably extremes at both ends. You’ll find people who had a bad experience and people who had a really great one. So take it all with a grain of salt and don’t allow that type of information to drive your decision. Much like when we’re interviewing people, we take everything into account before we make a final hiring decision. We fully expect that candidates are doing the same with us.

Is there anything besides their resumé they should bring?

I think it depends on the person’s career field. If you’re a salesperson, for example, I don’t know that there’s anything you can bring besides your A-game. But if you’re a designer, being able to show somebody examples of your work would be very beneficial. If you’re a developer, bring your machine and make sure your code is up on a site like GitHub so you can show it. In our case, in the geospatial space, if you have really good cartography skills and you develop great maps, you should bring those along with you.

Oftentimes employers—and Esri is one of them—will bring likeminded professionals to career events. If it’s a developer-focused event, we bring a developer with us. If it’s a design-focused event, we bring a design person with us. So the people there will be capable of reviewing your code or reviewing your designs, giving you feedback, and getting a pretty good sense of what your capabilities are. It’s always better—again, based on your background—if you can show what you can do versus just talk about it.

And what about students who may not have that real-world experience?

Well, again, it depends on their background. Any computer science student in their second, third, or fourth year has obviously written some code and has done class projects. So there’s no reason they can’t get that up on a site like GitHub or Dropbox. The same thing goes for a GIS cartography student, or even a design student.

Knowing that job seekers only have a few minutes of a recruiter’s attention at a career fair, how can they maximize that time?

To some degree, first impressions are the only ones that matter at a career fair, because that’s the one opportunity you have to speak to somebody in person. It really is important you put your best foot forward. Number one, as we talked about already, be prepared. Come in right away being able to explain why you think we should hire you. Second, be confident; don’t come up in a meek fashion and expect the recruiter to drive the conversation. You’re the one who needs to do that by telling them why you’re interested in their company and why you feel your background is a good match. Third, ask questions, because it gives us a sense of your interest. Sometimes people ask the standard questions, such as “What do you like about working at Esri?” We hear those all the time, so try to have deeper questions. There might be a couple you can ask just based on the job description. That’s good, but also be able to think on your feet. I’m certain that if you speak to somebody for three or four minutes, there’s going to be a question in your head. Just treat it as a conversation and then the questions will come to you.

What do you recommend people do after the event? How should they follow up?

Ask the recruiter you met how they think it’s best to follow up. It may be that they say just sit and wait. If we’re interested, we’ll call you. Or, it could be that they say, do A, B, and C. At the very least, look at the organization’s website and apply.

Any other tips you’d like to share?

Don’t underestimate the value of having a good resume. We recently met 180 students at a university event over the span of four hours. That didn’t give us a lot of time with each one, so it goes back to that first impression—and having a clear, concise, easy-to-read resume is going to really help. So for a career fair in particular, my recommendation is to come prepared with a one-page resume so we can get a quick overview of what your background is. You can submit a more detailed resume when you apply online. Your resume is also the company’s first indication of the quality of your work. It doesn’t look good if you have grammatical and spelling errors and different fonts.

Along with that, I wouldn’t prepare a cover letter for a career fair. There’s not enough time for us to review it, and the material you would put in a cover letter is what you should be discussing face-to-face with a recruiter.

The other thing I would say is to be focused in your job search. We sometimes will encounter people who come up with a resume and a sheet of 15 jobs they’re interested in. To us, that shows a lack of focus. It may be that you have a lot of interests at this point in your career or that you’re qualified to do a lot of different things. But do your best to try and narrow down your interests with a specific organization to two or three opportunities and trust that the company’s recruiters are going to evaluate you for other areas in the company if they identify you’re a better fit somewhere else. That’s a much better strategy than trying to blanket the entire organization with applications.

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