The leaves are starting to turn, every caffeinated drink has a pumpkin-flavored option, and the Detroit Lions are finding spectacular new ways to lose. That all must mean that it’s college recruiting season again! Last year, the pandemic forced career fairs to go virtual. Although there have been some opportunities for in-person events in 2021, I don’t think remote recruiting events are ever going away. The increased access virtual career fairs provide for both students and employers is too valuable.
But these virtual events have some distinct differences from traditional IRL career fairs. At this point, I’ve conducted hundreds of one-on-one 10-minute interviews and numerous group information sessions. Here are my three best tips to make a good impression as a student or alumni seeking employment at a virtual career fair on Handshake (or a similar platform).
1. Do your research ahead of time.
Every blog post on this topic probably includes this same piece of advice: learn about the employer ahead of your conversation with them. This one feels so obvious I almost didn’t include it. Yet you’d find it surprising how many students I talk to during these sessions who have no clue what Atomic Object does or what we’re hiring for.
That kind of ignorance is excusable at classic career fairs where everyone sets up a booth in a large space and people are free to just walk over and strike up a conversation. I love doing these events and spend most of the time giving short pitches to people about Atomic Object and what we have to offer.
But virtual career fairs today work by having job-seeking participants sign up for specific time-slots in advance. Employers create company profiles and upload jobs that participants can look through to decide to whom they’d like to speak.
If you sign up for a time slot with me and then show up without knowing what Atomic Object is and why you wanted to talk to me, you’re wasting both our time. However, if you clearly demonstrate knowledge of our organization and what, in your research, motivated you to speak with me, you’re already a step ahead of the pack.
2. Care about the position being offered.
This second tip follows the first. Part of your research should be to know what employment opportunities you’re looking for and to confirm that those are being offered by the employer. If you’re unsure but still like the company anyway, having a clear employment objective is enough.
“An internship” or “a job” is not a clear objective. Every single person I talk to at every single career fair is looking for one of those. Wanting to get paid to do work and gain professional experience does not set you apart from the crowd.
I think a simple and solid place to start is to ask yourself what is most important to you in a job. Do you value lots of direct mentorship? Is it the opportunity to work with cutting-edge technology? Is it a fully remote position or one guaranteed to include working in person with your coworkers? Maybe it’s important that you work on a small team or a large one.
You don’t need all the answers. I would never expect undergraduate students to know everything they want out of a career. Just identify something important to you that we might be able to provide, beyond “we’re hiring,” and you’ll get my attention!
I think it’s important to note that there’s a big difference between you being able to share your interest and desires up front, versus responding to me. Every recruiter is going to paint a rosy picture of what their company has to offer. If you ask me, “What is the Junior Software Developer position like at Atomic Object?” I’m going to tell you about mentorship and exposure to different technologies. You won’t stand out as a candidate because you tell me that it sounds great. I know it sounds great. I’ve got a lot of practice making it sound great!
This brings me to my final tip.
3. Ask deliberate, specific questions.
This last tip is another common piece of advice. Handshake even provides a handy list of example questions as part of their guide to attending virtual career fairs. I want to take it to the next level.
First of all, don’t just ask questions without knowing what answers you’re looking to hear. As I just explained, recruiters have a lot of practice answering your questions. That means it’s all going to sound great. You need a “why” for yourself behind the question, the reason you’re asking in the first place. Perhaps, from my second tip, you decide that getting exposed to lots of different technologies early in your career is important.
Second, get specific! A better question than “What is the job like?” could now be, “I’d like my first job to give me exposure to a lot of new technologies and skills. How well does that align with the available positions you’re hiring for?”
Don’t ask about culture, ask about quirky traditions
The first question listed on that Handshake guide is “How would you describe the culture of the organization?” I get a lot of variations of that, and it’s my least favorite thing to answer. This is sad because I love the culture at Atomic Object!
But I love a lot of different aspects of Atomic Object’s culture. I can tell you about the work/life balance and how that’s incentivized by both our compensation model and contract structure with clients. I can tell you how we reinforce our values like Share the Pain (did you know we have Co-CEOs?). Or, I can tell you that we have an internal company podcast where our Co-CEOs interview other employees about their experiences. I can tell you about Dip Day.
I can’t tell you about all of those things in the few minutes we have to chat, and some of them won’t be important to you anyway. When you’re asking about the culture of an organization, you’re really asking if it will be a place that you can feel comfortable and that you belong. Figure out what that means for you, and then ask about that.
By the way, Dip Day is awesome and I’d love to tell you about it and some of the other quirky traditions we have at Atomic Object.
Caveat: I am just one person with opinions.
I know that if I had more virtual interviews where candidates made use of these tips it’d make my job more enjoyable. However, you may find other employers that value different tactics.
Overall, your goal from a virtual (or in-person) career fair should be to stand out. You can’t do that by asking the same generic questions, giving the same generic responses as everyone else, and treating every employer as a generic job offering.
I recognize I’m asking you to put a lot of additional time and effort into an already time-consuming event that’s just one of a myriad of important school/life priorities. But this is also about your future for years to come, not a midterm you cram for the night before.
Good luck out there.