What most career fairs feel like

I’m sure everyone has their own experiences with career fairs, both good and bad. But let’s be honest, they might as well call it the “apply online fair.” Even in this pandemic, it’s still a pretty low quality experience.

It really is more of a marketing fair. Companies pay the college/university for the privilege of a booth (or online chat room). Then they send what feels like 2–3 of their least experienced employees (or sometimes even temps from an external recruiting agency) to act as a physical (virtual for virtual fairs) landing page with a broken “apply” button.

It makes sense from a cost perspective. Some of the larger companies are perfectly content with their couple grand getting them a few hundred extra applicants, and would prefer to maintain their hiring pipeline away from the career fair. After all, in a career fair, everyone is going for high quantity at the expense of some quality. Quality can come later. The employees who are trained enough to assess quality are usually too busy doing the actual work of the company. It can be two to ten times more expensive to send a senior team member vs a recent hire when both are equally effective at handing out flyers and telling people to visit their website.

I’m not going to give patronizing advice basic humans already know like “dress nicely” or “research the company” or everybody’s favorite hit: “practice your one-liner/elevator pitch.” I’ll tell you what I think actually works in this next section. And it’s probably something you already knew.

What a student or job seeker can do about it

So if one event exists with a high quantity/low quality mission, there’s probably events with the opposite right?

Sort of. Sometimes, a single corporate sponsor will make a campus visit and host an event all on their own. Actually, this happens roughly once a week or more at a school like UIUC. Sometimes the company will give a powerpoint about what they do and what they’re hiring for, followed by a Q & A. Other times, they even build in a nice interactive thing where the attendees can do something together. These may also be co-hosted by a student organization on campus. One example is the robotics team doing a programming tutorial with a company that sponsored the costs of one of their projects. Even if you weren’t part of the robotics team all year, this is a good chance to know some new people. And before you think this is an engineers-only thing, think again (and look harder). I remember going to food product development taste tests and competitions. The club brought sponsors from food science companies every month. Business schools often have small “case competitions” or information sessions even more frequently than once a week.

In these events, there’s usually 2–3 employees who are in the role that you would want to apply to. Attendance is also smaller, with typically no more than 40 people, sometimes as few as 10–15 people showing up. This is actually a pretty good opportunity to connect with one of the employees. They are usually recent grads, and often recent enough that they can connect pretty closely to current students (e.g. bantering about how difficult some of the classes were, which professors still teach, how small one of the labs are, etc.). It’s a lot more effective to network in these events in my opinion. You can both let your guard down a little and have more organic interactions. People often exchange phone numbers and talk informally after events like this, even if either party decides not to move forward in the application process.

It should have been obvious, but I didn’t realize this until later on. What you truly want to do is try to build long term connections with the person, not the companies. When it comes to the jobs you want, the person makes the company, not the other way around. Think long term. Everyone changes jobs. Most people even change careers (as in: teacher to personal trainer to paralegal kind of changes, not lateral ones). The constant factor won’t be an alma mater or a certain tenure at a company (although this can be where it starts). It’s going to be a relationship.

If you keep in touch with someone, and genuinely take an interest in them, odds are that they will do the same. And the transitions between jobs and companies are a matter of “when” not “if.” And you will have an opportunity to be on the helping side of the table as well. When the time comes, you want to be in a spot where it’s just a simple phone call to ask for (or offer) help. You have a chance to build those relationships today, even if you don’t “need” them immediately. You don’t want to be in a position where you have to scramble together some contacts and hope for the best. Nobody likes it when a person comes out of the blue asking for a favor. It’s as easy as a phone call or email every few weeks, not to talk shop, but to talk about life.

So the next time BigCo, MidCorp, or SmaLLC makes a trip to your school, yes, do apply online, but it also doesn’t hurt to make a new friend.