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How to Get Results job fairs and conferences

By Jonie Watanabe Tsuji

What do you think of when someone mentions career fairs? Cool giveaways? Free food from companies? Door prizes? Or how about when someone brings up professional conferences? Are they just a chance to get off campus, maybe even to a vacation destination? Woo-hoo...Anaheim! Forget the conference, I'm going to Disneyland! Fun stuff aside, the real reason to attend such career events is networking. And it might even land you a job or an internship.

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So what are career fairs and professional conferences anyway? Career fairs are an organized gathering of employers to meet prospective employees. Professional conferences encompass a lot more, such as workshops, speakers and seminars. However, many larger professional conferences also include a career fair. They can take place at your college campus, at conference/convention centers, in hotel ballrooms or even at sports arenas. If the event is the national meeting of a large organization, such as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) or the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), it will usually be held in a major metropolitan area. However, most large organizations also have regional or even local events.

So why should you go to career fairs and professional conferences? For career fairs, the obvious reason is to search for a job or internship. Even if you are not currently in the market for a job, go anyway! Use the opportunity to get information on an employer, find out about a particular industry, and become knowledgeable about what the real world has to offer. As for a professional conference, you want to go to keep up with the latest developments in your field. Try to get to know some key people in your field. However, whether it is a career fair or a professional conference, use both events as a chance to practice your most important skill...networking!

Making Connections

Networking is about making connections and building contacts (alliances). It is a process in which you interact with people and become known through formal and informal settings. Most of all it is a community of people-working and helping one another.

But why network? Because sometimes hard work is not enough! Many of us know Mr. or Ms. Popular who may not have been the best student, engineer, programmer or whatever, but is the one who got your hard-earned position because he or she knew the right people or was in the right place at the right time. But getting that position was not about luck. That person saw an opportunity and seized it. That is what networking presents opportunities.

Have you heard of the trivia game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon"? The concept is based on how small the world really is-any actor can be connected to Kevin Bacon within six films. The same can be said about you. If you start asking around, you can be within six degrees of just about any person in the world. Networking connects qualified, competent people and is a referral and promotional system that enriches both the individuals and the quality of tasks. As many as 80% of jobs are found through networking.

So how do you begin? There are five things you should know to begin networking:

1. Know yourself. What are your values? What is important to you? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
2. Know what you want. What do you want out of a job? Is it money or prestige? Or maybe it is to make a difference in people's lives.
3. Know what you have to offer. What skills do you have? What do you have to make you stand out in a crowd?
4. Know who can give it to you. Identify people who can help you attain your goals or help you gain information.
5. Know network protocol. Don't just be a taker; make sure you thank people. It is expected that you will reciprocate and you should do so willingly.

Tools and Techniques

First things first: bring a business card. Even if you are an undergraduate, make a business card with your contact information, your major, your year in school and of course, your institution's name. Keep a tracking system (whether that is a daily planner, a PDA, your cell phone or your Outlook/Yahoo!/Gmail address book) where you can document unique details about each individual and track when you last contacted him or her. Use this system to keep in touch with your network regularly.

But the most important part of networking is the follow-up. Make sure to answer phone messages and emails promptly. No one likes helping someone who they never hear from again. Or, what if someone promised you privileged information and then forgets to contact you? Follow-up.

However, just as important as the business card and tracking system is in your networking arsenal, it is essential to have a professional-looking resume and a powerful personal 30-second commercial. Prepare a resume that can be used at any event you attend. Always have your resume handy-carry a professional folder with your resumes and business cards on hand.

Your personal 30-second commercial is when you give a brief overview of who you are, what you have to offer and what your next step is. This commercial is also known as an elevator speech, because you never know when you may step into the elevator with a VIP from your dream company.

Creating an Effective Resume

Your most important marketing tool (aside from a business card) that you will need at any career fair is a resume. The objective of a resume is to get an interview, not a job. Your resume may open doors for you, but it is up to your sparkling personality to close the deal and get the job. So what makes an effective resume? Your resume should be one to two pages long, tailored to the industry you are targeting, and should highlight your skills and strengths. In order to begin composing your resume, you need to assess yourself (as mentioned previously-know yourself and your values), and do some homework by researching the industry and the companies you are targeting. How to find out this information other than through the Internet? Network!

As for the content of your resume, you should have your contact information in a header (to save space), and list your education, your research and/or work experience, honors and awards (fellowships, scholarships), extra-curricular activities, professional affiliations, as well as skills (languages, computer languages, technical skills, etc.) When listing your skills and accomplishments, recruiters like quantifiers-did you do anything cheaper, faster or better? (Use numbers, dollars and percentages). Be specific. Also keep in mind that some of your skills are tangible (techniques, research skills, etc.) but they can also be intangible (leadership ability, collaboration, teamwork, motivation-skills that may have been demonstrated in extra-curricular activities). Why not document your role as your school's chapter president of NSBE as you would your summer internship? Both are valuable experiences that gave you a multitude of skills!

Some general rules of thumb when it comes to resumes:

1. Use white space sparingly. Use one-inch margins all the way around. Too many students use two-inch margins on the left-hand side, which wastes space.
2. Use an easy-to-read font (Times New Roman or Arial in 11- or 12-point are always a safe bet). Be sure to use bold and bullet points judiciously (overuse takes away the emphasis), and avoid italics and underlining as some resume scanning programs don't read these well.
3. Use nice, clean, white bond paper. Print on one side only.
If it is longer than one page, staple it, and make sure your name and page number is on the subsequent page.
4. Save your resume in a PDF format to preserve formatting for electronic submission.
5. But the most important piece of advice? Be sure to proofread your resume. Take advantage of your school's career center and have a career advisor or counselor look it over for content. Grammatical errors and misspellings are quite common and easy to overlook.

30-Second Personal Advertisement

What is it that makes the best Super Bowl commercial? Some of us watch the Super Bowl just for the commercials. The ones that are most enjoyable are those that entertain you, but from the advertiser's standpoint, the best ones are those in which you can remember the name of the company and what they are selling. How can you adapt this approach to sell yourself to a potential employer? Try taking the NAP approach. No, not as in nodding off...that'll never get you a job. NAP stands for Name, Area of Study and Pitch.

Name - The easiest part of the elevator speech. If you don't know your name, you don't deserve to be offered a job.

Area of Study - What year are you in school? What is your major? Is there a particular project you are currently working on? (A senior thesis perhaps?)

Pitch - This is where you sell yourself. Who are you? What makes you unique? What do you have to offer? What have you done to make yourself stand out over others-answer these questions in terms of letting the other person know what is in it for them-why you are the employee for them.) What do you have that THEY want?

Figuring Out Career Fairs

Who comes to career fairs? Usually, companies that are actively hiring are in attendance. Representatives can be professional engineers working the jobs, or they can be human resources professionals. At a college, sometimes companies try to bring alumni back to talk to the students. Having shared the same college experience, the alumni can bring a unique perspective on what it is like transitioning from a student to a professional. What is a company's purpose in attending a career fair? Companies go to career fairs for new hires, or sometimes just to get company name exposure. Start-ups love going to career fairs to get their name out to students.

Plan of Attack

Get a listing of the companies who will be attending the fair. (Most career fairs list it on their Web site.) Check the Web sites of those companies-get the background of the company, look at their job listings, find out about the industry. Read handouts that you pick up at the fair. Prioritize the list of companies-map out where the companies will be, if you have access to a map ahead of time. Bring plenty of resumes in a nice portfolio or briefcase ready to hand out.

When you arrive, walk around the fair itself and soak in the atmosphere. Walk around the company booth, what literature do they have on their table? What information is posted on the booth? (You can pick up the tempting goodies, but play with them later.) Pick up company literature and job listings and scan them before speaking with the representative. Most of all, as you walk around, try to listen to other students and their questions. Perhaps they may ask a question you were planning to ask. Now, armed with the answer, you can sound more knowledgeable when you have your shot at talking to the representative. Keep in mind: as much as the company is interviewing you, you are also interviewing them.

What do you think is going through the head of an employer when they are at a career fair? Most likely, the employer is thinking, what does this student know about my company and the industry? What are his or her career goals? Does he or she have an idea of where he or she wants to be in 10-15 years? Does he or she have any prior work experience that can benefit my company? Finally, how does he or she carry him or herself? (Is he overconfident and cocky? Is she shy? Does he look like he just tumbled out of bed? Is she dressed like she is ready for Wall Street?) Employers take less than 30 seconds to make up his or her mind about you-so show confidence, and look the part.

Benefiting From Conferences

How can you use a professional conference as a resource? The main purpose of attending a professional conference is to keep updated on your field. If you don't attend conferences, you probably will have a hard time keeping up with the latest trends in your field. However, the underlying purpose of a professional conference is to gather information and make connections for future possibilities. In fact, many conferences have career fairs and placement centers where recruiters will gather-targeting specific candidates!

So what is the plan of attack for these conferences? Be sure to attend seminars relevant to your field and what you do. During lunches, posters sessions, and seminars talk to people! Make connections with people and start collecting some business cards. Getting to a seminar/workshop/poster session 10-15 minutes early can make a difference. Just by striking up a conversation with someone, you just may wind up chatting with your future employer!

If you have not presented at a conference before, you should think about it. I recently worked with a graduate student who presented her research at a conference. Little did she know that a major company was courting her in her field! After the conference was over, they were asking her to visit their company on-site and wanted to offer her a job! Here are some Do's and Don'ts to consider when going to a career fair or professional conference:


  • Dress comfortably, but appropriately.
  • Act Confidently. Speak clearly, use a firm handshake and maintain eye contact.
  • Ask intelligent questions. It's okay to be direct, but not rude.
  • Take notes.


  • Grab giveaways only.
  • Show up last minute.
  • Ask basic questions. No one wants to explain what their company does.
  • Drop off your resume without speaking to a representative.
  • Get discouraged.

As mentioned previously, one of the most important things you must do after a career fair or professional conference is to follow-up. Be sure to get business cards of the people you meet. Show respect when given a business card. In some cultures, taking a business card and putting it in your wallet and sticking it in your back pocket is disrespectful. Take the card, look at it closely, and make sure the phone numbers and email addresses are on the card. Close with thanking the person and addressing him or her by name directly. If there is genuine interest, follow up in approximately two weeks. Keep in mind that the person may have seen hundreds of other people, so mention something that makes you stand out over other candidates and remind him or her where you have met.

Just Do It!

So now that you have learned a little something about networking, and working a career fair and professional conference, go out and do it! Get excited about your networking opportunities rather than the free giveaways or fancy vacation destination. Well, you can still enjoy the vacation destination, but don't make that the only reason to go. Now network and have fun!

Jonie Watanabe Tsuji is a career counselor and career fair coordinator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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