Stop wasting your time at Career Fairs

It’s the time of year when college seniors start getting antsy about the post-graduation job hunt. There’s a fear of the unknown, and a fear of being unemployed. Numerous colleges hold career fairs, and it seems like there’s unspoken pressure to attend these events. I’ve been to a few career fairs, and believe they are a massive waste of your time. Let me explain why.


Massive Competition

Career fairs attract students in droves – these are typically very busy events. Popular booths are crowded around by dozens of students waiting to talk to the recruiter. There’s no time to develop a meaningful conversation, and within 30 seconds, another student is going to put on their best “front”, and pretend like they have actually learned something over the last four years.

The Gatekeeper

I’ve visited booths before, and the person I talk to is clearly not in charge of making hiring decisions. Oftentimes they are someone who started working at the company a year or two earlier (who graduated from my university). Put simply, the company wants to put a fresh face who can talk and get down to the level of the student. It’s cool to talk to a recent alumni about how he/she likes working, but they aren’t the gatekeeper to employment. Usually, the best thing they can do is put your resume in a “good” pile. It’s the first step in a long funnel of hiring.

Oh, and don’t get me started on how many times I’ve visited a booth only to hear, “apply online at our website.”

My Story

Last year, I wanted to join the marketing department at a mid-sized bank (800 employees). It turns out they were at a career fair, so I decided I would visit their booth.

I did my homework, figured out the person (SVP of Marketing) who I wanted to get a hold of, and typed a personal letter to him. I visited the bank’s booth, which surprisingly was staffed by two HR directors, and pitched them on why I wanted to work there. I handed them my resume and the personal letter to the SVP, and asked if they could deliver it to him. They assured me they would.

I never heard anything back.

I’m not really a fan of giving up so easily, so I decided to try to find his email online. I couldn’t find it, so I decided to figure out the naming convention of other employees. I figured this out easily, and emailed the SVP again (with a nearly identical pitch).

I next day I received this.

“(SVP of Marketing) forwarded your email to me. I’m really interested in considering you for an internship this summer. Would you like to come in and meet with me? I’d invite __________ as well. He’s our Marketing Manager and reports to me. He’s based in _______ but is in ______ today and Thursday if by any chance you have some time. Otherwise, I’ll meet with you alone.”

It was the SVP of Community Relations, an arm of the marketing department. Long story short, I didn’t take the internship, but I learned how much more useful pitching the gatekeeper was.

New Hiring Processes

Career fairs must have been created during the industrial age, where businesses hired workers based on their ability to work at an assembly line. Today, we have the internet to find employment opportunities in our back yard, or across the country. Career fairs typically attract businesses within a certain geographical area, it’s not effective, affordable, or reasonable for a company to travel thousands of miles to visit an average career fair. Maybe this happens at an Ivy League school, but it definitely doesn’t happen at mine.

Jason Freedman of 42 Floors wrote a great blog post, publicly asking someone to work at his company. While this is an extreme example, top companies “court” potential employees. In the tech world, this typically includes working on a company project together to see if they would be a good fit.

Are you an Indispensable Employee?

The more I think about career fairs, the more I think about what I read in Seth Godin’s book Linchpin. A career fair may find someone a job, yet what about finding a meaningful career, where you serve as a valuable team member?

In high school, I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life (other than playing semi-pro soccer of course). The one thing I knew was that I needed something to set me apart from my peers. Every time I visited a career fair in college, I felt like I was a cog in a big machine.

Do you feel the same way, or am I just crazy? I would love to hear your feedback.

Image credit