Last week, I spent two days at a college career fair, representing my company. This week, I'll be at another. In the hopes of making the experience better for for everyone involved, I'd like to give some advice to aspiring college students.
College recruiting is different. Compared to normal candidates, college students (including grad students) are woefully unqualified and the normal technical interviewing techniques just don't work. My company uses Ruby on Rails. It's a great framework and it's pretty popular. I think only one of the several dozen students I talked to had touched it, and only a couple indicated they'd heard of it. Further, the vast majority said they had no web development experience.
In general, it feels a bit like begin a slot machine - unskilled students are putting a resume in the slot, pulling the lever, and hoping to get lucky. I hardly remember any of the specific students. Don't let yourself be one of the ones that's so easily forgotten.
Since you're not going to magically pick up 6 months of Rails experience and a deep understanding of the pitfalls of CSS across browsers, you need to focus on showing interest, motivation and enthusiasm.
The good news is that this is a great chance to get a job without specific experience. There will never be a better time to switch industries. I had an AERO major come up and make a great impression looking for a programming job. This is quite possibly your only chance to actually talk to someone at a company without having your resume screened first. Make the most of it.
Before the day of the fair, you need to do some prep work.
First off, you should find the list of employers that will be at the career fair. Make a list of the ones that're hiring your major. Go to ALL of their websites. Read about the company and check out their job listings. You're probably going to talk to all of them, and a little research will really help you stand out. Make a short list of companies you're especially interested in. Smaller companies that you haven't heard of are frequently great places to start because you'll get a wide variety of experience. You probably won't know exactly what you want to do in your first job and getting a variety of experience will help make sure your know what you want at the next one.
Now, take your short list of companies. Pick the coolest one. Look at those job listings again. If they mention a programming language or framework you haven't used, spend a few hours playing around with it. Find a short tutorial to work through. You'll learn something, and it will give you something to talk to the recruiters about. Knowing you did this will score big points. If you hate it, then that's probably not the company for you. Move on to another one.
Do that extra research for as many companies as you can. Even if you can't get your hands on the specific tools the company uses, at least you can say you tried.
There's one other thing that you can do that will really make you stand out. Program on your own time. Have a side project. Contribute to open source. Learn a framework or toolkit that isn't part of your coursework. As a developer, I think it's a bad sign when someone doesn't program on their own time. I feel the same about college students. If you're not passionate enough about programming to work on things outside of class, how will you ever manage to do it as a full time job?
Going to The Fair
There's still a little prep work on the day of the fair.
How to Dress
You want to look good, but comfortable. You're not going to lose points for going in shirt and tie instead of a suit. If you're uncomfortable in a tie, then take it off. You need to be relaxed and focused, and your clothes need to help with that. Ladies: don't try to wear heals that you aren't comfortable walking in. I saw more than one woman visibly teetering from booth to booth. Try for something that looks nicer than tennis shoes but is still comfortable.
As a recruiter, I started to associate overdressing with a smell of desperation. Try to find a happy medium between comfortable and sharp looking. What you say and do is more important than how you dress. Just don't give yourself bad marks by looking unkempt.
What to Bring
It's important to keep in mind how things will play out at the actual fair. You're going to be getting out resumes, saving flyers and business cards, and shaking a lot of hands.
Don't bring a backpack. Backpacks are great for schlepping tons of books across campus, but they don't come across really well when you need to take them off and get things in and out. A messenger bag will look better. A briefcase will seem overdone. If you must bring your backpack, make sure that you don't actually need to get into it while talking to a recruiter, and make sure that if you do open it the inside looks neat and tidy. Don't haul your normal pile of books and folders with bent papers sticking out the sides with you. A few neat binders are fine.
The best thing to bring is a portfolio. The kind with a fake leather cover that folds open to reveal a notepad, a pen and a pocket for papers. Load that pocket up with some copies of your resume. Don't print a ream of them. Put 5-10 in the pocket and get more out of your bag if those run low. That pocket is also the right place for the directory and booth floorplan for the show. Offload fliers and such to your bag regularly - no one likes to feel like they were the lsat choice.
The Fair Itself
This is where it all comes together. You're going to talk to a whole bunch of recruiters, and you want to make sure they think you've got your act together.
How to Move Around
Remember that the whole time you're at the career fair, you're on display to recruiters. Even when you're not up in a booth, there are recruiters watching you. Don't wander around with your mouth open looking lost. Don't stand around and chat about drinking with your buddies. You've got your shit together and you want that to come across to anyone who sees you.
Don't just go straight down the line to all the booths. If a booth has a line of people at it, move on to another one and come back later. Recruiters need a chance to catch their breath from time to time and being the last person in a 5 person line means you'll get less attention than if you're the first person to walk up. Lines ebb and flow all day, so even if there's a wait now, you can probably catch them without one later.
As you approach the recruiter, make sure you're ready to shake hands. Awkwardly juggling a portfolio and a bag of schwag will start you off on the wrong foot.
If you do need to stand in line, try to look relaxed. Examine the company's booth. Try not to look bored or impatient.
How To Talk
Make sure you speak loudly enough to be heard. If the recruiter has to lean in to hear you or has to ask you to repeat yourself, try talking a little louder. Career Fairs are noisy and it can be hard to understand people over the racket. It can be even harder to understand you if you have a strong accent. Don't yell, but this is not the time to come across as a soft-spoken sensitive type.
Make eye contact while you're talking. Strangely enough, that will help you understand each other. It will also help project an air of confidence and preparedness.
Smile, or at least don't scowl. The recruiter will automatically smile back and you've already gotten them into a positive frame of mind.
What To Talk About
You've got several goals when you're talking to a recruiter, and they're all aimed at making you stand out. You want to show them you are intelligent and communicate well. You want to show them that you're interested in their company. You want them to know you're passionate about what you do.
Every recruiter has a more or less well rehearsed blurb about their company. Let them give it. Try to follow it up with a question about the company. Extra points for mentioning that you looked at their website. Ask what the programming environment is like. Again, try to ask followup questions. Try to chime in with any relevant experience you've got. "Yeah, I saw that you used Ruby on Rails. I tried doing one of the tutorials and the ORM seemed pretty cool." or "I've only used SVN for version control. How is Perforce different from that?". Notice that you're telling them a little about your experience at the same time as you ask a question. Hopefully this turns into a conversation that you both get something out of.
Questions like "What do you like most about the company?" and "What is your development process like?" are good. "What kind of stock options do you give" and "How many hours a week do you work?" are bad. Hold off on questions about compensation and such until later.
The only exception to this is if you need visa sponsorship or are only interested in intern or coop positions. Get that out of the way at the very beginning - it will save both of you time. Don't just assume that information in the fair directory is correct.
Sooner or later, the recruiter is going to ask you about what experience you have. They mean any kind of experience, not just professional. Make it clear whether things are class projects, side projects or work projects. Don't lie. After the first 5 people who all talk about their cool twitter project that gauges moods, it's going to be pretty obvious that it's a standard class project.
Make sure you get a business card or a flier. Make a few quick notes about the conversation after you walk away from their booth.
Try to resist the urge to load up on schwag. If you look like you've been grocery shopping, it will detract from your professional demeanor. Don't refuse things if they're offered, but don't ask for them. Instead, try coming back later to get the goodies. They might run out, but it's a chance to say "hi" again and remind the recruiters about yourself.
The Day After
You were probably pretty stoked about one or two of the conversations you had with recruiters. Now you need to dig out their business cards and email them a soft copy of your resume, along with a quick note about how you enjoyed talking to them and hope you can join them at their company. Make sure you mention something unique to the conversation, so they know you're not just sending a form letter.
You might even want to do this with all of the companies. Very few of your peers will send a follow-up email, so even a form letter will stand out.