Dani’s Declassified Guide to STEM Career Fairs

As I recently got back from (SWE) Society of Women Engineer’s Conference and Career Fair, I thought this would be a great time to discuss STEM Career Fairs. Now that I am on the other side of the booths at these fairs, I wanted to share some tips on how I approached career fairs as a student.

Note: Some of this content was first presented at WE Local Baltimore on February 8th, 2019 as part of the session titled “Craft your Resume and Ace that Career Fair”. Acknowledgments go to my co-presenters of this session: Assunta D. and Mary Beth B.

WE19 Career Fair

Before The Career Fair

One of the first things I recommend before attending any career fair is to check if there is a place to update your resume before the event. For example, SWE has a career center at https://careers.swe.org/. For the SWE site, it is recommended at least 1 month before the event to upload/update your resume on that site though a week or two is typically okay for other careers fairs like through your school. Most sites like this including Handshake also let you set up job alerts and save jobs that can be used any time of year!

Next, I would look into the specific organizations that will be at this career fair and map out your time. Whether is it 30 or 300 organizations, odds are, not all of them are best suited for your career path. Especially for a career fair at SWE’s Annual Conference which typically has over 300 employers, you most likely don’t have the time to attend every booth so having a list that you can prioritize is crucial for using the time you have effectively.

Now that you have a map of organizations that you would like to visit that interest you, it is time to do some research to learn the basics of the organizations you are targeting! This doesn’t need to be extensive – a brief visit to the companies’ profiles on Handshake or the website should provide you with the information you need. Some examples could be knowing one or two of their most important products or services and any upcoming projects the company is working on.

Another part of your before career fair preparation is practicing an elevator pitch and I would be happy to write a separate blog post on this if folks would be interested in this! In the context of a career fair, you should be able to tell recruiters generally what you are looking for. You don’t need to cite specific positions or job titles, but you should have an overall feel for the kind of job or internship you desire. It is okay to not be 100 percent sure of this, but a general idea is helpful to have prepared for what you are looking for. As I attended a college that has an integrated co-op program, my pitch included the specific months of my co-op program and my location preference to stay in the greater Philadelphia area.

Lastly, gather your materials so that you are ready for showtime! Print multiple copies of your résumé—some employers ask you to apply online, but having a paper copy to hand them while you talk can be helpful as we have mainly switched to scanning the resume at the booth. I usually estimate about half of the organizations on my map will want a physical copy of my resume. I also recommend bringing a small carrying bag or a portfolio with a pen and paper to take notes after you’ve spoken to employers. Also, lay your outfit out the night before. I remember distinctly one time in college the morning of the event that the pants that I was planning to wear were in my laundry basket and had to pick a different outfit and rush to the event.

Some ideas for additional preparation if you have the time/ or want to do for a company where you really want to stand out:

  • Some companies may have a way to join their talent network before the career fair. From my experience with this, once you upload your resume, the system will match your criteria and skill set with current and upcoming opportunities. It will also send you an email once similar positions open up and it is the first place many companies looks when they need to fill positions! Some companies might even have specific openings related to the conference as I have seen that through SWE.
  • Update your LinkedIn beforehand so that it has the most updated information. You can even post a status on LinkedIn that you will be attending this conference as making your goals known is so important!

During The Career Fair

It is showtime! Time to put your map/list to use! Personally, I don’t talk to my favorite company first because I still get nervous at events like this. Instead, I suggest you talk with others on your list to practice and get the nerves out. Some tips to keep in mind are to make eye contact with those you are talking to, show them how awesome you are, and make sure to take short breaks during the fair. Even just taking a few minutes to sit down, drink some water and reorganize yourself can be helpful in avoiding burnout. If this is a school career fair, connect with the alumni at companies you are interested in – they know exactly what you are going through. When I attended school, I usually ask the alumni about their experience at that school.

As you are wrapping up at each booth, be sure to get a business card or contact information of the person you spoke with! Next is one of the most important, yet overlooked steps – Post-booth notes. Taking notes immediately after the interaction means that they will be the freshest in your mind. If I get a business card from the person, I typically write my notes on the back of their card. It doesn’t need to be a lot of notes, just general things you discussed (especially if they are alumni of the same school) and any action items they gave you like applying for a specific role or joining their talent network.

Especially at largely attended events like SWE Conference, you can expect to wait in line at some booths, so here are some additional tips to use that time wisely.

  • This is a great time to pull up the research you have done about the companies and review for the company you are about to speak with.
  • If they are wearing a nametag, you could even look them up on LinkedIn while in line to see what role they hold so that you can prepare specific questions about their role or office location.

And for folks who are not actively looking for an internship/co-op, but want to still attend a career fair to practice talking to companies in a more low-risk situation, I will share the tip I used whenever I was in this situation. If you are a leader of a professional society on your campus, you can go with the goal of asking companies if they would be interested in speaking to your student organization in the future.

After The Career Fair

The career fair may be over, but you still have some work to do! Those post-booth notes? Now is the time to put them to good use! If a person gave you a specific action like applying for a specific job, do that and THEN email your contact to say that you have applied and thank them for their time. I would also utilize LinkedIn to connect with folks that you really connected with during the career fair and/or to follow organizations that you would want to work at in the future.

Other sources to learn more:

What questions do you have for me about career fairs? Feel free to write our team an email with your questions to hello@stemchangemaker.org.

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