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Career Fair: view from behind the booth and how to land an interview

Career fair

Career Fairs: backpacks, jeans, seated grumpy recruiters

Career Fair: the odds show you are blowing it

For most companies with a booth at a career fair, it doesn’t matter if they see 100 or 500 candidates, they are happy to get 1, maybe two hires out of a day on the road. In the next two posts, I explain why the numbers are low, how to get Nasty with the system, and walk away with the interview.

Every year, I visit 8-10 large colleges just before graduation armed with attractive recruiters and a portable conference booth. At the end of the week, we were happy to get on average one hire per day. Didn’t matter if it was a school with 25K students or a small private college.

The numbers are staggering

Downright depressing. You wonder if you should even stand in the long lines and bother. I am here to tell you that you SHOULD bother and why. The numbers lie. The numbers are low because most candidates that attend a career fair treat it like a car/wedding/home show. As an insider looking out, the job fair to me is one of easiest places to land an interview. Why? Because you have the opportunity to talk directly with the recruiter.

When I think of a car show, I think of young people with baseball caps on backward and fashionable sneakers. Folks from all demographics dressed as if they are ready to walk around all day. I get that. When I think of a wedding or home show, (I haven’t been to one, so stay with me) I think of folks walking around carrying way too much stuff. A sponsored plastic bag to collect all their free booth – swag. The shit is literally sticking out of their bag. The bags are bulging and overflowing. They are carrying their jackets along with a purse or backpack. Carrying this much stuff just makes you look disheveled. Not a great first impression, but perfectly acceptable at a home show. Now add a binder to carry resume and loose papers.

Career fairs are NOT car shows.  Repeat after me:  


They are not go-sees or information gathering events. They are interviews. The people behind these booths are recruiters and hiring managers. At a car show the car manufacturer is the one selling the product to you. Anyone can walk up to the booth and buy the car or the white wedding dress. At a job fair, make no mistake, the company is buying you. They are the ones that are forking over the money in the form of a salary. You are the dog and the pony show. The company usually only has ONE job in any particular department.  Uno, Single, One. You do not get to pick from the line up of all the companies and say “OK, you get to hire me”. There is no second place. The company is picking you, and there are a lot of “you’s” in this room.

You can walk around a car show/home show/wedding show and visit every booth, collecting free logo’d shit and no one will know the difference. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE free shit. You are not expected to do any research for any of these vendors. Your goal is to bring back literature that tells you about the product, dump it out on your dining room table and drool over it like a kid on October 31. You go to each booth expecting them to feed you the product information and give you free stuff. As much as I do it, I do not want to explain what Acme Publishing does to any college graduate. I want the college grad explaining it to ME!

A typical day at a career fair

The event is being held in a large auditorium of some sort. There are 100 companies present, maybe more. If this is a college affair, students from neighboring schools will be in attendance.  Yes, they snuck in and, they are potentially taking your job. It’s a great tactic and always shows the recruiter initiative. Trust me, if they snuck in or drove from a neighboring city, they did their homework. They didn’t drive a few hours to “find out who is here”. They know what companies are here and these candidates mean business. If I am talking to a great candidate, short of coming from prison, what do I care where they come from?

What you see from the front of the booth is like any other wedding show, car show, or convention you have attended in the past. Every company is trying to hawk its wares. Some are obviously spending a lot of money with sponsorships, booth space, standing signage made of space-age materials, and maybe a big screen TVs with a loop showing good-looking employees that are happy in the workplace. No booth is complete without the obligatory logo’ed swag. Key chains, squishy toys.  My favorites: tins of tiny mints and the Purell dispensers. Do not let this scene fool you. You are not in Kansas anymore Dorothy!

The competition

The folks behind the booths are usually young, attractive, and have great smiles. They are the ones that can stand all day long and keep folks engaged.  (Think booth babes or cheerleaders) To most of the candidates, these folks look like they have the best job in the world. Other companies will show up with just a tablecloth and some marketing materials. No job fair would be complete without the bitter, old, HR person that sits down behind the booth and just looks up at the hopeful candidates.  These guys don’t get out of their chairs except for lunch.  Very depressing.

Career Fairs – what you don’t see behind the scenes

Underneath that tablecloth-draped table are two cardboard boxes, and if you are lucky, there are three. One is a “round file” aka recycling bin, the second is labeled “maybe” and the third is a box that says “call tomorrow”. You guessed it. You talk with the recruiter, hand them your resume and it is tossed into one of the marked boxes. If you made the right impression, the recruiter will be writing a ton of notes and will write, “CALL TOMORROW” at the top.

I have been to recruiting fairs where there were literally 2000 candidates in attendance and others where there have been 50 candidates in attendance. Doesn’t matter how many candidates attend, the same thing happens EVERY time. 98% of the candidates come up to the booth and fall into one if not two of two buckets:  1. Didn’t do any research on any company present, don’t have a pitch. 2. Hoping that just dropping off a resume is enough to get them a job. These tactics boggle my mind. These candidates are not considered candidates and they should have just stayed in bed.

  • 95% of the candidates come to the booth with NO idea what the company does or who they are.  They literally walk from one booth to the next and open with, “tell me what you guys do”, or “what positions are you hiring?”
  • 90% of candidates are dressed like they are going to a home/car/wedding show.
  • 85% of the candidate will hand me the resume and expect me to read the resume right there and pitch them questions. They will stand there silently waiting for me to say something.  MAKE A MOVE SON!
  • 60% of candidates don’t have the initiative to come up to the booth. They hang out on the “outskirts” of our booth space hoping we will notice them. They are either scared, shy or don’t know what this looks like from our POV. These candidates don’t stand a chance if we have the hot swag of the show and our booth is crowded. These sheep are not getting through the line for the Frisbees we give away at a college campus. We make it a point to stand in front of the booth to connect with the sheep. (we NEED accountants, statisticians, and developers and other professions who may lack the outgoing gene)
  • 33% don’t have a resume. They are here to “check out companies” and apparently think I will be on the lookout for their online application or remember them from the other 2000 people I see when I check my email next week.  Oy Vey!

College Campus Behavior:

If we are on a college campus, 95% of the candidates look like they just got out of class. They are definitely NOT there to make an impression. Bulging backpacks overstuffed with books and water bottles. Torn jeans and hoodie sweatshirts with school logos. Would you show up to an interview like this????? You just did biatch!

We can be talking to a candidate and one of their buddies runs up to them, jumps on them and shouts “Dude! What’s uppppp?!! Did you see Kristen, she is looking HOTTTTTT!  Oh, you talking with them, sorry, my bad. . . what kind of jobs you got?“

When recruiters go to a career fair at a college, they are usually trying to do two things and not necessarily in this order. They may not even have a position:

  • Get their company name out there
  • Fill positions

They are thinking about two things:

  • All the email and work that is piling up while they are out of the office
  • Wondering if this event is providing them with a free lunch

I realize the last two bullets sound a little depressing, but when you know what you are up against, you can plan for it.  Florida and ASU can be a great break for a college recruiter, but I can sift through 100 resumes an hour from the comfort of my desk, and not have to explain what we do or who we are 95 times. Are you recognizing a pattern?

If I talk to 100 or 500 candidates at a career fair, there is always 1 person that comes to a fair prepped, does everything right, and walks away with an interview.

To get the lowdown on how that person gets the interview at a career fair, read the next entry here.   

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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