If you’re a college graduate or will be in the next year, it’s easy to feel panicked about your future. I know how you feel. So far I’ve been really timid as far as building my professional life. I’ve worked a multitude of customer service related jobs, but building a resume, putting on nice clothes, and going to a career fair to see what the world has to offer all of us soon-to-be graduates is an entirely different experience. And I’ve never done anything like it. But I did brave my university’s career fair last week. And I’ve come away mostly feeling as if it’s a very useful event to get your foot in the door and also to help you acclimate yourself to having a professional life. Here’s a list of what it would be helpful to think about going in:
1) The best way for me to abate my anxiety about going to the career fair was my refusal to take it seriously. This might seem like bad advice, but actually I really do recommend it. When I stopped treating a career fair like the Be-All and End-All place to find a job (which I do desperately need) it became a sort of experiment, like driving a new car you haven’t quite committed to buying yet. Just a test run! No big deal. It was so much easier for me to remain calm about it when I looked at it this way. And, in my calmness, it was so much easier for me to talk to all of the people at the booths. Which leads me to my next point…
2) Not all of the booths are interested in your major. And, arguably, if you’re a liberal arts major, most of the booths aren’t interested in your major. How do you circumnavigate this? You make your degree work for itself. You make it relevant. Sure, maybe AT&T was just looking for software engineers, but you know what AT&T also needs? People who can actually sell the dang software to the general public. We all know smartphones are confusing and a little hard to use, and phone plans include charges we don’t understand. That’s what a liberal arts major is good at! Decoding these things for other people. And that’s just one example. The hardest part about this whole affair is really just getting yourself into a conversation with the recruiters running these booths. Some of them are adamantly searching for tech or business grads, but what you’ve got that those grads might not have are some incredible comprehensive skills. You can take information, sort through it, find what’s important, and convey that information to other people. This skill, like all others, might not follow the hard coding language of a computer science major or the jargon of a business major, but because of our ability to think analytically about all aspects of our life, we can pick these things up as we go along. Hiring recruiters don’t always know how great liberal arts degrees are – so tell them!
The hardest part isn’t even selling your skills, it’s actually just launching headfirst into a conversation with a stranger about what their company does and who you are. These things require more nuance. So my next point is one that, by reading this post, you have already begun to achieve.
3) PREPARE YOURSELF. Make résumés! Make a bunch of different ones that are exactly one page long and say your name in big letters! Make résumés that highlight something very specific in different sectors of work! Make one that highlights your customer service skills; make one that highlights your artistic tendencies! Whatever résumé you’re using, phrase your skills to fit the job you’re interested in. See, I’ve never personally filed paperwork but I have carried three plates on each arm at a restaurant. I figure one is just as good as the other. And unlike paperwork, I had to entertain people while I carried plates on one arm. I had to be accommodating and tell people bad news (“I’m so sorry…but we’re out of chocolate cake.”) I had to multitask and think on my feet. These are skills that every single company at that career fair needs, paper-filing or not. I would also recommend getting business cards/pamphlets/info as much as you can, and sticking these in a folder so you can save them for later. Don’t be empty handed, take notes about the companies you see. And furthermore, do your research on some of the companies in attendance. The good thing about a smart phone is that if you see a company you didn’t know would be there, you can google them real quick! Get yourself familiar with the language the company uses.
4) Make your experience count. You’ve done something—I know you have. We had to do a lot to get these pesky degrees, and there are plenty of hobbies and outside activities that all come in to play. For one company, a company that managed cloud-based software that they sold to other companies, I played up my customer service skills from my restaurant experience, because they were specifically hiring customer service reps. I played up my experience in school working on group projects to show my teamwork skills. For another company, one that focused on counseling young school-aged children from rough backgrounds, I played up my interpersonal skills; I played up my siblings and my large family. I played up my experience as a child myself. You can make anything work for you, even if its sort of a stretch sometimes – find a way to pull it into the conversation.
I think the most illuminating trait I could stress is versatility. You don’t have to have three years of experience for each career sector. You just have to have the ability to relate different experiences that you do have and see the bigger picture. If you’re a details-oriented person, I promise this isn’t as hard as you might think. I’ll be honest with you, dear readers, and say that I did not have an eloquent elevator speech prepared, (see point 3!) but, since I have a long history of harping on B.S. as a bartender (you gotta make conversation somehow) I didn’t find it all too difficult to expound upon my skills to potential employers. But, don’t be like me. I would’ve done better with a more polished elevator speech so it’s worth getting one prepared, and even having more than one prepared for different career sectors.
Overall the event was eye-opening and, honestly, not quite as scary as I had made it out to be in my head. The more booths I went to, the less difficult it was to talk to people. So save up your favorite companies until the end, when you’ve gotten used to gabbing with strangers. Other than that, throw yourself in the deep end! The worst-case scenario is you won’t get a job and might even embarrass yourself. But, hey, you’ll probably never see this person again. I think that lessens the sheer terror of it all.
For some more sources, check out this article by Business Insider on how to prepare for a job fair. Here’s another link on the Do’s and Don’t’s of career fairs, although personally, I would ignore the first one! Spend time talking to booths even if you’re not interested in that career. It will get you used to speaking professionally and learning about the different options out there, it can only benefit you. Lastly, just in case you need it, here is another article about career fairs that details how to dress for success. Good luck!
image cred: upenn.edu