How to win at career fairs

The themes that stand out after meeting and reviewing résumés from hundreds of students.

Written by Jim Puls.

College students! Especially those of you in the programming-type vocations!

It’s recruiting season again — and by “recruiting season” I mean “the school year.” If you’re smart, you’re looking for work, either for next summer or for when you graduate. (Funny story: when I was in college, my advisor famously addressed a room full of first year — make that first week — undergrads and told us in no uncertain terms to go to the upcoming job fair and talk to every company possible.)

I’ve just returned from three career fairs at three awesome universities on the recruiting side of the equation. After meeting and collecting a résumé from several hundred bright-eyed engineering students, some differentiating factors have stood out.

Here’s some unsolicited advice on how you can stand out in a field of a hundred people who are all really talented.

Express your passion

We’re looking for people who live and breathe code. People who, when faced with a challenge they couldn’t solve by plugging together libraries, buckled in and wrote something new and then released it on GitHub.

You probably had great success at your last internship learning how to use the query analyzer to speed up the performance of a website by 8 percent, but it’s a lot more impressive if you went and built the query analyzer from scratch because it didn’t already exist.

No joke, having your GitHub profile URL on your résumé is an instant bonus. Especially if there’s something there beyond just the blank profile.

One page

One page is enough for your résumé. Really. If there’s something that doesn’t fit on the first page, it’s probably not important enough to still be on there.

If you hand me a stack of four pages, not only am I going to think you’re not very organized, I’m also going to get distracted reading through the whole thing while you’re trying to talk to me.

Talk to me

Of the 200 people we talk to at your career fair, somewhere between 10 and 30 of you will get an interview. You have, depending on how long the lines are, anywhere from 45 seconds to four minutes to convince me that you should be the number one lead on our list of people to call and interview.

Contrary to popular controversy, your accent doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter if English is your native language or not.

Here’s what does matter: speaking clearly. (Don’t mumble.) Telling me about why you’re awesome instead of just reading your résumé to me. (I’ve noticed that the people who do this are usually the ones with four pages to get through.) Highlighting extracurriculars instead of your classwork. Telling me what you built last summer instead of where you worked.

When I ask you if you have any questions for me or what I can tell you about Square, don’t tell me what Square does. I dare say I know what Square does. Ask me for the information you don’t already have.

Understand the industry

Don’t walk up to an employer and ask if they’re hiring. Would they be attending your career fair if they weren’t hiring?

At least for today, the supply of programmers is steadily increasing. But the demand — the number of available jobs for them — is increasing quite a bit faster still.

Any tech company you talk to will be hiring as many people for all positions as they possibly can. And if the company isn’t in the tech industry but usually hires programmers, it’s simple enough to do some background research and find out for yourself. Even if the company doesn’t have an open job requisition for somebody of your background, there’s no harm to be done with walking up to a recruiter, introducing yourself, and making it known you want to work at his or her company.

Don’t pigeonhole yourself

On a related note, don’t go out there calling yourself a “web developer” or a “JavaScript programmer” or a “front-end guy” or a “game developer.” You’re going to school for a CS degree, for crying out loud. You’re paying a bunch of money for a piece of paper that tells the world you’re a programmer who can figure anything out. Talk the talk. (Walking the walk comes later on, during the interview.)

Present yourself appropriately

Lots of standard guides tell you to dress up. This may or may not be a good idea: if you and everybody else is wearing a suit, you’ll still be just a face in the crowd. And if you don’t know how to wear a suit — rocking an ill-fitting shirt or a mismatched tie or an overly-long pair of pants, for example — you’ll come off as a bit of a slob even though you aren’t.

On the other hand, if you have that perfectly tailored number in your closet, it will give you a boost of self-confidence and you’ll feel like a million bucks.

Wear what you’re comfortable in and what best represents you, unless it’s going to offend or scare the people you’re meeting. That plaid button-down and nice pair of jeans is going to make a much better impression than your one dress shirt that’s three sizes too big.

Beyond the clothes, look at what your résumé says about you, too. That default Word template tells me you’re boring. (You don’t even have to be a designer! Just pick a Word template other than the standard one!) Spelling errors will make a bad situation worse. I promise, you’re not really a “desginer.”

(On the other hand, if your résumé lists

as one of your skills with the correct orthography, it tells me that you’re a nerd. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.)

Be honest. Be passionate. Be you.

At the end of the day, it’s still inevitable that you’re up against all of your peers in your program. You’re competing with people who are likely your friends; you have the same educational background as they do and every one of you is incredibly smart.

With a little bit of thinking about who it is you’re presenting to the recruiter at that career fair, you can be the one with your email box overflowing and the one in the tough spot with a dozen offers to choose from.

Hopefully, one of those offers is from Square. Needless to say, we’re hiring a whole lot of people to tackle ambitious technical challenges and help us invent the future of commerce. Join us today at Jim Puls - Profile *Eternally curious.*

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