Timeless Gems of Career Fair Advice

By following recommendations compiled from the writings of the late Walter McFall, champion of women engineers’ career advancement, you will make the most of the opportunities at WE21.

Longtime SWE friend and advocate Walter McFall, who had been in failing health, died Aug. 26 at age 87. McFall received SWE’s Rodney D. Chipp Memorial Award in 1997 for his unfailing encouragement of up-and-coming women engineers, whether that meant rewriting their resumes or urging them to earn their Ph.D.s. He was the longest-serving member of SWE’s editorial board, where he shared insights gleaned from his 41-year career at Argonne National Laboratory. He stepped down from the editorial board in 2017.

Following are some of McFall’s timeless gems of advice that will live on, continuing to help conference-goers navigate the event wisely and efficiently. You may find yourself smiling at his unfailing belief in good eye contact and a strong handshake, which, even amid a COVID pandemic, you can convey with a confident presence, in place of making physical contact.

His wise words below, taken from SWE Magazine articles that were based on his conference workshops, stand the test of time.

eager crowd at conference
Eager job seekers enter the career fair, one of the highlights of the annual conference.

Do your research before the conference starts

What is your goal? To pursue a summer internship, find your dream job, or identify a cooperative work education program?

Delve into the list of companies with a presence at the career fair. Research those companies online. Before you even approach a prospective employer, know what the firm does, its product line or service, its relative size in the industry, and whether it is profitable.

Come prepared with a list of ideal companies for which, if given the opportunity, you would like to work. Compare this fantasy list to the career fair realities and you will have the foundation for a personal strategy of those companies that are a must for you to visit.

Develop a personal strategy

That means defining yourself and your skill set in a logical, concise manner. You can start by using a model for self-assessment developed by New York City management consultant Tom Jackson, who titled his technique, “Defining your Magnificence.” This technique is laid out in his book, The Perfect Resume.

The beauty of this technique is that it is applicable to both the novice and professional. If one enumerates one’s personal skills, interests, and abilities, this technique tends to identify a set of overlapping attributes defined as one’s strengths. These strengths should be incorporated into your resume no matter which format you use (e.g., chronological or functional, etc.)

massive career fair
With hundreds of companies, universities, and institutions, the career fair has been the place to be whether looking for an internship or job, or just surveying the landscape.

Have a booth strategy

Go to as many booths as possible to ask questions and to get to know the booth representatives. Seek guidance and take advantage of any mentoring they might extend. Acquire the names of people you may need to contact with each corporation or institution. Go to as many booths as possible to also compare how each industry or institution sees an individual with your skill set and how you can prosper in your career there.

Once you have greeted the recruiter with eye contact, resume in hand, and a short statement about yourself, here are some additional questions you might ask:

  • What is the typical career path in my field?
  • What is the organizational structure?
  • Where might I fit in?
  • What is the number of plants, offices, and size of staff?
  • What is the workforce diversity?
  • What is the potential for new markets, products, and services?
  • Does the company have structured or unstructured training?
  • What is the formal versus on-the-job training?
  • What is the average time in nonmanagement assignments?
  • What is the name of the recruiter?
  • What is the interview cycle/process?
career fair crowd
Anticipating the opening of the career fair, the size of the crowd at WE13 was a testament to the value of the event. In subsequent years, the size of the career fair and overall conference has grown significantly.

Break through the endless stream of emails and text messages by bringing business cards. Make sure you list personal contact information such as your name, mailing address, email address, telephone number, and some affiliation. For both students and professionals, the affiliation can be as simple as your institution or even SWE. You might even consider putting a QR code on your business card so it can be easily scanned.

Remember, appearance and carriage are crucial first impressions. Be aware that booth representatives tend to wear corporate-casual “uniforms.” The philosophy here is to demonstrate corporate teamwork and identify booth representatives. It’s a chance to show your maturity and insight into this aspect of professionalism.

Give yourself time to make repeat visits to the booths or representatives of the companies or institutions that you’ve encountered. The second round of visits should comprise as many of the remaining booths as your schedule and the length of the career fair permit.

You should set aside enough time for your third round of visits, which should consist of those booths in which you felt you were warmly received and given some optimism in line with your expectations. Any combination of two of the three suggested rounds of visits should form your backup strategy.

A little more time is offered if your credentials are aligning with the needs of the organization. Usually, an invitation to further discuss your credentials outside of the career booth is an optimistic sign.

On closing your visit, you leave after another firm handshake (pre-COVID) with good eye contact and an indication that, at your earliest convenience, you will follow up any request made by the representative as it relates to your credentials.

If you leave the booth feeling optimistic, you should return later and convey to whoever is available in the booth your continued interest and willingness to follow up as recommended. A handwritten thank you note, email message, or telephone message a day or two after the event is an appropriate follow-up gesture.

 Remember to be honest, have fun, be yourself, and NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK.

Editor’s Note: Please see the In Memoriam in this issue, celebrating Walter McFall’s life and contributions.