If you’re like many engineering students, you probably find the idea of attending a career fair to be a bit nerve-racking. Most of us would probably prefer just to lurk at the career fair and land an internship based on our resumes and professor recommendations and maybe a bit of osmosis. I’m getting a pit in my stomach just thinking about my own experiences, and that was 20-mumble years ago!
Why do career fairs create so much angst? While we could go on about them being an important resource for landing the internship you want, marking your professional entry into your field of study, and having too much commotion to really engage in meaningful discourse, the real reason is simpler: Not all of us are comfortable talking about ourselves—much less selling ourselves.
So how do you figure out what to talk about? The good news is that listening to what potential employers seek will provide the best clues to help you know what to say. They are seeking information about you, but ideally what you share about your projects and coursework will be in the context of their needs. Beyond that, a little planning and practice go a long way in presenting yourself as articulate and cogent, easing those sweaty palms, and standing out as a candidate. Let’s take a look….
Before the fair, take time to research participating companies, understand what they do, and get an idea of how engineering fits into their business. Basically, learn as much as you can before you go. Why? Part of it is simply showing that you’ve done your research, which gives you an advantage over those who don’t. Perhaps more importantly, this gives you some background information that helps break the ice when chatting with their representatives. Rather than arriving and asking, “What do you do?” you can arrive saying, “I understand your company does XYZ” or “I’d like to know more about the XYZ industry.” (It also provides useful details for your “elevator pitch,” discussed next.)
A good starting place for research is the career fair website, which usually lists the participating companies and sometimes internship details as well. If possible, take time to visit the websites for all the participating companies and identify where your interests and goals align. It’s tempting to explore just ones with name recognition or ones with best internship reputations, but it’s a good idea to do at least cursory research on all participating companies because you might miss opportunities that would be an unexpectedly great fit. Exploring all the companies is also a good way to learn more about what engineers in your area do, the types of applications they work on, and the types of problems they solve.
From that initial research, identify the top five or six companies that best align with your interests and goals, then explore not just what they do, but how they do it, who they hire, and what people say. Visit those companies’ websites, as well as their microsites on GlassDoor and LinkedIn, which can help you gauge corporate culture and reputation. This part does take some time, but it provides useful insights, as well as gives you potential talking points at the fair.
Imagine you’re standing in an elevator and someone asks you about what you do professionally: While the elevator takes you from the coffee cart on the first floor to your office on the 22nd floor, you’d have ~15 seconds or so to answer the question. An “elevator pitch” is a type of communication aimed at providing key details in a short amount of time. In the job fair context, you’ll use an elevator pitch when you introduce yourself to prospective employers or to reply when someone asks, “Tell me about yourself.” You’ll encounter both at a job fair.
I can hear you groaning as you read this. Many people, even seasoned professionals, find introducing themselves and starting conversations especially difficult. That’s why coming up with—and practicing—your elevator pitch is important. For most traditional students, an elevator pitch would be two or three sentences that communicate things like where you are in the program, your interest areas, and your senior project topic, among other possibilities, like this example:
“Hi, I’m Jane Smith. I’m a senior in electrical engineering with a particular interest in aerospace applications. I completed drone certification this summer and am starting on my senior project now—testing jamming and spoofing drones for military applications.”
In this example, the student has relevant experience and a good idea of what she’s interested in. And because she offers some specifics, she’s giving the hiring manager some fodder to ask questions, which then helps discussions flow.
If you’re not yet far along in your coursework, just say so:
“Hi, I’m Jane Smith. I’m a second-semester freshman interested in electrical engineering. I’m here to learn more about what electrical engineers do at various companies.”
In this example, Jane sets the expectation that she’s not yet seeking an internship, yet demonstrates that she’s proactive.
Better yet, use the company research you did before the career fair in your elevator pitch, like this:
“Hi, I’m Jane Smith. I’m a first-semester junior in electrical engineering interested in drone applications. I understand your company develops XYZ…I’d like to know more about that!”
This last example is a good one in that it shows you’ve done your homework, yet it doesn’t potentially limit the exchange if your interests, experience, or senior project topic are outside the scope of what they do. That is, while you might be very interested in drones or aerospace, you might have other interests and be open to internships in others areas. Developing an elevator pitch is a bit of a craft.
Whatever the details you identify, practice saying your elevator pitch aloud. Many job seekers make the mistake of just “practicing in their heads,” which often isn’t enough when nerves strike and all the details swimming around in your head suddenly disappear. Practicing aloud cements your words and helps ensure you don’t get tongue-tied when you’re on the spot:
If all else fails, practice in front of your cat. Or in the closet. Or in the car. Or wherever you feel comfortable. But do practice aloud. You’ll be glad you did and regret if you didn’t.
Participating companies work hard at making the career fair a friendly, positive experience. As such, it’s unlikely that you’d be asked “hardball” questions; in fact, they’re probably pretty skilled at eliciting details to help conversations flow. Even so, you should still come prepared to talk about one (maybe two) projects or courses you’ve completed, even if the experience or course is recent.
Practice talking about those details aloud, just as you should your elevator pitch. The goal isn’t to memorize, but to ensure the details are fresh in your mind for the career fair. It’s amazing how details escape us when nerves strike, even simple ones like the type of project, software used, hardware used, techniques, components, protocols, resources, libraries, reference designs, and so on. Some things to have fresh in your mind:
Again here, don’t just think through these questions, but actually talk through them with your spouse, significant other, roommate, or professor. As with your elevator pitch, talking through these things will help solidify details and help you speak fluently at the job fair.
Other details to freshen up include answers to questions about why you’re interested in engineering and what you like about (or why you chose) the program you’re in. Hobbies are good as well, as they tend to support your interest in engineering or can show well-roundedness.
Yes, you’re going to have to talk about yourself at career fairs; there’s no avoiding it. Listening to what potential employers seek will provide the best clues to help you know what to say. If you’ve researched the companies, practiced your elevator pitch, and have project/course details fresh in your mind, you might be surprised at how easily discussions flow.
Good luck! And let us know how it goes!
Deborah Ray joined Mouser in early 2017 as Executive Editor of Technical Publications, bringing more than 20 years of experience in technical publishing. As an author, she has coauthored more than 20 computer books, has published a dozen journal articles, and previously authored two nationally syndicated newspaper columns. Deborah spent 11 years as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TECHWR-L Magazine, the oldest and one of the largest online publications for technical communicators worldwide. As an educator, Deborah has taught graduate courses in technical communication at three universities, as well as undergraduate engineering communications courses, in traditional, online, and broadcast classrooms. She currently serves on the editorial board of directors for IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication.
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