In 2004, I received 5 job offers from 5 different companies in 5 different industries at the Annual Career Conference for the National Society of Hispanic MBAs (NSHMBA). I ultimately decided to accept the offer from Microsoft and ended up spending seven amazing years in Seattle on the Xbox 360 team. By most standards and my own estimation, that experience at the National Conference was a huge success. While I was already an officer (President-Elect) of the Puerto Rico chapter of NSHMBA at that time, this experience solidified my resolve to constantly give back to this great organization so that others can reap similar rewards. As such, I co-founded the NSHMBA Seattle Chapter in 2005 and served as President for 4 years. In that period of time, I’ve spoken at many events for NSHMBA members to share the strategies I employed at the conference as a job seeker. Since I’ve worn several different hats at the NSHMBA Conference, I provide feedback from multiple perspectives. I have attended ten of the last eleven conferences as an MBA Student, an MBA graduate (some call us “industry-hires”), a NSHMBA Chapter Officer, and a Corporate Recruiter. In that last role, I attended the conference six years as a volunteer recruiter for Microsoft, and have looked at several hundred resumes and spoken with hundreds of candidates.
With the 2012 NSHMBA National Conference just a month away (October 4-6, 2012 in Orlando, Florida), I feel it is a good time to share my tips on a broader scale so that new attendees can maximize their time at the event. While I speak from my experience at the NSHMBA Conference, most of these tips can be employed at any type of national or local career fair. So, without further ado, here is my top 12 list of tips for the NSHMBA National Conference.
1) Focus on your résumé – this is obviously the first and one of the most important focus areas for any job seeker. I can’t count the number of times I’ve met an obviously intelligent and articulate candidate that has presented me with a lackluster résumé. If you have a great résumé, skip this section and go straight to tip #2 since this is a long one.
For those that have not been on the recruiting side, here’s how it works for most large companies. The Human Resources (HR) and Talent Acquisition teams are in attendance to coordinate the organization’s presence at the conference and “train” all of the corporate recruiting volunteers. These volunteers are generally hiring managers or individuals employed in the fields for which career opportunities exist (i.e. managers from finance, marketing, sales, etc.) . For the large companies, the volunteer recruiters generally outnumber the talent acquisition representatives, so the HR reps coordinate and sync with the volunteers to identify the top candidates for on-site interviews, phone interviews, and fly-backs (an in-person interview at the company’s location).
Now that you have that background, it might be easier to understand why the résumé is still critical even in a face-to-face environment like a career fair. I may like you as a potential candidate, but I will have a difficult time selling you to the talent acquisition team if that potential is not reflected in your résumé, especially with other volunteer recruiters talking with other candidates and selling the HR reps on the individuals they felt were top notch.
In addition, of the hundreds (going on thousands) of résumés that I have seen at these conferences, over 90% from my personal experience are simply too poor to consider seriously. I would highly encourage everyone to have friends, family members, fellow NSHMBA members, chapter officers, etc. look at your résumé before you print hundreds of copies. There are dozens of free online resources you can use to improve your résumé. That isn’t the focus of this blog post, but I will briefly highlight the top areas for improvement I have seen:
a) Be clear what you are looking for. Don’t make the recruiter guess what position you are seeking, because with so many candidates, most people won’t take the time. Many MBA students have lots of experience in lots of different fields, and some (like me) are career switchers. Therefore, clearly state your objective at the top. If you are looking for opportunities in different fields (i.e. both marketing and corporate strategy), make a unique résumé for each objective and be selective which one you hand out.
b) The majority of résumés I have seen list “Responsibilities” with no “Accomplishments”. Any person in your role would have your set of responsibilities, what sets you apart is what you’ve accomplished in that role. As a general rule, you should have one MAJOR accomplishment for each year that you’ve been in a role. Plus, never start off with “Responsible for..”. That is a passive voice and there is always a better way to say something in an active voice. For example, instead of “Responsible for managing a team….”, just say “Managed a team….”
c) Spelling and grammatical areas. Some recruiters don’t care, most do. It is more than once that I’ve seen someone’s strength listed as “Strong attention to detal [sic]”, having misspelled “Detail”, or listing “Manager” as “Manger”. Once again, have a fresh set of eyes review your résumé. The résumé is a reflection of you, so don’t give the impression that you didn’t take the time to proofread your résumé
d) For some, forget the “One Page Rule”. This is a controversial one because so many people insist on compressing your résumé onto one page. If you have a ton of experience, don’t sell yourself short by squeezing it onto one page. I’d rather see a full list of accomplishments across two pages, than a short list of responsibilities on only one page. (See my other post, “Résumé Myths – The One-Page Résumé”)
2) Apply for interviews online on NSHMBA’s conference site well in advance – Most companies will close their online application process for the conference at least a week or two before the start of the conference to allow themselves time to review all the resumes and applications submitted and decide whom they will reach out to for an on-site interview. It is a lot easier to get an on-site interview in advance than it is to get one at the conference (although not impossible, and I write about that below). You want to get your interviews on-site, since the process from on-site interview to job offer is much faster than waiting for a follow-up call for a phone interview after the conference. Also, more companies are starting to move to making offers directly at the conference, so securing that interview schedule in advance will allow you to better prepare for that all-important interview.
3) Prioritize your list of companies and do your research – there are over 200 organizations at this career fair so it can become daunting. It would be impossible to visit or do research on every company at the conference, so don’t bother. Do some homework only on your top 10 companies. Look for recent news articles, know the CEOs, understand their products and/or services, get a rough idea of how their business divisions are set up, understand their priority global markets. For your top three to five companies, go even deeper. What is their most recent stock price and how has their stock performed in the past five years? What are their top strategic priorities and most immediate challenges? Who are their key competitors and how are their products/services differentiated? Find out the names of their key officers, especially in the field to which you are applying (for example, if you are applying to marketing, who is their CMO? For finance, who is the CFO? etc.) When you have an opportunity to speak with a recruiter or representative from that company, ask intelligent questions based on your research of that company. I can tell you that leaves a lasting impression, because so few candidates actually do this. I had one conference attendee ask me (no joke), “So, what does Microsoft do?”. You can take a guess as to who was not even in the consideration set after that question.
4) Arrive early and visit your top companies on the FIRST day of the career fair – There are a few reasons why I make this recommendation. First, you will have a better opportunity to spend more time speaking to the representatives of the company of your choice early in the morning on the first day. Things don’t pick up until later, at which point you will find very long lines at the top tier companies (it is not unusual to wait an hour to speak to a representative during the “rush-hour”). Even if you want to “practice” talking to representatives from companies you are not that interested in to get rid of the jitters before talking to your top choices, make sure to talk to ALL of your top companies before noon on the first day.
Second, you will set yourself apart by talking to your top tier companies before your fellow job seekers (aka “competitors”). The recruiters are all fresh and eager to get started on the very first day. By the end of the conference, many folks are tired and want to go home. Get them while they’re fresh. Also, being first shows you’re eager to speak with someone from that company, which always comes off as a positive attribute to these representatives. If you wait until the last hours of the last day of the conference, the reps will tend to feel that you are not as serious as other candidates, and are just there as a back-up. No one wants to feel like someone’s last choice, especially when they have options of people that made them their first choice.
Finally, many companies will keep a portion of their interview slots open to give to high potential candidates that they meet at the conference. They will generally tend to fill up these open interview slots on the first day of the career conference. I received four of my seven interviews at the 2004 conference by asking for them at the career fair on the first day or the corporate receptions (more on this later). As mentioned, your goal should be to get an interview at the conference. If you wait until the second day (or even the end of the first day), all of those open interview slots will likely be filled.
5) Prepare and practice your elevator pitch – every MBA student knows what an elevator pitch is, but many don’t have one. If you don’t, you can find a ton of online resources to help you generate one. Create your personalized elevator pitch and then practice it, OUT LOUD, in front of a mirror, fellow student, colleague, parent, or pet. You must feel comfortable with it and it should come out as second nature. However, be flexible with it so that you can adjust to the changing circumstances of your environment and audience. As mentioned, for most of the top tier companies, there will be long lines of potential candidates that the company representatives need to go through. You may only have two minutes to make your impression and speak about why you are a good fit for the company. A bit of preparation goes a long way in making that first impression.
6) Always be prepared for an interview – it has happened to me at the conference, and I have done it to potential candidates. One second you’re giving your elevator pitch to a company representative, the next minute you are squeezed into an interview slot for that same company. In the 2008 conference, I met an outstanding candidate at the career fair, but our company ran out of formal interview slots. So I went to a quiet area of the career hall and gave her an interview on the spot. I will continue to emphasize that your goal should be to get that interview, so if you get it, you might not have time to prepare for it. Prepare in advance! If you followed tip #3, you already know something about this company, but perhaps it wasn’t a company for which you prepared to interview. No matter! The vast majority of interviews you will have will be behavioral interviews, so you should prepare answers for these types of questions in advance and know them cold. Standard questions such as “What is your greatest strength/weakness?”, “What is your greatest achievement?”, “Give me some examples of your leadership/teamwork/communications skills”, etc. etc. Once again, there are plenty of online resources to help you identify the most common behavioral interview questions. Type each of these questions into Word document, then type out multiple answers for each question. Read these out load BEFORE the conference. The point is not to memorize these answers, but to bring to the top of your memory examples from your prior work experience that you will be asked about. I have interviewed many candidates with these standard questions, and can easily tell those that prepared versus those that did not. Some people will argue that if you practice these in advance, it will sound pre-fabricated and the recruiter will know. That does NOT matter. I know when someone has prepared answers for these questions in advance, and I can tell you that I far prefer to speak to someone who is prepared than to someone who has to take five minutes to think about how to answer “What is your greatest strength”. Be prepared.
7) Attend the Corporate Receptions – most companies will throw a reception, party, or small get-together for interested candidates. Many of these will be open to all conference attendees, some are by invitation only. If you are interested in a company that is throwing an open reception, you should absolutely attend. This is the opportunity to speak with representatives away from the chaos of the career fair floor. You will have more time with less pressure to speak with them, and you will get to speak with many more representatives than you could at the career fair. Don’t miss out. Please remember that the companies are there to hire people, so even at the receptions, we are looking for talent. So don’t forget to bring your résumé and DON’T GET WASTED (even if the recruiters do). You should treat these events as a large group interview, so behave accordingly.
8) Build Rapport – HR reps, hiring managers, company representatives, and recruiters are all just people. It’s important to build rapport with them, because many times they are thinking “Is this the type of person I’d want to work with?” and “Are they a good fit for our corporate culture?” Building rapport takes time, so this is difficult to do at the career fair booths because of the long lines and time constraints. Therefore, try to do this at the corporate receptions, lunch meetings, dinners, etc. If you are at the career fair booth during a slow time, feel free to take your time with the recruiters to build rapport. Also, don’t hesitate to check back on your top companies to see if the lines have died down and ask the reps how they are doing. As long as you don’t overdo it (see tip #10 below), you will be more memorable and they’ll know that you are truly interested in the company.
9) Ask for an Interview – As I mentioned earlier, many companies will keep a small number of interview slots open for high potential candidates that they meet at the conference. I specifically asked for an interview for the majority of the on-site interviews I received at the conference in 2004. As a speaker at a breakout session at a NSHMBA Conference, I once mentioned the fact about interview slots and my success in directly asking for interviews, and the results proved to be disastrous. I had a couple of candidates come up to me at the career fair and, before even introducing themselves, directly asked me for an interview slot. I naturally told them no. They missed the basic point that these are reserved for high-potential candidates, so just asking for an interview without an elevator pitch (tip #5) or building rapport (tip #8) was absolutely the wrong way to go about doing it.
There are two main times when you will have an opportunity to ask for an interview. The first one is at the career fair AFTER you’ve given your elevator pitch and AFTER the representative seems to be done with the conversation (see tip #10 below). If they have not offered to interview you on-site by this point, you can then state your great interest in working for the company and the desire to be interviewed should they have any slots open. If they do not, ask them at least for an invitation to their corporate reception (if it is not public).
The second opportunity is at a corporate reception AFTER you’ve built rapport with a representative. If things seem to be going well, once again, express your desire to be part of the company and ask if they have any open slots for you to interview at the conference. If things do NOT seem to be going well, try to move on to another representative and repeat the process. You will have greater success getting an interview slot with someone you’ve made a positive connection with, but if you ask prematurely, you may have used up your options. Be selective about when you ask.
10) Observe visual and verbal cues – When speaking to a recruiter, don’t be oblivious to visual/verbal cues that your time is up. Representatives are there to network and meet as many high potential candidates as possible, so don’t monopolize their time. Take enough time to build rapport (tip #8), but if there is a line forming or you see the representative fidgeting/looking around/checking their watch, etc., it’s time to move on. This is especially true if they directly tell you that they have to speak to other candidates. I’ve had candidates take up an inordinate amount of my time, and trying to be direct without being rude, I have told them that I need to move on. They have literally refused to let me go because they have one or two more things they want to say. That certainly does not leave a positive impression. Thank the representative for their time, ask them if it is ok if you can contact them for questions and/or advice, then move on to do some more networking of your own.
11) Network with your peers – your peers and colleagues are a valuable resource at the conference, so don’t overlook them. They may have heard about an opportunity that is not of interest to them, but may be of interest to you. When I was an MBA student at one of these conferences, I met someone who knew someone who was an intern at P&G in Puerto Rico. I asked them to point her out to me, I met with her and talked about her experiences, and she connected me with the recruiter that hired her the previous summer. I followed up with that recruiter and ultimately landed a position at P&G in Puerto Rico. One of the many advantages of being at a conference versus applying for positions online is the sheer number of people you can meet in person. Take advantage of this available network and don’t forget that networking is a two-way street. Pass along information and opportunities to others that may benefit.
12) Don’t get discouraged – I had a professional career recruiter (not associated with any company), look at my resume and tell me that I would have a tough time finding another marketing position since I had relatively little marketing experience (even though it was with P&G) compared to my technical experience. I had a total of seven interviews at the conference and turned down two requests for fly-back interviews since I was crisscrossing the country interviewing at my top five companies (all for marketing positions). Needless to say, she was completely off the mark. Stay focused and stay positive. It is not as hard as you would think to set yourself apart from thousands of other candidates. Little things go a long way to make you memorable to the recruiters who are there to hire top talent. If you are truly excited about the opportunity and the company, that comes across and you will achieve your goals if you are qualified for what you are seeking.
Feel free to leave any questions or feedback in the comments section below. For a more rapid response, you can ping your questions through Twitter to @Rich_Velazquez and I’d be happy to address them for everyone to benefit.
For those seeking a new career opportunity at the 2012 NSHMBA National Career Conference or any other career fair, I wish you the best of luck.