Working the job fair

August 14, 2007, 8:26 PM UTC
Fortune

After a week on the road doing my civic duty — that is, recruiting at the National Association of Black Journalists convention — I have to say I missed you guys! (But don’t be sad for me; sure it was hectic, but it was also in Las Vegas, which even at 105 degrees, is at least as fun as the office ;o). And while I did have a good time chatting with young journalists at the Time Inc. booth, the hilarity that transpired there also provided good fodder for us. So for those of you heading to a job fair — or even into an interview — sometime soon, a few notes from my own recruiting experience…

  • Calm down. We know you’re hyped, but not everyone wears this state of heightened agitation well. Case in point: A young man sat down to speak with a very senior (and exceedingly sweet) gentleman from one of our biggest titles — and basically proceeded to yell for 15 minutes. Not at my colleague exactly, but about the industry, the wrongs he’d suffered, what he would and would not do now as a result, and various other topics that made him seem just a tad antagonistic (if not downright crazy). This might help you stand out, but it’s probably not your best strategy for getting a gig. And incidentally, neither is the opposite — being so excited and/or obsequious that you sound like Clueless on fast-forward. So as Dr. Phil might say, take a good honest look at yourself, and if you tend toward any behavior that might frighten or otherwise arouse undesirable emotions in your recruiters, do whatever it takes to stem it. Seriously — do yoga, burn incense, listen to Enya, whatever — just do it, and save us and yourself.
  • Templates are not the final answer. If I have to read, “This letter is to express my interest in blah, blahblah, blah, blah,” one more time, I may throw myself out a window. (Or to use one of my favorite words, defenestrate myself.) Unless you’re applying for a job as the most boring person ever, don’t succumb. Just about every cover letter your recruiter reads will start with some variation of this sentence, which means you’ve lost a key opportunity to distinguish yourself. Of course, this is not to say that you ought to substitute stream of consciousness either — clarity is still king in these exercises — but surely we bright young people can find one or two clear and creative ways to catch a recruiter’s eye. (For example, give your letter a head with the job title/ID and where it was listed, so that you can spend the first paragraph talking about why you’re perfect for the job instead of how you found it on Monster.) And while, with resumes, it isn’t as important to be creative in the traditional sense — colored paper and overwrought fonts will probably hurt more than help — it is crucial to make sense. If you haven’t had any real jobs, for instance, it might not be prudent to title your main section, “Work Experience,” a move more likely to draw attention to your lack of actual experience than to underscore how all the other great things you’ve done might help you succeed in a future job. Templates are great, especially if you’re just starting out, but they’re only a jumping-off point, so take the time to think about how to best express your unique experience and abilities.
  • And other people’s advice can be pretty bad, too. With networks like most of us have — parents, professors, coaches, college friends — advice comes easy. Some of it is great, and it’s important to listen to people who’ve already been where you’re trying to go, but do some independent thinking, too. One eager journalism student stopped by to talk to me and was surprised when took her resume and cover letter out of the letter-sized envelope she’d provided to file them. She’d been told that putting them in an envelope was the only way to keep them from getting lost once she handed them over. But given the file cabinet-style storage system favored by most of the recruiters, it turned out to be just about the only way to insure that they did get lost — dwarfed by all the looseleaf pages and in danger of slipping through to obscurity at the bottom of the box. Don’t get too caught up in trying to follow every “rule” of the process (by now a Gen Y refrain :o); if it sounds wrong, it often is.
  • For the questions you can anticipate, try to have an answer. Chances are, if you’re at a job fair, someone is going to ask you what you want to do. “Anything” is not the right response. It may be true, but it doesn’t really help a recruiter figure out where to put you — other than in the trash. So think about some potential job functions, and be ready to talk about your ideal position. That said…
  • Sure, you want to be CEO, but not right now. Since it’s highly unlikely that anyone’s recruiting for CEO, it’s probably best to keep that one to yourself for now. Everyone has goals, and if a recruiter asks you where you’d like to be in 20 years, by all means share. But short of that, it’s a little off-putting when someone who hasn’t even graduated from school starts a conversation by saying they want to be in charge. That’s only cute when you’re five. And while most people at our stage of life aspire to some sort of moguldom — and some will no doubt realize those dreams — at 22, it’s pretty special just to have a good, paying job in your field where you’re actually learning something. So concentrate on that for the time being, and let the top spot come to you.
  • Don’t hit on recruiters. I’d have thought this one would be obvious, but I’d be wrong. True, some recruiting environments, Vegas among them, lend themselves to a certain abandon. But even if I give a free pass to the countless people I met job-searching by day and later saw otherwise engaged by night, there would still be the many who seemed to be shamelessly relying on their good looks and flirtatious nature to score a call back. It could be subconscious — cute people get a lot of positive feedback this way, after all — but if you catch yourself batting your eyelashes or smirking devilishly at your recruiter, cease and desist immediately. We like charming. We don’t like sexual harassment. Save all that romancing for people who you don’t want to hire you.