How to wow an online job interviewer

September 11, 2014, 5:57 PM UTC
online job interview
Hand selecting from portrait grid on laptop screen
Photograph by Dimitri Otis—Getty Images

Dear Annie: I’m just starting my senior year in college, and the career center at my school has announced a virtual career fair, taking place in a couple of weeks, where students can “meet” a big group of potential employers online. I’ve been to a couple of in-person career fairs (I got a great summer internship at one of them last year), but I’m not familiar with the virtual kind. How do they work? Besides having a resume to upload, is there anything else I should do ahead of time? — Wondering in Wisconsin

Dear W.W.: Great question. Virtual career fairs aren’t new, but they’re rapidly growing in popularity, in large part because they’re a cost-effective way for employers to size up large numbers of far-flung candidates without having to put recruiters on airplanes.

“I’ve gotten about 75% more invitations to virtual career fairs in the past year than ever before,” says Chris Brown, vice president of human resources for West Corp., the parent of video conferencing company InterCall, which has also hosted a couple dozen online fairs.

Everyone from veterans’ groups, to career sites like Monster, to colleges like yours is sponsoring virtual recruiting events these days, Brown notes, but “Millennials are really leading the way on this. They’re much more comfortable than previous age groups with doing everything via phone or laptop.”

In some respects, a virtual job fair is similar to the face-to-face kind. Once you register for the event and log on at the appointed time, you’ll find you can download information about the employers who are participating, watch videos and, at preset times, stream live presentations. Instead of the usual career-fair booths, you’ll find chat rooms where you can drop in and ask questions.

“Often there’s also a Skype component, where you can sign up for a job interview,” says Brown. “The online setting gives you options for different ways of learning about a lot of prospective employers at once.”

To make the most of that smorgasbord of choices, do some research in advance on the companies that will be there, just as with an in-person job fair, and choose a few you’re especially interested in “meeting.” Brown suggests checking out company websites too.

“Often, employers make a lot of information available before the fair starts, so you can go in ahead of time and look around,” he says. The person who’s available in the chat room during the event may not be the right one—you may be looking for an engineering job and find yourself chatting with a marketing recruiter, for example—so “the more specific you can be about what you’re looking for, the better that recruiter will be able to connect you to the right person at the company.”

Brown offers a checklist of suggestions on how to stand out:

Test the technology when you register. “Most sponsors ask you to test the technical environment ahead of time, to make sure it works smoothly with your computer, but some people skip this step,” says Brown. Don’t. “You don’t want to waste time downloading Adobe Flash, or whatever you might have to do, while the fair is going on.”

Sign on with a professional-looking user name. Ideally, this should be your actual name, or your name plus an easy-to-remember digit or two.

Have a good photo of yourself ready to upload. Otherwise, Brown says, you’ll be visible to recruiters only as “a blank gray avatar that makes you look like you’re in the Witness Protection Program.”

Write a short profile, in addition to your resume. This takes the place of an in-person introduction, and tells briefly where you live, what kind of work you’re interested in, why you’d be a great hire, and anything else you’d like to say about yourself that your resume doesn’t cover. If you’d rather upload a short video instead, you usually can. Either way, include your contact information so recruiters can get back to you later.

Stick with standard English. “Chat rooms are usually informal, so people use texting vernacular, emoticons, and so on,” Brown notes. “But these chat rooms, where you are conversing with recruiters, are much more formal.” He even suggests typing out questions for particular employers into a Word document beforehand, proofreading carefully, then cutting and pasting them into the chat room. “This might sound overly fussy,” he admits. “But you want to come across as correct and professional.”

Make a note of recruiters’ email addresses. These usually show up on the screen in the chat rooms. You need to keep track of them—with notes to remind yourself of who was who, and what you talked about—so you can follow up when the fair is over, thanking the recruiter for her time and reminding her why you’d be a terrific hire.

Dress neatly and clean up the room that’s behind you. Sure, you can attend a virtual career fair in your dorm room, surrounded by party debris and an unmade bed, dressed in bike shorts and a ratty old t-shirt. But what if the employer of your dreams invites you to video chat? Yikes. Just in case, clean up your space, comb your hair, and be ready for your close-up.

Good luck!

Talkback: Have you ever been to a virtual career fair? What did you like, or dislike, about the experience? Leave a comment below.

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