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by Cathy Vandewater | April 21, 2011


Career fairs can be intense. You'll be elbow to elbow with fellow job seekers, rattling off your elevator pitch a dozen times in a row, and competing for the attention of exhausted booth operators—and all with absolutely no guarantee of success.

So why go?job fair

Well, it's the difference between personally delivering your resume to a hiring manager instead and just hitting the send button. Consider all the advantages: a fair is a chance to show off your new suit and your sparkling personality, how much you know about a company, and your killer interview skills. It's also an opportunity to learn more about your target market and perhaps discover some cool companies you didn't know existed. All it takes to participate is a decent handshake, a sociable attitude, and some gumption. Oh, and maybe an entrance fee.

We visited the NYC Startup Job Fair to get the inside scoop on what impresses the recruiters—and what falls flat. Here's what we learned:

Go ahead—Put The Goods On Display

You're not the only one who wants to expedite the hiring process—among the booths, companies are hoping for a speedy pipeline too.

"We're probably not going to hire people on the spot, but we're definitely looking to go 90% of the way," says Ben Sussman, an applications engineer at ZocDoc, a healthcare-finding app. His company was weeding out huge numbers of job seekers with short but intense on the spot interviews—which he finds very helpful. "This is a great venue because it kind of solves everyone's problems. We get a lot of resumes, which is great, and we're able to filter them by meeting them face to face, knowing if they're a culture fit, knowing if they've got the technical skills or they're interested in the kinds of problems that we're solving."

Of course, a winning smile won't get you everywhere. Sussman tells us that being technically qualified—and able to demonstrate it—is vital at a fair.

"We ask them very technical questions, we kind of ask them their experience with different languages. It's kind of a long process," he says, "But we really wanted to get to the meat of that, so we could filter out people who didn't have the kind of experience and language skills that we need—they've got to have algorithm and technical skills."

Study Up

After you've brushed up on your technical skills, you might want to peruse the attendee list for the job fair and research the companies.

"I think that the thing that I look for is whether they first ask me about SecondMarket, or they already know about it," says Sarah Robinson. She's the recruitment coordinator for the investment trading company, and the "resume keeper" after fairs. "I usually take notes on resumes of people who stand out," she says. "I definitely put my two cents in about how they made an impact on me, how I think they'd be a culture fit, how I think the candidate would contribute to second market."

The best way to do that? Show an interest in the company. "… people who come up and ask, "what is SecondMarket?" or say, "I've been following you for a while," those are the kind of people that I find the most engaging, and who I definitely remember and keep in mind for open positions that we have available," she says.

Don't Forget to Smile

Nick Ganju, co-founder of ZocDoc, says that, while technical skills are very important, job seekers should also make a good showing of friendliness and manners—because that's a key component of his ideal candidate. "Personality-wise, I'd say it's the usual—are they a nice, personable, friendly person? I don't think it's any specific… smart, friendly, and hard working. I guess we just don't want any cranky or mean people," he says.

And don't worry too much about being a social butterfly—companies may be more accepting than you think. "Some people are more intense, and that's fine, some people are more laid back, and that's fine," says Ganju, "But just somebody you could sit next to and like to work with."

Jesse, a legal employee at Gawker Media, is also pretty open-minded at fairs. "I think all companies look for the same thing; are they a go-getter? Are they qualified? Are they sociable? All these things."

In person, companies seem to generally be a little more forgiving of quirks than they would be of an awkwardly worded, emailed resume. "I never strike anyone right off the bat," says Jesse. "I give everyone the benefit of the doubt; I think that's the right approach. You never know when you've got a diamond in the rough--so what if they're a little bit shy?"

Follow Up

Don't let your hard fair work go to waste! Most of the companies at the NYC Startup Fair recommend sending a thank you/follow up email with an electronic copy of your resume to whomever you spoke to at the fair. If you didn't get a card, try emailing through the company's web site, especially if it's a small company.

"For MediaMath, the best way is through our jobs inbox," says an associate at the digital marketing startup. "That's where we track all of our resumes… it takes a little time, but as long as they have something that we like, they're passed along."

To tilt the response scales in your favor, explicitly reference the fair and a conversation you had with your contact—bonus points for showing knowledge of the company. "I think definitely pointing out something that stuck out for them is a good idea, because it shows me that part of our conversation was important to them, and it might trigger something in my mind," says Robinson at SecondMarket. What to write? She advises you keep it short and sweet: "'We met at the fair, I enjoyed our conversation, we chatted about such and such position'—any little thing we might have specifically chatted about—and then attach the resume, just so I have it electronically," she says.

And then, have some faith! "I have kept every resume from every career fair since I started going," Robinson promises. "Every career fair has its own folder."

Remember: They want YOU

You may be surprised to learn that, according to fair organizer Aishwarya Iyer, companies vie for spots at fairs. "The first year [of the NYC Startup Fair], about 60 companies applied, and we took 35 companies. So we found immense success with that," she says. This year, the second run, "Over 120 start ups applied," she reports. "Unfortunately, due to space constraints, we had to whittle it down to just 40."

The lesson here is, companies go to fairs to find their perfect match, and they go to an awful lot of trouble to do that (setting up an attractive booth, printing materials, entrance fees)—so don't be shy about approaching them!

Even better: they might literally be looking for someone just like you. Iyer says that her fair actually selects its companies based on the job seekers who were registering. "We were seeing what kind of positions they were looking for, and looked at the companies and saw what they were looking for," she says. "[We] tried to bring in companies that were unique in a certain way and had certain numbers of applications open that would fit."

--Cathy Vandewater,


Filed Under: Job Search