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College Career Fairs Are Obsolete

by Jun 13, 2014, 12:03 am ET

career_fair_fall_2012Perhaps I’m being a bit unfair. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for companies to attend college career fairs (where else will all those free pens and t-shirts go?), but rarely does it include discovering and interviewing the best students.

There seems to be a perception among many companies that attending career fairs at a few top universities is enough of an effort when it comes to hiring interns and new-grads. To those companies: The best university recruiting programs don’t focus on career fairs.

There are multiple reasons for this.

First, many students do not attend career fairs. Most students already have interviews or offers, schedule conflicts, or would rather nap between classes. Second, career fairs are not the ideal setting to get to know students well. It’s loud, crowded, and seemingly unnatural. Finally, there are usually many other companies that students want to speak with before they get to you.

Unless you are a brand-name company that students recognize, you may find yourself explaining what your company does to a handful of students the entire day, rather than meeting quality candidates. On top of that, most students you spend the entire time speaking with will not be a fit for the roles you’re looking to fill (major, class year, experience, etc.).

Below are a few ways that companies can optimize their university recruiting strategies and build a stronger pipeline to recruit interns and new-grads:

Discover the most difficult courses on campus and find the students who excelled in them. The easiest way to discover the most difficult courses on campus is to ask students or alumni. Some universities also post course medians, where you can research difficult courses that are relevant to the roles you’re trying to fill (Example: Dartmouth Course Medians). From there, send a friendly, personalized email (explain why you targeted their course and what you’ve heard from students) to professors of those courses introducing yourself and a bit about your company. It’s not appropriate to ask for a list of students and specific names — instead, let them know that your company is hiring and you are available to speak with any of their top students or mentees who are interested.

Target specific student organizations or programs on-campus. Every school is different, but great students tend to hang out with other great students. For example, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign consistently has an amazing group of students in its Association for Computing Machinery organization. For other schools, however, the ACM student organization isn’t very active or competitive. Target honor organizations or fraternities, as well as competitive co-op programs or research fellowships. Even better, send personalized messages to student leaders of these organizations that may be a fit for your company.

Target specific internships and programs off-campus. Look for students who have interned at selective and competitive companies. This may be an obvious one, but employers tend to only use this rule of thumb once a resume has been submitted to them. It’s easy to find these candidates before they apply. Use LinkedIn or Facebook’s Graph Search and send a friendly message via LinkedIn or email.

Don’t just look for brand name companies you’re familiar with, but ask new grads which companies students were attracted to. For example, during my time working with Stanford students, Palantir seemed to be a very popular place for top students to intern. Ask your fellow employees where they worked or interned in the past. You may discover a pattern that may help your company target great new-grad talent.

Besides internships, participants in competitive programs outside of college campuses can also be great candidates (Collegiate InventorsPublic Policy and International Affairs Junior Summer InstituteCollege Mock TrailSolar Decathlon, etc.).

Target specific awards on campuses. Understand which awards or scholarships are the most competitive on campus or within majors. Some are very specific for each school, but you just have to do some research. For example, the top 5 percent of Cornell University grads are named Merrill Presidential Scholars. Top students admitted to the University of California campuses are named Regents Scholars. Some universities even have prestigious programs within certain departments; for example, University of Pennsylvania’s highly selective Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology.

Target students who are studying abroad. Students who study abroad are often untapped due to companies focusing too much with on-campus recruiting methods, like career fairs. If your company is flexible with virtual interviews and can move quickly forward to the offer process, reaching out to students while they are studying abroad may be another way to find great intern and full-time candidates. Often times, universities have study abroad offices that keep in touch with students while they are away. Ask them to send a blurb about your company to students who may be interested in interning or working with you, encouraging them to apply or get in touch.

Side note: Students who have successfully studied abroad can make for great candidates. Depending on their abroad experience, many understand how to adapt to new situations, can be more culturally sensitive and accommodating, and have had practice interpreting multiple perspectives.

The best university recruiting programs start intense planning around late spring and beginning of summer, months in advance before students go back to campus around August and September. Start thinking about ways you could use your product and brand to create a strong and unique recruiting program.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Valentino Martinez

    I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss college career fairs. They have never disappointed me over the years because I’ve applied a lot of what you recommend plus a few things I’ve concocted over the years to do while I’m also on campus for a career fair.

    The challenge is mustering the right team; positioning them; and coordinating to have a broad impact on campus which includes attending the career fair.