Small beads of sweat have gathered on your skin and your shirt is beginning to stick to you. All your senses are on alert. With wide eyes, you look around to assess your surroundings. You don’t see any obvious predators, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not lurking in the shadows.
The moment has come—do you step into the unknown or stick to what you know?
And where exactly are you in this high-tension setting? About to embark on an Amazonian rainforest trek or a safari where you’ll be observing gorillas in their native habitat? Not quite. You’re standing outside your school’s auditorium, poised to enter a career fair.
And while the career fair (and job search in general) might seem about as far as you can imagine from the rainforest, jungle, or savanna, your experience there might not be all that different. Sure, you can leave your binoculars and hiking boots at home, but hang on to that explorer’s mindset.
I recently had the opportunity to hear a talk by Dave Evans, a Stanford professor who coaches students on how to “apply innovation principles of design thinking to the wicked problem of designing your life after college.”
One of Dave’s big pieces of advice for students—when going to a career fair, approach it as an adventurer or learner rather than a buyer or seller.
Stop thinking of career fairs (and the job search in general) as “make it or break it” situations where you either walk out with a job or you don’t.
But how exactly do you do that? Here are a few tips to help you turn your job search into an adventure.
Step 1: Understand who you’re talking to
When you go to a career fair, you never know exactly what you’re going to get. Or more precisely, who you’re going to get.
Sometimes, you might end up speaking to the CEO or one of the other executives (the highest people on the totem pole) because they believe that the process of hiring students is key to the future of their organization. (Or they’re just a super-small team and don’t actually have any recruiters.)
Or, you might end up talking to a newbie recruiter who just started last week and got thrown in at the deep end by having to attend the career fair.
Some companies put a lot of thought into who they send to career fairs and some may just round up whoever happens to be sitting near the door on the day of the event.
But that’s okay—don’t let it faze you.
Whoever you end up talking to, don’t be afraid to ask questions about their background, their role, and their responsibilities. If you’re talking to the CEO, find out why he/she started the company in the first place. No matter who you talk to, find out what they do when they’re not attending college career fairs. What does a typical day on the job look like for them? What are some of their favorite parts of their job and their company? What advice do they have for you as you’re about to embark on your career?
Try to think of these conversations as learning opportunities, the company representatives as your teachers/mentors, and the auditorium as one really big and awkward classroom.
Step 2: Look for “latent wonderfulness”
Insurance companies are boring. There are no opportunities for you in a tech company because you can’t code. No one wants to hire you because you’re a Philosophy major.
Notice a problem with all these statements? They’re all broad generalizations! And while they may be true in many situations, there are plenty of times when they are just wrong.
Some insurance/health care companies (like Kaiser Permanente, for example) have really cool initiatives where they try to tackle issues like “making the healthy choice the easy choice” or predicting and then preventing the likelihood of a certain population to develop type 2 diabetes. They also have a HUGE need for tech-savvy recent grads and not just nurses and doctors. Tech companies need human resources people. PR people. And even writers/editors. And Philosophy majors can go on to do some really cool stuff.
But you’ll never know any of that if you don’t take time to really talk to people and learn about the opportunities at their organization.
Speaking to someone face to face is a perfect opportunity to look for what Dave Evans calls “latent wonderfulness.” Take a moment to dig deeper than your initial impressions of what the company is or does. Ask if there are any alumni from your department or school who currently work there. What projects are they working on? What changes or developments are people there really excited about? What are some fun, goofy, or inspiring things that people at the organization are getting involved in?
Put on your exploring hat (the metaphorical one, since the actual one would probably look a little weird in the career fair setting) and set out to learn.
Remember—the purpose of this activity is probably not to get hired on the spot. You are learning how to explore job options, and this is a skill that will come in handy for the rest of your life. Which leads very nicely to the next point.
Step 3: Apply those skills in new contexts
This may be your first job search, but it almost certainly won’t be your last. Changes in the economy, life expectancy, and a bunch of other complicated economic and social factors mean that most people work longer years and change jobs more frequently than ever before. I’m not trying to scare you here; I just want to point out the importance of developing your explorer mindset.
Outside of the career fair, you can be an explorer in lots of different ways. You’ll want to develop your curiosity and research skills to learn about industries, jobs, and people that interest you. There are some resources out there that can help you with that step, like AfterCollege and this here blog (and of course the rest of the internet).
Another great option is job shadowing and/or externships. Did you know that a lot of employers will let you come in and hang out with someone who works there to learn about their job? And often, the best way to get ahold of these opportunities is just to ask. Yes, it can really be that simple.
If you just want to learn more about a particular job or industry, informational interviews are another essential tactic to add to your repertoire. You do a little research, you prepare some questions, and you chat with someone to learn more about their career and industry. (This is basically the same type of conversation you’d have with a company representative at a career fair, but hopefully less stressful for you).
Applying this explorer’s mentality takes the pressure off of networking and the job search in general.
Back in the auditorium, you realize that suddenly it doesn’t feel quite so stuffy. A cool breeze has picked up and you feel yourself start to relax. You remind yourself that this is not a life or death situation. There are no tigers waiting to rip you to shreds or wildebeests about to stampede. You’re merely on a little adventure and your destination is just the next step of your life.
The next step: What other situations could you apply the explorer mentality to? Try to maintain an attitude of curiosity and look for opportunities to learn not just in your job search but other areas of your life as well.