By Gaurav Kale
Picture the following: it’s week five of fall quarter and, more importantly, your first year as a mechanical engineer at UCLA. You monitor Handshake daily, searching for that elusive first- year internship. Donning your best (and only) navy blue suit, you make the long walk down Bruin Walk, carrying a dozen copies of your resume in your portfolio. Pockets weighed down with hopes and business cards, you enter Pauley.
Days of research, practiced pitches, and advice panels are on your side. Making your way to the grand concourse, you lock eyes with the Amazon representative. This is your chance, an internship awaits. In reality, however, the only waiting that day is getting stuck in line behind 30 other versions of you. Welcome to the College Career Fair, where the only thing emptier than the list of potential benefits is your resume.
This semi-anecdotal experience is common for many students: long days of waiting in lines end in instruction to “apply on the website.” Ultimately, there’s much that both employers and potential employees lose in the antiquated process of a college career fair.
From a student’s perspective, these are a waste of time. Going to a job fair held on campus and waiting in line for the same companies as half the school offers the same chance of creating meaningful connections as pressing submit on a Handshake internship posting. Sure, there might be the sliver of a chance that you end up benefiting from the limited personal interaction, but when most of your resume looks similar to a majority of your peers, there’s little chance for differentiation. On top of that, now you wasted an entire day waiting in line, with nothing to show for it but some “cool tech swag.”
The free water bottles and t-shirts companies hand out almost seem like admissions of guilt for wasting everyone’s time. Yours, for pitching and researching a company you had no true interest in joining, and theirs, for having to act like they’re about to hire thirty hopeful, deserving candidates on the spot. Additionally, companies lose out on a lot of talent and revenue. According to Glassdoor, campus career fairs account for nearly 75% of a recruiter’s budget, and that’s without tacking on the price of hotel and flight bookings. Weigh that against the crowd a college fair attracts — generally desperate upperclassmen or underqualified underclassmen — and it seems ridiculous that companies still show up to these. With the high costs that these run, at times smaller companies with raw potential cannot even afford to send reps to fairs, limiting hiring options for students that do have a small shot.
This is not to say that all career fairs are a waste of time. Fairs that focus on what they want (for example, a fair for only electrical engineers) or add a qualifier in some way (charging $30 for entry or enforcing a GPA cutoff) do still continue to work on both ends, reducing wait times and competition for the students while sifting the top performers for the companies themselves. In these cases, where in-person hires are expected, the system really does work.
Sadly, college career fairs lack the exclusiveness and level of specificity required for smooth operating. In the face of this problem, the student body has turned to the de facto solution: cold emailing. Through conversations with tens, maybe even twenties of upperclassmen, I’ve gotten the same advice: find a company you want to work for, email them personally, and try to set up a call. Rinse and repeat. This ensures that we only reach out to companies we have a genuine interest in working under and optimizes our time. While it may seem shadier than pressing “apply” on LinkedIn or talking to a hiring manager at a fair, it’s a proven way to actually demonstrate the research you did on a company. Furthermore, instead of competing against 500 other people on Handshake, your competition drops to a handful of like-minded individuals. Ultimately, this method has seemed to be successful for many students across several fields.
But for employers and universities, there’s an even bigger chance for change: ditch the campus-wide career fair. Instead, work to provide company information sessions and workshops on campus. These ensure that only people invested in a role at the organization come out, and with a smaller audience, scouting talent becomes easier as well. Another strategy would be for the University to host more student exhibitions for projects and research. Companies who send reps to such events would get to experience the talent of the student body firsthand. For once, they’d be able to pick talent from a glance instead of being obligated to entertain every freshman looking for free tote bags.
But by far, the biggest issue with career fairs today is their lack of personal connection. It seems like an oxymoron, but one of the biggest complaints recruiters have is just that. Whether it’s due to dismissive reps or the many students who view each interaction as just another item on their list, the process has turned overly mechanical. When what’s supposed to be a conversation is treated as an online application, everyone misses out on the original intention of the fair: forming real connections.
At the end of the day, any move towards eliminating or streamlining college career fairs is going to take time and effort. In the meantime, keep cold emailing — separate yourself from the Handshake crowd. And when the occasional company information session crops up, try to make yourself present. With some luck, you might never go to one of these again.