Questions International Students Should (and Should Not) Ask at Career Fairs
Updated: Jan 28
Never ask: Do you sponsor H1-B?
Let’s face it: most career fairs are for both domestic and international students. If they’re faced with two equally qualified candidates - one domestic, one international - who is more likely to get hired? The answer is easy to find: the domestic one. Hiring domestic students is simply more convenient. In fact, many firms state clearly in their job ads that they do not sponsor work authorization.
If they don’t have a sign that reads “We do not sponsor work visa” or “For U.S. citizens and permanent residents only,” then don’t ask “Do you sponsor H1-B?” during your first meeting with an employer. Even if they say no, some students still try to convince them otherwise. Jeff Davis, global career coach at Vanderbilt, once shared with me that some students would say: “I know that your company doesn’t sponsor, but I'm really good. If you get to know me, you’ll see that I can do the job very well..”, to which the recruiters would reply “I know you're good, but we don't have a sponsorship policy”. Obviously, this is not a smart way to create conversations at career fairs.
2. Never ask: What do you have for me?
Even though I always tell my students to be confident and position themselves as a talented and qualified candidate, I also ask them to have a service mindset. Think about what you can do for the potential employer before asking for something in return. This advice is especially valid for international students. At some point, you’ll need to talk to your employer about H1-B. Show them your worth first to make the sponsorship conversation flow smoothly. Companies are dying for talent. Once you prove that you can provide value, they will try their best to keep you.
3. Never ask: What does your company do?
You should have done the homework, right? Research the attending companies before showing up at a career fair. If you haven’t done your homework, check out their website briefly on your phone before approaching their booth.
What questions should you ask then?
So what should you do at career fairs? In my previous post, I shared a few tips about what to do before and during career fairs. Don’t think of career fairs as just job opportunities. Think about the long term.
Career fairs are a great place to find mentors, explore career paths, and make connections. The representatives you meet at career fairs might come from the human resources department; they could also be hiring managers or alumni from your school who are doing well. Many of the big four consulting firms bring their consultants to career fairs on campus, so this is a good time for you to get to know them.
Take advantage of your face-to-face time with them to make yourself stand out from the crowd. Prepare a few questions to ask them and try to create meaningful conversations.
1. How long have you been working for Company A?
If they are new to the company, say “congratulations” and ask them about their interview experience. Since they are still new, they are more likely to remember the recruitment process and share tips with you.
Follow up with open-ended questions like “What was it like during your first few months at the firm?” or “What did you do before joining this company?”
2. What did you do here at University B? What was your degree?
Many of the representatives who visit your campus will be alumni of your school. Your conversation can evolve around your school and mutual connections, such as school's professors, advisors, and majors. Ask them if the school reputation gave them an advantage when applying for the job, and find out which skills their company of industry needs . Knowing the employer’s needs is key to successful personal branding and productive interviews.
3. What’s the culture like at your work?
Almost all representatives participate in career fairs because they are happy with their workplace. This question gives the representative a good chance to do the job of a brand ambassador. They can share how proud they are of their company and how much they enjoy working with their co-workers. They will normally talk about positive things, so your conversation should feel positive and enjoyable.
Since this question concerns culture, you can talk to them about trends toward diversity and inclusion. Try discussing how having international students onboard can help reach their business goals as well as their diversity goals.
4. Will you be looking for an additional team member with (skills/experience)?
This question gives you an opportunity to deliver your elevator pitch. After sharing your backgrounds and skills, then ask them about the requirements for this new position and expectations as a hiring manager.
5. How your organization copes with the new normal at work?
How each organization views and manages its workforce during a pandemic is an interesting topic to ask. As employers and employees are dealing with working remotely and planning to be back in the office while keeping it safe, it is interesting to create a conversation to find out about their new strategies to accommodate all the changes.
6. Will you have a chance to enjoy (our town / some sightseeing) before going back?
Hopefully one day we will get an onsite career fair back soon! For onsite career fairs, you can also talk about something delightful aside from the job and the company. If the person seems to be available, ask where they are located or which office they are from, if there are multiple offices around the country. When representatives visit from out of town, share the information about the festivals or attractions that visitors should not miss.
You can also ask about their city. If you've visited their city before, share your impressions of it. If you haven't been there, ask for some tips about the city. At the end of your conversation, wish them a safe trip.
7. May I contact you if I have further questions?
Normally, people will say “Yes, of course.” Instead of treating this as a job application relationship, maintain a long-term relationship if you connect with this person. Connect with them on LinkedIn and also send them a follow-up email right after the career fair. In that follow-up email, share some articles that you think this person will be interested in. You don't need to rush into sending them a resume if they don't proactively ask for it. Foster this connection as your future referrer. In future blogs, I'll share some tips that will help you get referrals.
Last but not least: Remember to ask thoughtful, open-ended questions (specifically WH-questions: who, why, where, when, and how) and not yes/no questions. Their answers to your open-ended questions will help you think about the next topic to discuss.
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