Standing out from the crowd

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Like many college students, Mike Wilkie has had his fair share of jobs. A Penn State senior studying materials science and engineering, Wilkie has had two summer internships and worked part time in construction and at campus fitness centers throughout college. But with graduation approaching in December, he knew it was time to begin looking for another gig: his first full-time position.

He started — and ended — his search at Penn State’s Fall Career Fair.

In September, Wilkie spent more than three hours zigzagging his way through a crowd of thousands of other Penn State students — past rows of tech, engineering and science companies — to locate, stand in line and chat with the 20 or so recruiters on his “favorites” list.

The expedition secured him three job interviews and one offer — so far.

While Wilkie isn’t new to campus career fairs (it’s where he found last summer’s engineering internship), this was the first time he was able to use a Penn State career fair and wayfinding app to help make the experience less overwhelming and more productive.

“Penn State’s career fairs are fantastic ways for students to connect with employers. They give you the chance to spark someone’s interest with your personality, as opposed to relying solely on how you look on paper,” Wilkie said. “There are hundreds of companies to talk to — and they’re all hiring. The app helped me research the best companies based on my job category and then use GPS to find my way to them without getting lost.”

Nearly half of the record-setting 10,435 students who swarmed the fall fair downloaded the iOS and Android app, according to Sherry Rice, career fair coordinator for Penn State Career Services.

Unlike past career fairs where Penn State students relied solely on pamphlets and a website for all their research needs, the app enabled them to access a personal schedule builder, sortable list of recruiters, daily agendas with lists of workshops and speakers, and interactive floor plan maps for navigating the busy fair.

“Today, students rely on their phones for making connections and seeking information, so Career Services introduced the app to make it easier for them to research potential employers and post their résumés and LinkedIn profiles for recruiters to view,” Rice said. “With more than 500 employers, Penn State Fall Career Fair is so large that we chose this particular app over others in part because of its interactive features, like the GPS maps.”

The wayfinding piece enabled students like Wilkie to find their ways to booths set up in such difficult-to-locate areas of the Bryce Jordan Center (BJC) as the south annex gymnasium (where Penn State’s basketball teams practice) by drawing a walkable GPS route from a student’s current location to their destination.

Penn State isn’t the only school embracing the modernity of apps to elevate campus career fairs. Such universities as the University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan and Northwestern University, among others, have also used apps to help make it easier for students to discover and connect with companies at these events. While Career Services is still exploring the possibility of using the same or similar apps at future career fairs, so far, student feedback has been positive.

Natalie Larson, a Penn State junior studying marketing and international business, says the app helped her get her bearings at the event.

“I’ve been to the career fair the past two years, so I knew what I was walking into — it’s a big deal and takes a lot of planning to get the most out of it,” Larson said. “As soon as I heard about the app I knew I had to download it immediately. The day of, I made sure my phone was charged and I planned out my route.”

Since Rice helps organize nine fairs each academic year, the app is only one piece of technology she and her team use for managing the data for the hundreds of employers and thousands of students who attend their University Park events.

They use an online database tool called Simplicity to keep track of registration information for companies — what industry they’re in, the positions they’re hiring for and whether or not they’ll be doing on-site interviews. Coupled with the information Simplicity learns about students when they swipe their student IDs at the career fair — including majors, colleges, class levels and more — the tool helps Career Services make decisions about the types of in-demand companies to invite to future fairs and new opportunities for workshops and student programming.

“We tell our students to attend workshops, get help with their résumés, dress professionally, have an elevator pitch ready and define their personal brands,” Rice said. “On our end, we strive to make sure we’re providing really great opportunities to students. Technology helps us assess who are we currently serving, who are we missing, how we can expand our reach, what services are going well and what services we should improve. It’s invaluable to our mission.”

Larson says it’s precisely these kinds of resources and support from Career Services, coupled with the ability to make professional connections through the Penn State Alumni Association, which drew her to Penn State in the first place. While her parents and older sister attended small colleges, Larson knew she wanted something a little bigger.

Three years later, as a campus tour guide with the Lion Scouts, Larson says she loves taking her tours past the Bank of America Career Services Center and pausing so the prospective students and their families get the chance to take a peek at the BJC. She tells them, “These are some of the big reasons you should come to Penn State: the networking, career services and alumni connections.”

“I know that high school and first-year students are probably thinking more about making friends, living in the dorms and choosing a major than graduation and job hunts, but I still like to relay the message and let parents know that it’s never too early to start thinking about internships and first jobs,” Larson said. “The future will be here before you know it.”

It is for Wilkie. This spring, he will be starting his new position as a metallurgical engineer, and Larson will be heading off to Spain for a semester abroad. But come fall she’ll be back on campus and ready to begin her own job hunt.

“I always think about how there were so many Penn State interns at my internship last summer and how the people there always told us, ‘You guys are going to take over the world.’ I can’t wait.” 

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Last Updated April 19, 2017