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Operation: Career Fair

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Last week I joined up with the other seniors looking for gainful employment in the year to come. Grad school was out, and the only alternative was to enlist into the 2009 career bound students and set off for our own Normandy, our own Iwo Jima, and prepare for the enemy: the brigades of companies, firms and enterprises that descend yearly on the JACC for our networking war.

I arrived fairly early, with full knowledge that the lines would be long, the rations low and the morale even lower. I walked in with a friend, another accounting major, both of us knowing full well that one might not make it out. With our name tags affixed, we wished each other luck and set out. Within minutes I was lost in a bevy of tables, free pens and other sophomores, juniors and seniors, in various states of shock, awe and confusion. Recruiters were spilling out into the aisles; the popular companies wielded enough power to block entire swaths of less popular companies.

Where to begin? Which lines were worth it? Who looked the easiest to jaw with? Or, in the case of Arts and Letters students, who appeared most desperate? Call it shell shock.

After a few minutes, my feet came back under me. My senses focused, and I achieved, as Leonidas of “300” fame did, “a heightened sense of things.” My hands steadied on my black resume folder and my eyes began to pick out my adversaries: my fellow finance and accounting majors each moving quickly and fluidly from table to table, transitioning seamlessly between firms X, Y and Z, wielding their resume and each item on it in the most effective ways possible. These people are the Spartans of the career search world. They will take you out.

Having been abroad, this would be my first true career fair, and quickly my inexperience was apparent. I dodged into the first line with a company name that I recognized. I thought it would be safe to get out of the big gun’s trajectory (Baird, Bain & Co. and Boston Consulting), only to find that seemingly everybody mirrored my instincts. What seemed like smart tactics, ended up being the longest 25 minutes of my life.

What do you say when you get up there? How do you distinguish yourself from the 40 other kids that came before? How can you hide how green you are in the face of this recruiter two years your senior? What if the kid before you just blows them away?

I stammered out a bit of small talk with my comrades in line, only to be met with stiff resistance, and little aid in developing a kill strategy for the upcoming conversation. At long last, I stepped up, gave my strongest handshake, given the tough conditions, and managed a weak first strike along the lines of “So I’m interested in working for your company?” I recovered, though severely wounded, and managed to successfully express interest in a position at the company, and end the conversation without taking further damage.

With a little battle experience under my belt, the succeeding conversations became easier. My eyes glazed over, and the conversation became automatic. The smile affixed itself permanently, and my instincts led me to the shorter and easier combat. At first I first handed out resumes with caution, cognizant of the rules of social engagement, but it was only a matter of time before they were flying out indiscriminately to any and all recruiters that stood in my way.

Confidence grew, but so did recklessness. Soon there was no conflict that I would back down from. I went to BCG and Bain and made it back in one piece. I jockeyed for position at Deloitte and survived a minor skirmish outside of Ernst & Young. The campaign raged, with successes few and far between. Morale sunk, and fatigue set in. Eventually, however, with a late game strategy change, and a little bit of luck, I captured an interview and declared victory.

I walked out of the JACC with a lot of casualties. My feet were torn apart from stiff, new dress shoes. My throat was raspy and sore, and I suffered a serious paper cut trying to draw my resume on a recruiter. Mentally, I felt OK, but those things take years to develop. Nevertheless, I walked out with interview in hand, dignity largely intact and enough strength to fight another day.

Jason Coleman is a senior accounting major. He can be contacted at coleman.70@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.