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Record-setting Career Connection builds relationships between students and employers

The next step: interviewing styles and strategies

As the official fall recruitment season at the University of Wisconsin-Madison kicks off on October 8, many engineering students will encounter a variety of interviewing methods. Engineering Career Services (ECS) will offer a variety of interview workshops throughout the semester; these are among the interview formats students can expect to encounter:

Brainteasers: “In the past five years, we’ve seen a small percentage of companies using brainteasers,” says Assistant Dean Sandra Arnn, director of Engineering Career Services. Brainteaser interviews—made famous by Microsoft—evaluate the applicant’s ability to problem-solve and respond to barriers. ECS offers William Poundstone’s How Would You Move Mount Fuji? as a guide for practicing. Just remember, if asked which of the fifty U.S. states you could remove, you need a logical, thought-out response. It’s not necessarily the state you most would like to see removed.

Case studies: Like brainteasers, this format emphasizes problem solving. Frequently used by consulting and financial management companies, this interview provides a possible real-life scenario intended to blend your technical background with your analytical abilities.

Behavioral: According to Arnn, this format is heavily utilized. These interviews operate on the premise that past experience best indicates future success. A typical behavioral question could be: “Tell me about an obstacle you have overcome.” A strong response would include specific personal examples that highlight your skills and how you successfully used those skills. ECS recommends the STAR approach: set up the Situation or Task from your resume, describe the Action you took and finish with the Results.

Technical: This interview is solely a test of your knowledge of particular skills. It may include a written problem to solve; some employers ask technical questions prior to offering a formal interview.

Telephone: Employers often use phone calls to screen applicants before offering face-to-face interviews. The absence of body language means the tone of your voice is as important as your actual answers. Remember to treat this interview as professionally as any other type. Also, smile while talking. This will help convey your energy and enthusiasm.

As Ellen Visscher placed a red sticker on her nametag, designating her major as civil and environmental engineering, she looked around the main level of the Engineering Career Services and said: “This is a little chaotic.”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison freshman had just stepped into the largest career fair in the history of the UW-Madison campus. Almost 300 employers and more than 2,000 students gathered on three levels to meet and network for three days, from September 18 to 20. By the end of the week, 1,500 students had interviews.

Career Connection 2007 maintained the fair’s tradition of expansion, with 288 employers setting a new attendance record. According to Assistant Dean Sandra Arnn, director of Engineering Career Services, hundreds of UW-Madison students outside of the College of Engineering attended the fair in addition to the thousands of engineering students. The students navigated the large crowds for the opportunity to talk to employers hailing from as far as Los Angeles and Austin, Texas.

A student discusses his resume with a recruiter at Career
                        Connection. By the end of the event, 1,500 students had interviews.

A student discusses his resume with a recruiter at Career Connection. By the end of the event, 1,500 students had interviews. (large image)

Darin Bowe, a senior mechanical engineering student, was one of the fair attendees hoping his interaction with employers would lead to employment after graduation. This year’s fair was extremely well organized, says Bowe, who also says he was amazed at the number of companies and organizations.

His feedback echoed comments Arnn heard from other students. “This was a very successful career fair with the most direct feedback from students we’ve ever had,” she says. “Students were primarily excited about the number of employers, including the 30 new organizations at this year’s fair. That—and the fact students had about 18 hours of potential time to interact with those employers.”

Bowe has attended Career Connection throughout his undergraduate years. His experiences have helped him to anticipate questions employers ask and have given him an overall sense of confidence, he says. “But the nervousness is still there for me,” says Bowe. “I think the hardest part about approaching an employer is how to find that key sentence they are looking for and to try relating to them.”

For Visscher, the fair was all about practice. “Once I told employers I was just testing the waters, they got really informal and gave me a lot of information,” she says. “I feel good because I know what to ask and how to ‘work the stands’ when I am looking for internships.”

On the other side of the recruitment table were some faces that empathized with the students. Many recruiters were UW-Madison graduates—some as recently as last year—and several agreed it was a strange reversal of roles.

More than 2,000 students met with almost 300 employers at Career
                        Connection 2007, the largest career fair ever held on the UW-Madison

More than 2,000 students met with almost 300 employers at Career Connection 2007, the largest career fair ever held on the UW-Madison campus. (large image)

Brian Canfield, a recruiter for the Wisconsin air movement company Greenheck, graduated with a mechanical engineering degree in spring. He says many students at the fair had been in class with him only a semester ago.

From his newly professional perspective, Canfield says he noticed the contrast between nervous students and those with a knack for conversation. He was not the only employer looking for students with interpersonal abilities.

Tom Helsley, a recruiter for the Texas-based signal processing company ISA, has come to Madison for years. “We’re looking for people with the personality to match the technical skills—you can tell a lot about a person from how they carry themselves,” he says.

Helsley wasn’t at the fair to fill immediate positions. “I’m looking for that golden nugget of a student,” he says. “My approach is to develop a long-term relationship that could result in employment. I’ve talked to people I won’t hire now because they aren’t ready to be hired, but that may well change in the future.”

Canfield agrees that the hiring process is based on a relationship between a student and an employer. “It’s like dating,” he says. “You won’t date someone who’s not interested in you. It has to be mutual both ways, and you need to be persistent and follow up to show interest in developing that relationship.”

For the engineering students, the process of building a relationship began before Career Connection opened its doors. Bowe’s advice to students was simple: “Don”t be unprepared,” he says. “Research the companies before the fair”.

Several recruiters echoed that sentiment. Employers including J.F. Ahern, DRW Research & Information Services, and Marshall Erdman & Associates all advised students to examine a company’s profile before talking with recruiters. “Don’t just interview to interview,” says Federal Mogul recruiter Dan Lewison.

Overall, the fair reflected a strong market for engineering students. More than half the organizations present offered internship opportunities, while more than a third had co-ops available. More than 100 employers sought civil engineering majors and another 115 employers looked for computer engineers.

In the end, Bowe says he received valuable feedback at Career Connection, including five interviews in the days immediately after the fair. Visscher, too, says, her experience was positive. “The fair was intimidating but pretty exciting at the same time,” she says.

—Sandra Knisely

The Do’s and Don’ts of Asking Questions

Many students who attended Career Connection 2007 stressed over what questions to ask employers—and which ones not to ask. According to several recruiters at the fair, you should answer the most important question before you step up to the table: What are you looking for?

“We can’t help you if you don’t know what you want,” a J.F. Ahern recruiter says. Daniel Lewison, a recruiter for Federal Mogul, agrees. “We’re looking for people who know what they want to do,” he says. “Make sure we’re a good fit for you.”

The Engineering Career Services Job Search Handbook provides some additional guidance in talking to recruiters for those employers you deem a “good fit.”


  1. Develop a brief, specific introduction. Establish who you are, your interests, and why you’re interested in a particular employer.
  2. Keep questions upbeat and positive. Some examples may include: What do you like best about working for this organization? What are the principle values of this organization? What are the most critical factors for success in your organization? What would a typical career path for someone like me entering your organization?
  3. Have a solid handshake.
  4. Appear energetic and enthusiastic.


  1. Chew gum.
  2. Ask about salary or benefits.
  3. Phrase questions negatively. Instead of asking, “What’s bad about working here,” ask instead, “What are this company’s greatest challenges?”
  4. Ask too many questions. At a career fair, appreciate that others are waiting to talk to the recruiter.
  5. Not ask any questions. You look uninterested and unimaginative.
  6. Look at your watch.

Sandra Knisely