In many ways, Shawna Guyett had a typical informational interview in early August with a representative from the Y.
Guyett, an online student at Kaplan University, used the opportunity to discuss the group's hiring process and current job opportunities.
But at the end of the conversation, she didn't shake hands or trade business cards with the employee. The discussion, conducted as part of a virtual career fair, was held online.
"I found it helpful," says Guyett, who is studying to be an education paraprofessional and will graduate with an associate degree next summer. "It was very informative."
Online students like Guyett can't always attend on-campus career fairs or meet recruiters face-to-face, but that doesn't mean they can't establish contacts that might help with their job search. Increasingly, online programs are offering virtual career fairs, Twitter chats, webinars and other opportunities for their students to connect with recruiters online.
In online career fairs, students log on to the Internet and visit virtual booths where they type questions and listen to employers speak about their company. During Twitter chats, students can use the popular microblogging site to ask employers questions about their organization or discuss topics relevant to the field. In some webinars and video chats, students and employers can actually see each other and communicate.
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"The online piece is just a steppingstone, but this is where students are making their first impression, and that's huge," says Niki Perkins, director of career services at Baker College of Flint.
Before students interact with potential employers on the Internet, experts suggest they keep these five guidelines in mind.
1. Watch your language: Regardless of whether students chat, email or tweet with an employer, they should use proper grammar and punctuation, experts say.
"Forget your texting language," says Perkins, who has stories of students using "lol" and emoticons in communications with potential employers. "Know your audience."
Kevin Grubb, assistant director at Villanova University's Career Services Center, says students should avoid using ellipses in chat conversations and tweets. Occasional exclamation marks are fine, he says, but students should keep them to a minimum.
"It's important to show enthusiasm, but don't overcommunicate it," says Grubb, who teaches a course on creating your professional identity online. "It might be perceived as being insincere."
Before students send a chat message or tweet, Grubb suggests they double-check their spelling one last time.
"You want to be mindful of things like autocorrect," he says.
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2. Dress for success: When it comes to online career fairs, communication typically takes place through typing – not through any video technology. But that doesn't mean students should wear sweatpants, experts say.
"If it's something like an online career fair, you want to dress as if you were there in person," says Grubb. "It gives you a sense of professionalism. And when you dress that way, you are better able to communicate those things."
Trudy Steinfeld, assistant vice president of New York University's Wasserman Career Center, agrees.
She says she's been surprised during chats when the person on the other end has suggested flipping the cameras on.
"Even for a networking chat, I wouldn't dress in pajamas," she says. "You never know. There is a surprise element and you have to be prepared."
3. Think about what you want to say: When participating in an online career fair, Twitter chat or similar event, students should act as they would in an in-person interaction, says Gina Diamond, director of career services at Kaplan University.
Students should research the company and come prepared with informed questions about the employer and industry, she says.
In addition to discussing their desired field, online students should also feel comfortable talking about – and even defending – their online schooling, says Russell Poulin, deputy director of research and analysis for WCET, which advocates for effective technology use in higher education.
"There are still some people who aren't familiar with online degrees," he says. "It still ends up being a problem for some people. So, they may have to have an example of something they did in their online program which is as good or better than in their on-campus degree."
4. Find a quiet place: Before online students begin communicating with employers or recruiters through online chat or video, it's important to eliminate any distractions, experts say.
Barking dogs, crying babies and ringing cellphones can cause people to lose their train of thought. During video chats on services such as Skype, the sounds can also become distractions to recruiters, says Steinfeld of NYU.
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5. Arrive on time: Guyett, the student at Kaplan, always shows up early to her appointments at virtual career fairs.
There's a small box that appears on the screen when people log in, she says, so recruiters can tell when someone is late.
"I would suggest getting there early," she says. "You need to have time to call tech support if something goes wrong."
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