How Elite Firms Hire: The Inside Story
By Bryan Caplan
I highly recommend Lauren Rivera’s “Ivies, Extracurriculars, and Exclusion” (Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 2011). Not only is the piece careful, edifying, and interesting; it’s even emotionally affecting. Learning more about elite hiring actually replaced my apathy toward elite firms with sour grapes: “I never wanted to work for you anyway!”
I examined hiring processes in three types of elite professional service firms: investment banks, law firms, and management consulting firms. These types of firms share important similarities, allowing for a robust comparison.
From 2006 to 2008, I conducted 120 interviews with professionals directly involved in undergraduate and graduate hiring decisions in top-tier firms in each of the three industries under study (i.e., 40 per industry). Participants included hiring partners, managing directors, and mid-level employees who conduct interviews and screen resumes as well as human resource managers.
To supplement interviews with behavioral data, I conducted fieldwork within the recruiting department of one elite professional service firm over a period of nine months. My role was that of a participant observer. Given my prior professional experience at a peer firm and in event planning, I was brought on as an unpaid “recruiting intern” to help plan and execute recruitment events… I shadowed recruiters through the recruitment process for full-time and summer associate candidates from a single, elite professional school, debriefed interviewers on job candidates immediately following interviews, and sat in on group deliberations where candidates were discussed and ultimately selected.
1. Most applications practically go straight in the trash.
Because professionals balanced recruitment responsibilities with full-time client work, they often screened resumes while commuting to and from the office and client sites; in trains, planes, and taxis; frequently late at night and over take out… [E]valuators tended to do so very rapidly, typically bypassing cover letters (only about fifteen percent reported even looking at them) and transcripts and reported spending between 10 s to 4 min per resume.
2. Evaluators have a lot of slack.
[M]ost firms did not have a standard resume scoring rubric
that they used to make interview decisions, evaluators reported “going
down the page” from top to bottom, focusing on the pieces of resume
data they personally believed were the most important “signals” of candidate quality. (emphasis mine)
In fact, evaluators explicitly select candidates similar to themselves in school rank, grades, etc. For example:
[R]oughly one-third of evaluators did not use educational prestige as a signal. One of the
primary differences between these two groups was their own educational history, with those who had attended “top” schools being more likely to use educational prestige as a screen than those who had attended other types of selective institutions.
3. Super-elite credentials matter much more than your academic record:
[E]valuators drew strong distinctions between top four universities, schools that I term the super-elite, and other types of selective colleges and universities. So-called “public Ivies” such as University of Michigan and Berkeley were not considered elite or even prestigious…
4. Super-elite schools matter because they’re strong signals, not because they’re better at building human capital:
Evaluators relied so intensely on “school” as a criterion of evaluation not because they believed that the content of elite curricula better prepared students for life in their firms – in fact, evaluators tended to believe that elite and, in particular, super-elite instruction was “too abstract,” “overly theoretical,” or even “useless” compared to the more “practical” and “relevant” training offered at “lesser” institutions…
[I]t was not the content of an elite education that employers valued but rather the perceived rigor of these institutions’ admissions processes. According to this logic,
the more prestigious a school, the higher its “bar” for admission, and thus the “smarter” its student body.
In addition to being an indicator of potential intellectual deficits, the decision to go to a lesser known school (because it was typically perceived by evaluators as a “choice”) was often perceived to be evidence of moral failings, such as faulty judgment or a lack of foresight on the part of a student.
5. At least in this elite sample, I’m totally wrong to think that extracurriculars don’t matter:
[E]valuators believed that the most attractive and enjoyable coworkers and candidates would be those who had strong extracurricular “passions.” They also believed that involvement in activities outside of the classroom was evidence of superior social
skill; they assumed a lack of involvement was a signal of social deficiencies… By contrast, those without significant extracurricular experiences or those who participated in activities that were primarily academically or pre-professionally oriented were perceived to be “boring,” “tools,” “bookworms,” or “nerds” who might turn out to be “corporate drones” if hired.
But they have to be the right kind of extracurriculars. You have to signal that you’re not signaling!
Across the board, they privileged activities that were motivated by “personal” rather than “professional” interest, even when activities were directly related to work within their industry (e.g., investing, consulting, legal clinic clubs) because the latter were believed to serve the instrumental purpose of “looking good” to recruiters and were suspected of being “resume filler” or “padding” rather than evidence of genuine “passion,” “commitment,” and “well-roundedness.”
Don’t imagine, though, that you should merely follow your bliss:
[T]hey differentiated being a varsity college athlete, preferably one that was also a national or Olympic champion, versus playing intramurals; having traveled the globe with a world-renowned orchestra as opposed to playing with a school chamber group; and having reached the summit of Everest or Kilimanjaro versus recreational hiking. The former activities were evidence of “true accomplishment” and dedication, whereas the latter were described as things that “anyone could do.”
6. Grades do matter somewhat, but mostly as a cut-off. They’re a signal of work ethic more than IQ:
[M]ost evaluators did not believe that grades were an indicator of intelligence. Rather, they provided a straightforward and “fair” way to rank candidates, particularly those within a given school… [G]rades were used to measure a candidate’s moral qualities. An attorney (Asian-American, male), believed that grades were an indication of a candidate’s coping skills, “It tells me how they can handle stress; if they’d had their feet to the flames before. If they’ve gotten good grades at a very competitive school, they’re probably pretty sharp and can take care of themselves.”
If labor economists want to understand how real-world labor markets actually work, these are the kinds of pieces they’ll be reading – and eventually writing.