Beneath the Surface on Recruiting

Students from all walks of campus increasingly see junior year internships at banks and consulting firms as the key first step in their career paths.

Students from all walks of campus increasingly see junior year internships at banks and consulting firms as the key first step in their career paths.

On August 11, Dartmouth’s Center for Professional Development (CPD) released its figures from this summer’s round of on-campus recruiting, and there were few surprises. A total of 258 students took part in the process compared to 244 for the Class of 2016: a seemingly insignificant uptick, but part of a broader trend of small year-over-year increases that have more than doubled the number of participants over a ten-year span. And as more sophomores have made themselves available, recruiters have kept pace by pouring more time and effort into sorting through the field, extending interviews to over half of all applicants.

The slow pace of the growth has made it tough for observers to pinpoint what’s driving it. CPD Associate Directors Monica Wilson and Matthew Kuchar suggested a handful of possibilities, such as recovering attitudes toward the financial world as the 2008 crisis recedes in our memory, or a growing demand for transferrable skills as more students prefer a wide open career path. But whatever’s behind recruiting’s rise, the fact that more than one quarter of each sophomore class now sees it as worthwhile step toward their postgrad ambitions means the process has secured its place in the College’s top tier of definitive experiences.

For students and outside observers alike, recruiting has become an easy touchstone when we search for terms to sum up Dartmouth’s personality. Each year, campus publications release a parade of thinkpieces that comment on the competitive application process and the “numbing, self-centered” nature of corporate work, while national magazines regularly remind us that “The Ivy League Has Perfected The Investment Banker And Management Consulting Replicator”(Forbes, Feb. 7, 2014). Articles like these aim high, with the goal of critiquing the pre-professional mindset that increasingly dominates Dartmouth and our peers. But as important as it is to hash out the overall merit of corporate work, our focus on that question has led us to largely overlook the details of the recruiting process as it actually plays out for Dartmouth students every summer. If you truly believe that the financial world is a “vampire squid”, slurping up its employees’ souls along with the nation’s life savings, then the fact that recruiting is well run is no badge of honor for the College. But if you have at least a bit of faith in the value of financial services, it seems worthwhile to table the great debate over corporate work from time to time, and instead take a look at the structure of the peculiar process that connects administrators, employers, and students to give each something that they truly, deeply want.

The process that culminates with dozens of employers promenading through campus each summer begins with some phone calls from the CPD. The office slowly and steadily contacts companies that showed up in past years and attempts to woo new companies that might match well with students’ interests. Scheduling interviews over the summer creates big pluses and minuses for Dartmouth, according to Monica Wilson. “Historically, employers have been a bit hesitant to offer positions for the fall and winter because those interns usually want to explore other opportunities the next summer, which is where they end up,” she described. But she added that being the only elite school in session over the summer makes it a bit easier for recruiters to commit resources and attention once they do get with the program. What’s more, she suggested that banks and tech companies’ suggestion to shift junior summer job recruiting from the winter to the fall would only make matters worse by “forcing job seekers to apply during consecutive terms.”

Picking out the right time to schedule employers is just one of countless areas where administrators must attempt to outpace our peer institutions to help give Dartmouth applicants the best possible footing. Although the D-Plan is major confound in some respects, Ms. Wilson sees it as a key to Dartmouth’s overall appeal because it “gives us the edge to offer full-time interns during every term.” CPD, known as Career Services until 2013, was also near the front of the pack in creating the on-campus recruiting process seen across many top schools today, as one of the first schools to designate formal policies to standardize the courtship between students an employers.

Over the years, administrators’ expectations and students’ concerns have combined to create a comprehensive set of guidelines that manage employers’ conduct during the recruiting process. A publicly accessible document on the CPD website lays out the detailed terms companies must accept when they agree to take part in the on-campus interviewing period. Among other ground rules, companies are prohibited from granting “exploding offers” which require students to accept positions within two weeks, and are expected to allow students some flexibility to reschedule their interview slots around classes. Obviously recruiters have priorities of their own, and Mr. Kuchar acknowledged that they often push back against specific policies they see as hindering their ability to conduct themselves efficiently. These sorts of episodes can create worry about Dartmouth staying in recruiters’ good graces, but the CPD is confident that they are fairly rare, and that strict guidelines help protect students from both abuse and their own mistakes in the long run.

While our regulations complicate the picture, Dartmouth’s liberal arts focus is one quality that administrators often suggest gives our students an edge in the interview process (and on the job.) Kuchar, who worked as a counselor for students and faculty at Harvard Business School before joining CPD, summed up the idea concisely. “A lot of times employers will see that students from more pre-professional backgrounds such as Wharton come in with a slight advantage, but Dartmouth students tend to have the critical thinking mindset and communication skills to succeed in the longer term.” Ms. Wilson echoed the same thought nearly verbatim, and indeed the notion is popular throughout our entire student body, often repeated as self-assurance that our applicants are truly not left worse off for the College’s lack of a finance major, for example.

However, at least one actual recruiter (and a Dartmouth man to boot) dared to question the conventional wisdom. “From my experience, I wouldn’t say Dartmouth students have superior critical-thinking skills,” said Danny Zhang ’13, a Senior Consultant at Oliver Wyman, in correspondence with The Dartmouth Review via email. Zhang did express faith that the liberal arts were a net positive overall. “For a lot of the jobs Dartmouth student’s are looking for, most of the training comes on the job,” he continued, suggesting that although the liberal arts may not be as big of a leg-up as we claim, our lack of pre-professional courses is no major disadvantage.

While they disagreed about the value of a Dartmouth educational background, both Kuchar and Zhang claimed that interview preparation is far more important than most students assume. “You can definitely tell who has a strong interest in the field from the kids who started prepping the week before,” said Kuchar, who gets a close-up look at students’ interviewing skills during workshops and advising sessions. He did acknowledge that time the spent preparing application materials makes it tough to pivot to interview practice, but felt that getting a head start should be a bigger priority. Zhang, who has interviewed internship candidates for the past two summer cycles, believes that the key to success is combining preparation with a good overall presence. He named the four criteria Oliver Wyman applies to sizing up potential hires: “Analysis & Research, Drive & Determination, Teamwork & Leadership, and Communication.” If pressed, Zhang would probably be the first to admit that there’s nothing novel about his company’s preferred skill set. But the clear gist is that candidates for corporate work are expected to present a perfect picture of well roundedness.

This is where the amorphous term “fit” comes in. Applicants, employers, and advisors like Kuchar all describe fit as the personality traits that make a particular candidate mesh well with his coworkers and corporate culture. But of course, recruiter’s imagination of the perfect team player varies widely across industries and specialties, and there’s only so much you can do to become a better “fit” if you don’t happen to have the Element X they’re looking for. A lot of students nervously presume that fit ultimately boils down to raw sociability, and Zhang forthrightly confirmed that that’s true to a point. “Are you interesting and someone I want to be around four days a week, including at dinner and at the airport?” he offered as an example of the questions he asks himself when sizing up an interviewee. He stressed that “soft skills” like communication and agreeability are not just preferred by the firms themselves, but are also essential for success in client-facing industries like consulting. But lest students fear that they don’t have the right stuff, he also pointed out that these skills “have been a key differentiator in Dartmouth students compared to other students,” and that undergraduates have the opportunity to build them constantly through their social and academic lives.

While Zhang and the CPD directors illustrated recruiting as a process open to all, some clear reasons for doubt still lingered. Although Dartmouth provides ample resources to connect students with job opportunities and help them navigate the process, it stands to reason that applicants from disadvantaged or international backgrounds might be unfamiliar with the steps and find themselves edged out. Ms. Wilson acknowledged the issue, and mentioned that CPD recently launched “professional development accelerator” program to coach any interested students about job hunting and preparation in a more comprehensive way than brief advisory sessions would allow. Learning the ropes of the internship world early has quickly become essential to positioning oneself well for postgrad opportunities, as recruiters increasingly prioritize previous experience. “Maximizing your off-terms with any types of internships, especially freshmen summer is a great way to lead to other internships and jobs down the line,” advised Zhang, who believes commitment to consulting isn’t necessary but admitted that prior experience is appealing. Ms. Wilson defended this trend, pointing out that although preferring experience creates stress for students, employers save incredible time and effort by bringing in new hires who already know their way around an office and feel confident on their assignments. It’s clear that interested students should spare no time in beginning to pursue work in the industry, while of course managing to juggle their other interests as all Dartmouth students must.

Another common charge against corporate recruiting is the fact that it is, very nearly, exclusively corporate. At first, it is puzzling to think of why a school like Dartmouth that obsessively curates an image of diverse students venturing into the arts and sciences would host an employer pageant in which only the brawniest corporate titans are invited. But as you may suspect, it’s only practical. Ms. Wilson described how, for all the complaints about the lack of selection, a huge investment like on-campus recruiting is simply out of reach for small companies or ones outside the corporate world that lack the resources to send full-time employees to campus and don’t hire on a large scale and fixed schedule. What’s more, she explained, when that rare company from outside the finance and consulting worlds does throw its hat in the ring, students hesitate to apply. “Take an example like EF Education First,” she recalled. “A big employer with opportunities not only in education, but also business and marketing. They came to campus and students applied at a tiny fraction of what you see for companies from the more traditional backgrounds.” According to Ms. Wilson’s picture, the pull of prestige plus the fact that the corporate reputation is baked into the entire process mean students will continue to gravitate toward the big finance and consulting players.

The possibility of a new companion to corporate recruiting emerged when the conversation turned to tech. As the number of large software companies seeking paid interns has blossomed over the past five years, and the number of Computer Science majors has kept pace, it’s becoming more and more likely that tech recruiting will become a regular presence on campus. At the moment, the Thayer School of Engineering maintains some contact with a host of large tech companies and startups, but students are left to do the bulk of internship hunting through a long process of emails and phone interviews. Ms. Wilson mentioned a meet-and-greet event that Microsoft hosted this term as an example of software companies already stepping up their presence, and expressed hope that a major process would take shape even while CPD’s plans remain indefinite for the moment.

For the time being, the sight of students putting on their best faces and suits every summer to take a shot at finance work does undoubtedly cut against the “arts and service” stripe of Dartmouth’s self-image. But while many react to the growing number of students on that route with un-nuanced criticism, the fact that so many young men and women are choosing to begin their careers in that world should prompt us to pause for a long, honest look. Mixed in with the cynical (but near universal) drives for financial success and prestige, we find the undeniable signs that Dartmouth students are in search of good skills, flexibility, and whole host of positive qualities as they begin their careers. And on a campus where students and administrators are too often at odds, it’s worth celebrating the fact that the College has maintained a system that has successfully helped students seize those qualities once they depart Hanover to start their professional lives.