The Mating Game

Each year Harvard students and prospective employers begin a complicated rite of courtship, complete with flirting (invitations), wooing (interviews), and proposals (offers). There is even a matchmaker, the Office of Career Services (OCS), making sure that everyone plays by the rules--its rules, of which there are many.

Like any romance, this ritual brings joy and rejection, triumph and heartache. But in recruiting, unlike courtship, little long-term commitment is anticipated. For most, the relationship will last only two years.

Recruiting is a classic exercise of supply meeting demand. Demand because every year elite firms need hundreds of bright college graduates to fill the rotating bottom tier of their office hierarchies. Supply because each year a fresh army of ambitious seniors seeks the next brand-name step toward wealth and prestige.

The courtship is a one-size-fits-all process (as long as you like consulting, investment banking, or technology). From athletes to academics, nearly 50 percent of Harvard's senior class goes through recruiting, though only about a fifth of the class indicates long-term career plans in business.

Recruiting is not a new phenomenon. Elite firms have always sought elite employees, but now the professional courtship starts before many students leave their teens. Where the heyday of the 1980s saw a similar hunger for the bright and talented, the new trend in the 1990s surrounds underclassmen. In 1987, more than 90 percent of the students who went through OCS recruiting were seniors. Last year, 40 percent of the 1,250 students who participated were non-seniors applying for summer jobs.

Seeking a career has become a career in itself for Harvard undergraduates. That pressure, once confined to the worries of senior year, now affects sophomores and juniors. "To get a good full-time job, it helps to get an awesome junior-year internship. To get an awesome junior-year internship, you need a mediocre sophomore-year internship. Even for sophomore year, it helps to have worked somewhere freshman year," explains James L. Chen '99, who has spent recent summers working for Bristol-Myers, Deutsche Morgan Grenfell, and J.P. Morgan. "The focus," he emphasizes, "is on the four-year game plan."

Recruiting itself has become an extracurricular activity of sorts. Résumé writing, interviews, information sessions, company research and dinners become a time-consuming process. "Recruiting is basically another class. It's like writing another thesis," says Paula V. Fernandez '99. The upside of this heavy-duty and accelerated schedule is that students can make informed decisions about their career choices. Fernandez, who has worked for Harvard Student Agencies (HSA), J.P. Morgan, and Morgan Stanley, believes "starting earlier gives people the chance to see whether or not they like these industries."

The recruiting process also exerts a certain amount of gravitational attraction. Even those who were originally interested in other careers are willing to explore recruiting. Paul L. Nguyen '98, for example, was a pre-med philosophy concentrator who took an introductory economics class in his senior year. "I came in wanting to study medicine, but ended up wanting to do broader things," he says, explaining why he deferred Harvard Medical School for two years to work for the Boston Consulting Group.


One day last October, a large banner flew in front of the Science Center advertising "The Fight of the Decade," complete with skull and crossbones. The smaller lettering read "Investment Banking vs. Consulting," the two main industries that seek Harvard undergraduates. The "fight" was a panel discussion sponsored by HSA that night.

Not surprisingly, careerism has found a growing niche in extracurricular and academic life at Harvard. Students with specific business interests can now compete in consulting competitions through the Harvard-Radcliffe Consulting Club or take a trip to Wall Street with the Harvard Investment Association. Last year alone saw the creation of an entrepreneurs' club, several investment associations (including one specifically for minorities), the initiation of the first annual consulting competition, and the formation of several student-run mutual funds.

The fascination with finance and consulting finds its way into the classroom despite the College's disdain for vocational training. Economics has now surpassed government as the most popular undergraduate concentration, attracting more than 13 percent of upperclassmen. Economics 1423, "Capital Markets," is the department's most popular elective. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, Harvard Hall 202 burgeons with aspiring young financiers gleaning wisdom about risk management and arbitrage. And each semester dozens of students head east for 15.501, "Introduction to Financial and Managerial Accounting," the MIT course that draws the highest Harvard cross-registration.

Interested students vie for spots in the top firms. In the Harvard undergraduate view of the world, everything must fit into a hierarchy. Thus McKinsey reigns supreme in consulting for its exclusivity, followed by Bain and Boston Consulting Group. As for investment banks, the "Bulge Bracket" firms like Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and Merrill Lynch all have bragging rights. In the rough-and-tumble technology sector, however, bigger isn't always better. Microsoft is a perennial favorite, but last year a little-known Texas-based firm named Trilogy attracted some top talent.

Given the limited number of coveted firms, Harvard students have learned to take rejection ("being dinged," in recruiting vernacular) with a sense of humor. "Walls of Shame" made up of pleasantly phrased rejection letters spring up all over campus senior year. But in this environment, it's not surprising to find students sizing up the competition by perusing at OCS the lists of names of those at various levels of summer-job interviews. (OCS does not post such lists for full-time job interviews.) As people pile into the College shuttle buses headed to Harvard Square for the many company information sessions, everyone grows more and more tense as the number of suit-clad individuals increases. The more people, the more competition. Those walking toward the meeting site speed up, trying to be the first in line to sign the attendance sheet.


The competition among students can be intense. The competition among firms is even more so.

The number of firms has greatly increased in recent decades, particularly during the recent bull market. In 1971, 31 firms came to recruit. In 1990 there were 242. This year there will be nearly 400 firms seeking Harvard students. The biggest players are investment banks and consulting firms (and to a lesser extent technology companies), who place high value on young talent. The initial campaign techniques include elegant invitations to company cocktail parties, targeted phone calls, and individualized letters.

Firms leapfrog each other to tap the talent pool first. Not only are the students younger and younger, the calendar year has shifted forward. Company information sessions used to start in the third week of October after OCS's Career Forum. Now information sessions start in September, before classes do.

Ten years ago, only two or three firms went through OCS to staff summer jobs. This year there are 50. Some firms, such as Boston-based Vertex Partners, even offer signing bonuses for their summer hires. Other firms use summer positions to identify potential full-time job candidates even before senior year starts.

Marc P. Diaz '99, for example, received a full-time offer from McKinsey after working there this past summer through the Student Employment Opportunities Program. "It's definitely a relief to have a job offer," he says. "It saves enduring the time-consuming recruiting process, and has enabled me to be far more focused in my fall decision-making--from my classes and extracurriculars to my fellowship plans."

Competition among firms means big spending on campus. Companies annually spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on publications, information sessions, cocktail parties, and door drops. Day after day the Crimson is filled with full-page and half-page ads from companies alerting students to deadlines, information sessions, and workshops. A number of career-specific publications, such as the Crimson's guide to recruiting, pull in five-figure revenues.

This year, Fidelity Investments, Goldman Sachs, McKinsey & Company, and Trilogy anted up $10,000 each to sponsor HSA's Business Leaders Conference in early September. Though billed as an educational event, recruiting was a heavy subtext in the weeklong program. In return for their generosity, each company received a thick book of applicants' résumés. Each firm also sponsored a free dinner at the Faculty Club for the hundred or so participants at which a partner, managing director, or CEO touted the virtues of that industry--and that company.


In this complicated courtship, OCS is the market regulator between the forces of supply and demand. Included in the package: three rounds of recruiting, a bidding process, bubble sheets, posted lists, résumé deadlines, case interviews, "fly-downs" (interviews at off-campus offices), and promotional "sell weekends." Information sessions start in the fall. According to the official OCS calendar, résumé packets are due at OCS in December for spring recruiting. Interviews take place throughout February and March. Offers are made by late March. Most people will have made their decisions by early April.

One calendar highlight is the OCS Career Forum each October. Located in the cavernous Gordon Track and Field, the forum resembles an industry trade show, with rows of companies and organizations that have each paid $600 to set up a booth. The hall fills with suits, cellular phones, pagers, and small talk. The items up for trade are résumés and the undergraduates behind them.

Students wander the forum with white plastic OCS bags obtaining giveaways and company brochures in a preprofessional caricature of trick-or-treating. Afterwards, they spill and compare their bags of goodies as they would on any Halloween night: squishy Koosh balls from Microsoft, phone cards from Goldman Sachs, toothpaste and soap from Procter & Gamble.

Company information sessions are a ritual in themselves. Necessary ingredients are a classy locale (often the Faculty Club, the Charles Hotel, or the Inn at Harvard), hors d'oeuvres (stuffed mushrooms, sushi, bacon-wrapped scallops) for the hobnobbing, a senior recruiter to give the central pitch, and a Benetton-ad lineup of well-coiffed recent graduates to offer personal testimonials. At a recent investment-bank ("I-bank" for short) information session, for example, one applied-math concentrator was telling another that there was sufficient analytical rigor in the modeling that they would be doing. In another corner, a former athlete assured a current one that he would feel comfortable in the trading floor's "locker room" atmosphere.


The dominance of I-banks and consulting firms in recruiting leaves some feeling disenchanted. "Harvard selects students with a wide variety of interests for admission, but that breadth of interests isn't paralleled when we graduate. To have two main industries be the only options is ridiculous," says Louis Monoyudis '98, who explored other industries on his own and now works for advertising agency Leo Burnett.

OCS director of recruiting Judy Murray explains that trying to get other kinds of firms or industries, such as retailing and advertising, to recruit on campus is a Catch-22 situation because student interest isn't there: "Why come to Harvard when they get 60 résumés here, but 300 at another school?" At the same time, it's hard to develop student interest when so many of our older friends head off for consulting and I-banking tours of duty.

Recruiting is a courtship ritual, but at the end of the romance people generally move on to find other mates in the next step up the ladder. Last year, only 18 percent of seniors told OCS that they were interested in pursuing business careers long-term. Nevertheless, the heroes of our generation are less often statesmen and intellectuals than entrepreneurs. The seven-year bull market has shaped our outlook on life. We worship Bill Gates and George Soros--heroes of the dollar. We have a fascination with success that can be quantified. Recruiting fits well into our paradigm for achievement: high pay, prestige, and a system in place that makes sure you get from here to there.

Our generation is wary of commitment --romantic and professional. We live together before we marry. We will likely have several careers. The quintessential Harvard phrase is "I want to keep my options open." Recruiting helps us postpone the inevitable choices we must make.

Berta Greenwald Ledecky Fellow Jennifer 8. Lee '98 ('99) sends résumés from Pforzheimer House.

Read more articles by: Jennifer 8. Lee

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