A Guide to College Recruiting as a Smaller Company

Have you ever walked through a bar district and been solicited by staff standing in doorways? They “guard” practically vacant rooms and desperately call out for customers. It always seems like the most popular bars have considerable lines and the less desirable ones remain quite empty.

Let’s take this analogy and apply it to college career fairs. In this example, company booths are the bars, and computer science students are the most sought-after patrons. Many of the larger software companies (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc.) are the busy bars, while smaller and lesser-known companies are the less-trafficked locations. This common scenario represents a monumental problem for these smaller companies that need to successfully recruit top talent to survive.

The company I work for is a 20-person web & mobile app development company that relies heavily on having a strong, growing development team. We recruit almost exclusively from colleges and have been very happy with our recent recruiting classes. I will share some tips to help similar companies recruit successfully.

Make the First Move

Before attending a career fair, most students will review the companies attending and highlight the ones they want to speak with. If you are not highlighted by a student, there is a good chance that student will skip your booth entirely. Sure, you will garner some foot traffic, but it is very helpful to be sought out by students, rather than desperately flagging down passersby or having an empty booth for 30-minute spans.

Prior to attending a career fair, we:

  • Pull resumes for top candidates — Most schools will have an online system (many use handshake) where you can search for students. Find a few dozen candidates that you think would be a good fit for your company.
  • Contact students before the event  We then send each of these students a quick intro letter and invite them to stop by our booth. Since you are reaching out to your top candidates, personalize these letters. Mention their past experience and how that would make them a great fit at your company. Then try to include things about your company that would resonate with them. To do this, we often look at the Glassdoor pages for companies that these students have worked at previously. Find common perks and complaints for those companies. This can help you make a convincing case for your company by comparing benefits or emphasizing differences. Don’t do this by specifically mentioning other companies, but only by referencing the characteristics. This “insider info” can really help when seeking out and hiring the top talent.
  • Work with student groups  To make a bit of a name for ourselves, we work with individual student groups or sponsor on-campus events. This gives us a brief opportunity to discuss our company and meet several students. Most colleges will have groups such as the Society of Women Engineers, ACM, or NSBE that you could work with.
  • Network with professors and staff — This comes into play when you recruit at the same schools year-after-year. Professors have deeper ties with the students and can encourage students to apply at your company. However, this is often something that needs to be pursued with caution. Remember that professors are more committed to students than they are to you. Additionally, just because they think highly of someone as a student, that does not guarantee that that individual will become a great employee. We have seen this work best with professors who we personally know (or others on our team personally knew) when we were in school. This sort of relationship and trust allows for a much more mutually beneficial relationship. Finally, we try to provide feedback to these professors regarding how their students do in our interviews. This feedback is valued by these teachers and helps us continue to exchange feedback between career fairs. By communicating what sort of things we are looking for, it helps them recommend better candidates, while giving them some guidance into what employers are looking for.

Be Different …

Career fair interactions quickly become quite rote. Student introduces self to recruiter. Student gives recruiter a resume. Student asks about next steps to apply. Recruiter tells student to go to a website. Rinse and repeat.

At larger companies, where recruiting is a full-time role orchestrated by large teams and each career fair brings an unending line of students, these patterns emerge.

Smaller companies need to break this wheel to stand out. For us, this means sending our actual team members to recruiting events and placing the upmost emphasis on being genuine. We can talk specifically about what it is like to work as a developer at our company, because we have all worked as developers at our company. We excitedly discuss the things we are building and how we are building them, because we are truly excited about them. It is not uncommon for us to answer specific questions in these first meetings, such as our favorite project we have worked on at BHW is, what is the office culture like, or even more technical questions like why do we like React Native for mobile app development.

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By being able to have these more authentic interactions, you can begin to play up the advantages of working at a smaller company.

… But Not Too Different

Here is where you have to walk a fine line. There is a very good reason why the big-name companies are so popular at career fairs. They offer a more established career path, are more recognized by their peers, are seen as more reliable, and are often the option their parents want them to pick.

Understand these motivations and be certain to reassure candidates that you can also provide these assurances. This can include highlighting the stability of your company, emphasizing your employee benefits, and calling out your company perks. Often smaller companies can compete with the larger companies in these areas and many find ways to more uniquely stand out. Just make sure to communicate this to the students.

Move Quickly

Given the ever-escalating arms race that is hiring software developers, many companies have moved to extending offers earlier and earlier. It is not uncommon for CS majors to have offers before even starting their senior year. In many ways, the best way to get top talent is to find them as sophomores or juniors through internships and then give them full-time offers. Even still, you will want to remain in contact with your top recruits and start your interview process quickly after the career fair. This helps ensure you will get a chance with students who might turn down interviews once they have other offers.

Conclusion

Being a smaller or lesser-known company can make recruiting a challenge. However, there are a number of advantages, which if played up, can result in attracting some of the best available developers. Putting in the extra initial work, polishing your communication to candidates, and moving quickly can greatly benefit your recruiting efforts.

Paul Francis is a partner and product manager at The BHW Group, an Austin-based mobile app development company. There he has worked on dozens of web and mobile projects and is a part of BHW’s recruiting and hiring team. Outside of the office, he enjoys baseball, trivia, podcasts, and arguing about movies.

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4 Comments on “A Guide to College Recruiting as a Smaller Company

  1. As one of the owners of job search site College Recruiter, I was quite interested to read this article and it didn’t disappoint. Paul did a nice job of laying out his tactics and strategies. He didn’t sugar coat the difficulties that small organizations face, especially those who are competing for talent with large, brand name organizations.

    Something that was missing, however, was any kind of on-line strategy. It seemed to me that his focus was almost entirely on-campus. That’s fine and the strategy used by many organizations, but an increasing minority of organizations which look at their most productive employees and then track them back to their source are finding that their best performers tend not to come from the best schools. Why? Those employees tend to turn over far more quickly than employees with good critical thinking skills who attended second or even third tier schools.

    One of our customers is a very large, defense contractor. In fairness to them, I won’t call them out here. But one of their university recruiters stated publicly during a panel discussion that I moderated that their cost of hiring through their “virtual” program was 10 percent of what it cost to hire on-campus as there’d almost no staff time to source candidates on-line as compared to interviewing on-campus AND the “virtual” hires were 10 times more productive because they stayed for three, five, or even more years as compared to their on-campus hires who typically jumped ship within a year or two.

    1. Hi Steven,

      Thanks for reading the article and for your comment. Definitely an interesting thing to consider. I think that on-line strategy can work best at a larger scale (in the case of an agency or a medium or large business). For single smaller businesses (like the one I work for), we are most successful by targeting individual schools (both tier 1 and tier 2 schools, to use the terms) and honing in our off-line approaches to those schools. This is not as scalable of a solution, but given our need to hit at a very high rate with recruits, we think it is worth spending more for these targeted schools. This approach might not work for all companies, but has worked well for us and likely would for similar groups.

      Thanks again for your comment. It is something I will keep in mind as we grow and will also be helpful to other readers in a similar situation.

      1. Paul,

        Yeah, I definitely agree with you that a more school agnostic approach works better for large organizations. When you’re hiring dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of students and recent graduates from one-, two-, and four-year colleges and universities, it is just so over the top expensive in terms of staff time to rely upon on-campus interviewing. It can be a part of the picture, but shouldn’t be the entire and probably not even most of the picture.

        No good recruiter should ever look at any source as the only source. Whether it is a school, your network, the newspaper, billboards, or job boards like LinkedIn and College Recruiter, you never want to rely upon one source. I’ve heard some very smart recruiters say that the best tool in the world in the hands of the best carpenter in the world won’t allow that carpenter to build a house. They need multiple tools. They need to know how to use them all well. And they need for all of the tools to be well designed for the job.

        1. I can certainly echo almost exactly what Paul and team has found successful. We’ve scaled from 10 to 150 (mostly software engineers) over the past 6-7 years and while we use almost all the tools (university career fairs, Job boards, internal referal prgram, and always beta test at least one new platform every month or two), we have found our University recruiting to be #2 source behind internal referrals. We’ve attempted to do the digital version of the University intern/entry-level hiring over the years with Readyforce, InternMatch/LookSharp, Piazza and a couple others. While it is true that the travel is non-existant, and we don’t have to spend money on T-shirts or career fair fees, the digital version after years of experimenting, didn’t provide the same level of quality, volume or excitement from the studnets as actually meeting kids at school.

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