The Top 10 Best Approaches for Winning The ‘War For College Talent’

3381_Wyatt Hall WindowStudents 2011College recruiting has been in the doldrums during most of the economic downturn, and as a result there have been few strategic changes in it, even though the rest of the recruiting function has undergone major shifts during the downturn. And just in case you haven’t seen it yourself, I am predicting that college recruiting demand is about to explode and the competition will soon reach previous “war for college talent” levels.

This resurgence of interest in college hires is due to a reviving economy but also because of the urgent need in a VUCA world for employees who are creative, innovative, fast-moving and who are comfortable with new technology.

If you are one of the corporate talent leaders who want to get and stay ahead of the competition, the time is ripe for re-examining your college program to see what needs to be done to update it. Start with the college recruiting staff. Make sure that it is staffed with data-driven, experienced recruiting professionals prepared for real change, rather than simply enthusiastic young people whose primary qualification is that they themselves are recent college grads. I’ve put together a list of the top 10 categories of strategic change that could literally propel your program into dominance. They are listed with the most impactful strategic changes appearing first.

Action Steps to Win “the War for College Talent” in 2014

  1. Become metric driven — instead of operating based on tradition and past practices, convert your approach so that it becomes metric driven. A data-driven approach starts with measuring the on-the-job performance and the retention rate of new college hires (aka quality of hire) and using that data to determine which colleges, sources, credentials, and recruiting approaches actually produce the best performing hires. Next, predictive metrics will be necessary, so that you can plan ahead for both upcoming problems and opportunities in college recruiting. Although I don’t normally recommend calculating cost per hire, it is necessary in the college-recruiting case because I have seen programs that cost more than $40,000 per hire that never even bothered to measure the resulting quality of hire. A data-driven approach requires that you continually drop colleges and add new recruiting approaches based on your data that shows what currently produces the best quality of hire.
  2. Develop a college referral program — even though it is well-known that employee referral programs have proven to be the most effective of all recruiting programs when it comes to volume, quality, and speed of hire, most college programs inexplicably have no referral component. This makes no sense, especially because students are extremely well-connected both on and between campuses and there are many in the college community who are well aware of “who” the superior recruits are. Corporate referral sources should include your firm’s newly hired students, your interns, your current recruiting targets, and your employees and their families. Among the campus community, you want to solicit referrals from grad assistants, student organization leaders, tutors, and if you have them, your firm’s own student on-campus ambassadors. The most effective college referral programs have offered only small rewards or prizes that excite students.
  3. Develop a remote recruiting capability — even if you had an unlimited budget, you could still only physically visit roughly a dozen campuses. And even with a physical visit, you will undoubtedly miss connecting with a great deal of talent who doesn’t use the career center. Therefore, at the very least, excellent college programs need a supplemental program that has the capability of identifying and hiring top students remotely, from any college around the world. Remote college recruiting is easier than you think because, with the growth of social media, YouTube, and Skype interviews, you can now cost-effectively spread your message, identify, interview, and hire top talent from any campus, without a visit. You can reach students by having your employees write blogs on sites like Tumblr or by showing your firm’s exciting work and technology on YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram. You can identify student talent remotely by viewing their work online, through Internet contests, during online “meet ups” and online “office hours,” through referrals or by offering virtual “mini-project” opportunities to individuals and student teams. Once identified, a virtual mentor program can also allow your employees to help and assess college student targets that are remotely located. If you don’t currently offer them, virtual internships have proven to be effective in assessing students and for getting work done without the expense of travel and summer relocation. Firms like Nestle Purina have demonstrated that remote college recruiting can produce measurably superior results in a relatively short period of time.
  4. Communicate using the mobile platform — if you conduct some basic market research on students, you will find there is no better way to communicate with them than through their mobile phone. They literally carry it with them 24/7 and they respond to messages on it almost immediately. You can use it for many types of recruiting communications and messages, including tweets, recruiting videos, social media connections, Instagram pictures, and text messages. The key lesson to learn is that you have to communicate with students using the channels that they prefer and not the just ones that you are comfortable with. If your corporate college careers website isn’t mobile-phone friendly and you can’t apply 100 percent on your phone, you are, whether you know it or not, sending a message that your firm is behind the times.
  5. Adopt more scientific screeningrecent research by Google demonstrated what data-driven people in recruiting already knew, and that is that most of the assessment approaches that are commonly used in college recruiting simply do not accurately predict on-the-job success. Without data from your firm to prove their predictive value, if you use traditional assessment measures like grades, test scores, the school you attended, your major, and how well you answer “brainteaser” questions, without knowing it, you will end up hiring the wrong students. Perhaps the most telling finding was that despite the confidence and experience of recruiters, HR professionals, and hiring managers, interview scores turned out to have a “zero relationship” with on-the-job success. The accomplishments of individuals like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and many startup CEOs should force you to consider following the lead of Facebook and not require a completed degree at all. Internet technical contests have also proven to be an extremely accurate and cost-effective way for anonymously identifying and assessing top students from around the world. Firms can also now access a variety of on-line technical assessment tests or follow the lead of KPMG and begin to use simulations to assess.
  6. Market research will allow you to fully understand your target — most college programs erroneously assume that they “know” college students and what they look for in a job. Unfortunately, assuming that you can lump all college students into one homogenous group is a major error because for recruiting purposes, grad students are not like undergrad students; STEM students are not like art majors; and Ivy League students are not like Silicon Valley students. A superior method is to approach the recruiting of college students like it was a consumer marketing problem. Periodically conduct surveys and research studies that identify the different student market segments and that reveal what excites students about a job and company in each unique segment. This research can also reveal where the segment’s students hang out and where they would see and read recruiting and employer branding messages. Market research will force you to move away from one-size-fits-all approach and to shift to a superior variable recruiting strategy which changes the approach and the message depending on your target (i.e. the college, the major, the region, grad or undergrad, passive or active, top performer or average, and whether they are diverse).
  7. Videos for employer branding and recruiting — students are enamored with videos and one study shows that 84 percent of them view videos on YouTube. Because students spend so much time watching them and because videos allow you to show the excitement at your firm in a convincing and authentic manner, videos should be a primary recruiting tool. Every major firm should have its own YouTube channel for recruiting and employer branding. Employees, interns, and recent college hires should be encouraged to post their own personal videos showing why they love the firm. The company should post videos covering its best practices in most compelling employee stories. Encourage employees to place authentic self-made instructional videos on YouTube that cover technical areas that students are studying and researching. Mini videos can also be attached to tweets and other social media messages.
  8. Use grad assistants to identify talent — by far the best-kept secret in college recruiting is the powerful role the grad and teaching assistants can play in recruiting. They are on campus almost every day meeting with and advising students and grading their work. My own research has shown that they excel in identifying not just academic capabilities in students but also their teamwork and their soft skills. Calls to department offices can help you identify them. Focus on the graduate students who support the best professors who teach advanced subjects covering the majors that you are recruiting for. As an added benefit, it turns out that grad assistants are also extremely effective at convincing the best students to apply for your internships and positions.
  9. Start recruiting early in their academic careers — the very top college students will be literally “signed up” and off the market by their junior year. The best firms like Google and Deloitte now go so far as to target freshman. If you expect a competitive advantage, shift your approach so that your recruiting process becomes a continuous one, starting early in their freshman year and continuing during the semester breaks and summers with internships until they graduate. Obviously this “early-in-their-academic-career” recruiting approach needs to be a bit more subtle because the initial goal is simply to build a trust relationship with them. Virtually provide mentors from among your recent grads and peer mentors from among your interns.
  10. Include a delayed recruiting approach — you will only land a small percentage of your college recruiting targets. However, it is a mistake to consider a “failure to land a recruit” to be the end of your recruiting. In some cases, you will simply lose prospects to larger firms with great employer brands and superior recruiting budgets. But all is not lost if you use a delayed-recruiting approach. Under this delayed approach, you still try your best to recruit your top targets, but even after they’ve taken a job somewhere else, you actively maintain a relationship with them. And then, after waiting patiently one or two years, you ask them directly if they are ready for a change. You will often find that many of your targets are now disillusioned with their first-choice firm and that they are now anxious to try another different alternative (which may be your firm). Delayed hiring has an added advantage in that you get the same student but they are now trained, more mature, and probably more focused.

Final Thoughts

After more than 35 years of both teaching at universities and advising firms on how to recruit college students, I have no hesitation to state publicly that most of those involved in college recruiting (both employers and career centers) are extremely conservative and resistant to change. Universities have a well-earned reputation for sticking with tradition but an over reliance on tradition also unfortunately applies to corporate college recruiting functions.

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If that’s the case at your firm, rethink your approach and to shift toward a more data-driven and market-research-focused recruiting approach. Failing to make that shift will almost guarantee that you won’t get even your fair share of the highly desirable next generation of college students who love technology and social media and who have the creative and innovative ideas that your firm will need in order to remain competitive. Incidentally, if the practices outlined above seem academic or unrealistic to you, I assure you that each one has been tried and it has proven to be successful by at least one major firm.

image from the University of Puget Sound

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



4 Comments on “The Top 10 Best Approaches for Winning The ‘War For College Talent’

  1. Excellent advice John. I’d like to further amplify point #6.

    Not only will market research allow you to fully understand your target, but it also presents the added ability to test your messaging with the segment you’d like it to resonate with.

    Internal recruitment marketing and agency professionals (yes even Brandemix employer branding gurus)are sometimes guilty of drinking their own Kool-aid.

    Testing your recruitment messaging, offerings, campaigns or employer value proposition FOR your college market WITH your college market will allow you to see beforehand if your communications will actually resonate with your target audience and create actions that will lead to recruitment results.

  2. Interesting read, John!

    Expounding on point #3, more and more college students/alumni are turning to their individual career services centers for their job search. Whereas students/alumni(and recruiters too) get lost in the mix of over-qualified and under-qualified candidates in the open market, colleges’ individual career centers allow for direct connection between employers and students/alumni.

  3. Thanks Dr. Sullivan, I frequently point out to my recruiting colleagues that when someone starts discussing “the war for talent”, we should watch our wallets and hold our noses…

    More than 40 percent of recent U.S. college graduates are underemployed or need more training to get on a career track.

    The 10 Most Underemployed Majors: #1 Bus. Admin.

    A few advice points for those recruiting college grads:

    1) Don’t go after the “Fab 5%”: Ivy league grads in the most sought-for skill areas. Your company probably can’t get them, because you really don’t have much to offer that tens of thousands of other firms don’t have, as well UNLESS YOU DECIDE TO:

    2) Offer to pay their student loans for as long as they work for you–that’s a strong golden chain

    3) If you’re not going after the “Fab 5%”, offer to hire the good grad for a FT, decently-paid, well-benefitted job that reflects their KSAs- as we’ve seen, that’s a rather rare thing these days…



  4. Great article John!

    I can’t speak about all disciplines, but it is incredible how much things have heated up when trying to hire the best Computer Science students from the best schools. Many of the things you’ve outlined is increasingly becoming absolutely mandatory. Each year for the past several years has seen a drastic up-tick in competition.

    Further elaboration on #3… is a fantastic supplement to physically being at the career fairs (Alex Mooradian-CEO did a guest post on interns a couple days ago). To your point, you can only attend a limited number of fairs physically, but ReadyForce gives you options to access others.

    Further elaboration on #7… Visual representation is going to increasingly become a key separator and one of the best ways to engage students. is a fantastic example of this trend and how it is catching on with employers and employees.

    Further elaboration on #9 and #10… the timeline to hire a top-tier new grad in CS from the top schools is growing ever longer each year. Sometimes you have to look at it as a 3-4 year process, or (as you mentioned) potentially a 6 year cycle if you need to let someone find out that Google/Facebook/Linkedin/Amazon wasn’t exactly what they thought it would be and they need to make a change after 1-2 years.

    One of our best interns this year was a sophomore, but we’ve already got her locked and loaded for next summer in a different city. Same company… Different experience. Hopefully no other companies will even know her by the time she graduates 😉

    Another thing that has worked really well for us in the past two years was to branch out and go to some lesser served schools that aren’t on everyone’s top 30 lists. There are smart kids everywhere!! The density might not be the same as Stanford or MIT, but you have much less competition when you show up to a career fair and you’re the only company from SF, LA, or NYC at the event.

    Thanks again for the article and it reminds me that we need to work more on our “college referral program” since currently it is simply an extension of our “employee referral program”… That’s not good enough!! 😀


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