As income inequality in the U.S. strikes historic highs, many people are starting to feel that the American dream is either dead or out of reach. Only 64 percent of Americans still believe that it’s possible to go from rags to riches, and, in another poll, 63 percent said they did not believe their children would be better off than they were. These days, the idea that anyone who works hard can become wealthy is at best a tough sell.

This growth in inequality has also sparked a national fascination in the so-called 1 percent. Namely, who are they? And how much money does one need to be part of this elite group? While the number varies by age (and there’s some geographical variation), in 2010 it took an income of $332,000 to be in the top 1 percent of U.S. households.

So who gets those jobs and how do they do it? Lauren Rivera, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, studies hiring and class and is the author of Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, based on more than 100 in-depth interviews with people who are in charge of hiring for elite firms in finance, consulting, and law, and a year spent with an on-campus hiring team for an elite firm. The book provides an insider look at how top-notch places hire, and explores how their processes serve those with the most privileged and affluent backgrounds.

“Hiring is one of the most consequential status sorts that people face—not only are people's salaries on the line, but people's livelihoods are on the line,” says Rivera.

I recently spoke with Rivera about her research. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity.


Bourree Lam: You spent a lot time with the gatekeepers of elite jobs. Why are these people important? Can you tell me a bit about who they are generally?

Lauren Rivera: In terms of the gatekeepers to these elite jobs, these are just people who are on the ground and responsible for deciding who is in and who is out, who gains access to professional jobs in management consulting, investment banking, etc. The decisions they make have huge consequences for students, in terms of not only their immediate post-graduate opportunities and the salaries they make, but also opportunities for future and career growth and development.

There are commonalities with these individuals: They tend to be a very elite group, they tend to come from a fairly prestigious set of institutions, and they tend to come from some of the most highly educated and affluent backgrounds as well. This is pretty standard across the industries.

Lam: Do these elite firms only recruit from elite schools? Or is it more like elite schools preferred?

Rivera: It's an interesting situation. I think if you were to ask someone at first glance, they would say "Oh anyone can work at my firm" and they could probably point to one or two people who didn’t attend elite schools. But if you look at how these firms' recruiting processes actually work in practice now, the chances of getting into one of these firms from what's called a non-targeted school is extremely low. And this is because these firms starting around the 1980s shifted from a hiring system in which people were hired in a one-off fashion through informal networks to really focusing on on-campus recruitment where firms hire directly out of the graduating classes and oftentimes earlier from elite universities.

What ends up happening is that firms create lists. So there's a school list, and on the list there are cores and there are targets. Cores are generally the most prestigious schools; targets are highly prestigious schools. Cores receive the most love. But basically if you're not from one of these cores or target schools it's extremely hard to get into one of these firms.

Lam: Are we talking about a mental list or a physical list?

Rivera: It varies. Most firms actually have physical lists. Sometimes it's more mental but more often than not it's actually a list that an HR professional will have. It's very clear who's a core and who's a target and if you're not on the list, it's just really hard to get your resume seen, partially because these jobs are highly desirable—they receive so many applications—and there's a widespread perception that "the best students go to the best schools." The list may vary from firm to firm but they are convinced that the schools on their lists are the best schools. So sticking to that list you might miss some people, for them it seems like a pretty good solution. But in terms of inequality, what ends up happening is if you're not at one of those schools, the only way to really get into one these firms is to have a personal connection to someone who already works there.

Lam: In the book you talk about an HR professional who says she has never read a resume because it's a waste of time. Why would that be the case? How common is this?

Rivera: To clarify, it's just the resumes that are not from targeted schools and those who don't have a personal connection might be discarded. So if you are from a target campus, or you're sponsored, chances are someone's going to look. If you fall into neither one of those buckets, you'll find yourself in a bit of a pickle.

Part of the reason this happens at these firms in particular is logistics. The firms end up dedicating HR staff to a specific school—so they'll have a team for Harvard, they'll have a team for Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, and so forth. When you are from one of those schools and you submit your resume, there's a designated person or team whose job is to review your resume. When you're not at one of those listed schools what ends up happening is that your resume just goes into this big broad bucket where they may or may not be a certain person who's charged with reviewing those resumes. And even when there is someone charged with reading those resumes, they are inundated with thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of resumes. So part of it is just resources and logistics in terms of where firms choose to devote the vast majority of their human capital. When you have five people dedicated to the Harvard team, and one person dedicated to all schools that are not the 20 from which you recruit—you can see that there are real-time restrictions.

That said, I did interview a couple HR professionals who made it their priority to go through that list once in a while because they thought that the process and screening of school prestige was unfair. Usually these were individuals who themselves came from lower status schools, and some of them looked specifically for graduates from their own alma maters. But it really took a personal desire to help other people out to do this, because these firms can fill their entire ranks every single year just sticking to the list.

A lot of people would say this process is efficient and effective. By screening out these individuals you may be getting a fast process, you can fill your ranks with prestigious employees that could look good to clients, and you can create communities within the firm of like-minded people who went to the same schools. But you may not be identifying people who are best for the job and, crucially, you're restricting the class diversity and racial diversity to those who attend the most elite schools.

Lam: I'm struck by the point you're making about top-tier firms saying "we're the best firms, we have to hire from the best schools" and believing it's a pure meritocracy. What's wrong with this way of thinking?

Rivera: I understand where that thinking comes from. There are lots of different types of schools out there and prestige is one metric especially with national rankings now that are easily quantifiable. You have a list of top 10 schools, you can say, "Okay someone else told me these are the best, I can justify not looking anywhere else."

But what's wrong with it is that I don't think people understand the extent to which elite university admissions are biased against individuals from lower-income backgrounds. We have this narrative that they really are the most rigorous admissions processes that cherry pick the best and the brightest irrespective of social background—and that's actually pretty false. Some of the things that matter most in getting into an elite college—whether it's your SAT score, your extra-curricular participation, the actual high school you attended—are so strongly influenced by social class that you're not necessarily getting the best and the brightest. You're getting good and bright people who come from the most privileged backgrounds.

Lam: I want to talk about how this discrimination shakes out in the way firms assess social skills and the idea of “fit.”

Rivera: Fit and social skills are very different from one another. Social skills are the ability to communicate with others. Fit is about "do I match?" with the specific interviewer or specific person screening my resume.

Lam: Let's talk about social skills first and then fit. What kind of social skills are elite companies looking for?

Rivera: I think a lot of what they're looking for when they're looking for with social skills—or “polish”—is conformity to this particular way of interacting that's very common in upper-middle-class, upper-class social circles. They're really looking for, in the interview setting, not only someone who presents well—in terms of someone who's dressed professionally, who makes eye contact, who seems confident (because those tend to be social skills that are valued even if you go across class), but they're looking for conformity to these very specific ideals, this delicate balance between being a good listener, and following instructions and what the interview has to say, but also subtlety taking charge.

This is a very, very interesting dynamic because if you grew up in a working-class environment and you go for a job interview to work at a factory, people aren't looking for you to actively take the reins of conversation and establish common grounds with your interviewer; they're looking for you to follow the interviewer, they're measuring in many ways conformity and obedience to authority. For someone who has not been in this type of interview, the idea that the interviewee is supposed to actively take the reins of the conversation—in some respect kind of interview the interviewer—is very, very different to what people are used to.

They're also looking for a lack of regional accent that the person doing the interview finds distasteful. That definitely varies from interviewer to interviewer. So they're looking for those class-based kinds of things in additional to the more standard social-skills criteria.

Lam: You also talk about the ability to frame your story in a way that the interviewer will like, but that often black, Hispanic, and Asian candidates lose out on this measure. Why is that?

Rivera: When it comes to personal stories, the people who end up losing out the most are individuals from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds regardless of race. Why this happens is because interviewers prioritize a particular plot line in which the interviewee describes him or herself as a protagonist single-handedly navigating a jungle where they have a goal in mind and they relentlessly pursue this personal passion and they do so through a series of concerted, and preferably linear steps in an upward trajectory, to beat all odds and achieve this personal-oriented goal.

The reason why the individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds lose out on this is firstly the ability to pursue a personal passion. Say you want to be a chef at Le Cordon Bleu, that ability to do so unfettered by structural constraints is a very privileged way of being in the world. But also knowing to tell your story in that respect is not knowledge that everyone has. So knowing to disclose deeply personal information about yourself—the best stories are not necessarily why you want to be a banker at Goldman Sachs, but how you reached the summit of Mount Everest—knowing that's what interviewers value creates a disadvantage for individuals who don't have those types of stories, or don't know how to tell them.

Lam: You describe in the book that telling an interviewer working just because you want to work is not a good enough story. In fact, it's the worst.

Rivera: Yeah, interviewers really look for “personal passion.” The idea of passion was so central to a convincing story—things like obligations were kind of a buzz kill. They wanted something that had more of a personal touch, and it was fueled by inner drive instead of any type of external demand—whether it's a family member you have to take care of, or you have to pay your tuition bills, and so forth. That was not as valued.

The only exception these interviewers really liked are dramatic rags to riches stories, where the interviewee presents him or herself as rising completely from poverty. They had to be dramatic, they had to have a positive resolution: They graduated first in their class, or they got into Princeton. Without positive resolutions, the interviewer saw these stories as depressing.

But this creates a Catch 22 in two ways: The first is that individuals who come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds don't often know that telling these deeply personal stories are appropriate. Second, some people actually want to hide information about coming from an underprivileged background because they think it could harm the perceptions of fit. So they don't know that telling these stories can be advantageous.

The other thing I saw is the overlap in race. In American society in general, and these firms are no different, I think we lack sophisticated language for distinguishing and talking about class versus race. What ended up happening in the interview is that some, not all, but some interviewers assumed that minority candidates who were racial minorities came from disadvantaged backgrounds. They expected the black and Hispanic candidates to have rags to riches stories. Now when these candidate did not tell these stories, either because they didn't have them or because they didn't come from disadvantaged backgrounds, that also resulted in somewhat of a letdown, which is fascinating.

The firms that I studied in general would call someone African American even if they're from the U.K. and they are black. Class, race, and nationality were not things that people had a very sophisticated understanding, and how these things are different and might affect someone's life chances.

Lam: What about fit? The "stuck-at-the-airport" test?

Rivera: Fit is more about culture, than about demographic characteristics. So this idea that hanging out with someone at the airport is you're looking for someone who you want to shoot the shit with, have a beer with, all these sort of things. It wasn't about automatically disadvantaging women; who it did automatically disadvantage were those who were stereotypically feminine. Most of the interviewers were athletes, whether they were athletes in college or they liked to run marathons, they did extreme sports on the weekends, or golf on the weekends with their buddies. Drinking was a main thing too. The types of things that people liked to do in their spare time across ages in these firms were overwhelmingly stereotypically masculine. There are, of course, always variations. Chances are, the person you're interviewing with likes sports. Who that ended up disadvantaging were men and women who were stereotypically feminine in their interests.

If you're matched with an interviewer who ran marathons and you really like going to the opera, there could be a clash there regardless of gender. So it ended up disadvantaging women, but also men who were more stereotypically feminine.

Lam: You saw some non-elite students breaking this so-called class ceiling. How did they do it?

Rivera: They were some of the small number of people who do so. In the book I outline several pathways by which individuals do this, most of the people I interviewed benefited from more than one pathway. The commonality is that it required having one foot in elite world already. Most people from socio-economically underprivileged backgrounds who break through into these occupations, many of them are coming from highly prestigious schools. Partially because of the class biases in admissions, partially because these students have an opportunity to learn what's valuable in these contexts.

The different pathways: First was sheer chance or luck; I call it serendipitous match. Just the luck of the draw, certain individuals were paired with evaluators in these firms who were somewhat different from those at the firm themselves. This was not always in terms of socio-economic background—it could be that they championed diversity, or they shared some kind of life event or a passion. It's totally coincidence: You happen to be paired with someone who believes in the validity of your experience and then fights for you.

The second one is learning through osmosis. These were individuals who had been immersed in elite environments prior to the job process. People who went to selective or private high schools or boarding schools … and what this did was it immersed people in elite culture and seeing what the rules of this game are well before they actually go through the job process. So you have chances to observe and practice.

Another pathway, which was related, was people simply mimicking others. If you know an elite friend or classmate, I met one person who just pretended he was one of his best friends from law school who came from a very privileged background and just literally pretended to be him in interviews. That's a riskier strategy, because often times people can tell when you're not being authentic.

Another pathway was the U.S. military, the evaluators tended to limit this to the U.S. as opposed to foreign military service, but there was something about being in the military that was awe-aspiring enough that it could compensate for a lack of similarities between interviewers and interviewees. It was also seen as a metric of drive.

The last venue was alternative sources of credentials. Students who went through Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, an organization whose mission is to provide in-roads into these elite jobs for students from diverse backgroundswhether that's racial or socio-economic.

There is mobility in the U.S., it's just very small. Likewise in these jobs, there are certain cases of individuals from less privileged backgrounds who do get these jobs but the chances are it's not going to happen.

Lam: What recommendations do you have for schools and firms to disrupt this hiring process that reinforces inequality?

Rivera: In terms of schools … schools are crucial because they really do shape the candidate pool into these jobs. I think that adopting less class-biased admissions criteria at elite universities would be really important. I think giving less weight to extracurricular activities and the specific high school someone attended could be an important step. I also think, and other researchers show, that if you rely more on class ranks than SAT scores you'll probably help level things out a little bit. The SAT is great at many things, but it's also a huge engine of inequality.

In terms of firms, even if schools were to be completely class neutral in their admission processes—which we know they're definitely not—that alone wouldn't change the situation, because firms themselves really do use these class-based hiring criteria.

Things that firms could do to help neutralize this and create a more level playing field … the first would be to adopt a more expansive definition of educational quality. Many of the schools currently on [HR] lists have no practical training in things relevant to being a banker, consultant, or lawyer. And many of the lower-tier schools do.

To help them cope with a wider pipeline, which is something a lot of the professionals in these firms are really concerned about, they could perform more intensive screens on grades as well as tasks performed in prior jobs. Those are two things that are somewhat used in the interview process now and somewhat used in a resume screening, but the degree to which they are used is surprisingly low.

I think another thing that could be done is blinding evaluators, both in resume screens and in interviews, to candidates’ extracurricular activities. That's because extracurricular activities are a huge source of class inequality whether it's in university admissions or in interviews. It's one of the primary ways people judge both fit and drive at the resume screening stage and they tend to create biases by socio-economic status and also, again, by this gender typicality thing.

It's not limited to sports, when you talk to interviewers about what kind of extracurricular activities they find fascinating, they mention things that are adrenaline-inducing such as gambling, high-stakes dice rolling … these very stereotypically masculine activities. People tend not to get wowed by knitting. Most people would rather have a triathlete, or someone who does something that's stereotypically masculine and awe-aspiring. That emotional aspect is really important.

Most firms are just doing best guesses. People have their lay theories about what makes a good hire, and that's how the hiring criteria are implemented. You see people having pet favorite questions, "Who would you go to dinner with if you could choose anyone?", and people really believe that's what predicts a really good hire. But creating interviews that both reduce inequality and increase the quality of new hires involves systematic data analysis of what actually drives on-the-job performance and then matching the hiring criteria accordingly. A lot of firms don't want to do that, because I think many are afraid of what they'll find.

Lam: I think you're giving the firms a lot of credit by saying that they want to hire someone who can do the job, and that's all they're looking for.

Rivera: I think, fundamentally, they are looking for someone who can do the job. Most would say they're looking for someone who can do the job adequately but also who will provide them with a sense of personal enjoyment and fulfillment on the job … People are not only looking for people who can do the job but they want to find friends on the job, they want people to fill them with positive emotions, and they use these very personalized metric to judge that. But whether or not that ends up benefitting organizations in the long run is an open question.