Elite Firms Fishing in a Very Small Hiring Pool

By Megan McArdle

Last week, I wrote the Tyranny of the Meritocracy, where I tried to explore, a little, the rise of a self-perpetuating educational elite from a system that was supposed to break down barriers to intergenerational income mobility.


Those who participated in that excellent discussion should be very interested in this post from Bryan Caplan on hiring practices at elite firms.  It will not exactly shock anyone, but it's worth thinking about:

1. Most applications practically go straight in the trash.

Because professionals balanced recruitment responsibilities with full-time client work, they often screened resumes while commuting to and from the office and client sites; in trains, planes, and taxis; frequently late at night and over take out... [E]valuators tended to do so very rapidly, typically bypassing cover letters (only about fifteen percent reported even looking at them) and transcripts and reported spending between 10 s to 4 min per resume.
2. Evaluators have a lot of slack. . . . In fact, evaluators explicitly select candidates similar to themselves in school rank, grades, etc. For example:

[R]oughly one-third of evaluators did not use educational prestige as a signal. One of the primary differences between these two groups was their own educational history, with those who had attended "top" schools being more likely to use educational prestige as a screen than those who had attended other types of selective institutions.
3. Super-elite credentials matter much more than your academic record:

[E]valuators drew strong distinctions between top four universities, schools that I term the super-elite, and other types of selective colleges and universities. So-called "public Ivies" such as University of Michigan and Berkeley were not considered elite or even prestigious...
4. Super-elite schools matter because they're strong signals, not because they're better at building human capital:

Evaluators relied so intensely on "school" as a criterion of evaluation not because they believed that the content of elite curricula better prepared students for life in their firms - in fact, evaluators tended to believe that elite and, in particular, super-elite instruction was "too abstract," "overly theoretical," or even "useless" compared to the more "practical" and "relevant" training offered at "lesser" institutions...
[I]t was not the content of an elite education that employers valued but rather the perceived rigor of these institutions' admissions processes. According to this logic, the more prestigious a school, the higher its "bar" for admission, and thus the "smarter" its student body.
. . .
5. At least in this elite sample, I'm totally wrong to think that extracurriculars don't matter:

[E]valuators believed that the most attractive and enjoyable coworkers and candidates would be those who had strong extracurricular "passions." They also believed that involvement in activities outside of the classroom was evidence of superior social skill; they assumed a lack of involvement was a signal of social deficiencies... By contrast, those without significant extracurricular experiences or those who participated in activities that were primarily academically or pre-professionally oriented were perceived to be "boring," "tools," "bookworms," or "nerds" who might turn out to be "corporate drones" if hired.

There's some valuable analysis at the link, so you should click through.


The hardest thing about the meritocracy's tyranny is that they're not necessarily doing it on purpose.  It's just a convenient shorthand for a group of people who are really busy.

Forget about the effects on society, though; this is terrible for organizations.  You see this in Washington all the time--a friend who went to a lesser-known state school said he could always tell the people he wasn't going to like when he met them at cocktail parties, because the minute he told them where he'd gone to school, they became extremely interested in going to get another drink or find the cheese dip.  This is one of the smartest, most consistently interesting and original, most talented writers I know.  Having actually attended one of those elite schools that apparently make you fascinating, I can attest firsthand that statistically, the elitists were vanishingly unlikely to be as interesting as the person they abandoned because he'd gone to a state college.

The Ivy League is full of smart, interesting people.  But it is not full of all of the smart, interesting people in the country, or even a majority of them.  And given the resumes required to get there, it produces a group of people who are narrow in certain predictible ways.  (I include myself in this: just because I can see it operating doesn't mean I can escape it.)  

The problem is that actually seeking out a wide variety of graduates would be much more expensive and time consuming.  Why spend the effort searching for "best" when you can easily access "very, very good"?

It's not actually a great personal tragedy to be turned down by McKinsey (she said, from personal experience); there are still a lot of interesting and remunerative jobs out there.  

But it may well be a corporate tragedy for McKinsey and its clients.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/11/elite-firms-fishing-in-a-very-small-hiring-pool/248734/