How To Hire The Best New Graduates

Life experience matters as much as work experience. And it’s now possible to tweet your way into a job. Real-world hiring tips from HR vets.

How To Hire The Best New Graduates

As recruiters and hiring managers gird their loins for the onslaught of cover letters, tweets, and calls from the newly minted class of 2013 looking to get a foothold on the first rung of the corporate ladder, they’re facing new challenges.


Thanks to the slow economic recovery, 41% of those who graduated in the past two years are cooling their heels in jobs that don’t require a degree, according to a survey from consulting firm Accenture. No wonder three out of four people are in constant job search mode. It also significantly increases the pool of entry-level candidates at a time when resources are still tight. Employers surveyed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) said they would hire 2.1% more new college grads from the Class of 2013 than from last year’s class. That’s a hefty slide down from the 13% increase projected back in the fall of 2012.

Mike Steinerd, director of recruiting at Indeed’s job search site, has spent more than a decade on the interviewing side of the desk and is a firm believer in looking beyond the resume and into the face of the candidate to see if they have the all-important “soft skills” like communication and professionalism, whether or not they smile, have a firm handshake and positive energy.

That’s not to say the cover letter won’t speak volumes about the candidate. He advises hiring managers to consider word usage, grammar, and creativity. Look for a person who can effectively connect their interests and skills to the open position. For resumes, those who have laid out their experience, education, and activities clearly and concisely is key. Blocky paragraphs peppered with bad grammar or ineffective cliches should be a good indication of the person’s lack of communication skills.

And there are other, more subtle clues to use to find the best people for the job. Here are insights on how to do just that.  

Life Experience in Lieu of a Job
Steinerd tells Fast Company that many hiring managers are ill-equipped to effectively interview recent graduates to find out if they will be a good fit for the company and position. “A common interview style is the behavioral interview, which focuses on past performances as an indicator of future success,” he explains. Those are fine, but for resumes that aren’t peppered with key performance metrics, he recommends asking questions that focus on past life experiences. 

Jodee Kozlak, executive vice president of human resources at Target, understands this dynamic quite well. Target has more than 360,000 team members worldwide, many of whom are entry level or just beginning their careers, she asserts. This year, the company expects to hire more than 3,000 recent graduates.


Kozlak says that in addition to such non-negotiable skills of intelligence and capability, Target hiring managers look to understand who each candidate really is in an authentic way. “What have they done in their life–in school or beyond–to make a difference and have an impact? Why did they choose one path versus another?” are some of the questions asked, she says. “We want to understand their thought process and emotional drive.”

Who Volunteered
MTV’s workforce is nearly half Millennial, a group better known for wanting to do good than collecting big paychecks. “Volunteering” isn’t just for social causes. Nancy Newman, chief of staff of Viacom Media Networks Music Group (that’s HR for MTV, VH1, LOGO and CMT–whew!) says thanks to the company’s competitive search and review process for every open position, candidates who don’t have years of experience or an existing connection to MTV get vetted thusly.

“We’re always looking for young professionals who are taking initiative and actively pursuing those things they’re passionate about,” says Newman. Writers who worked on their school paper or started their own blog would get attention. Those who volunteered at their school’s radio or TV station would also score points.  

Beyond the Internship
Though MTV is well-known for its intern program, Newman says she also looks for potential candidates who tried freelancing first, on a special event like the VMAs, a show, production, or campaign. “Many of the entry-level employees in our production, marketing, and press groups cut their teeth as freelancers first,” she says.

WhitePages also likes to hire from within its demanding internship program but the company’s recruiting evangelist Jenny Kohr Chynoweth says that she, too, is looking beyond, especially for non-technical hires. Those applicants must run a gauntlet including creating a presentation to showcase their ideas, expertise, and a glimpse of what they’d bring to the table if they joined the team, she says. “We recently hired a designer with little professional design experience and she did a mock redesign of Seattle’s local metro collateral,” Chynoweth explains. “While she didn’t have the experience on her resume, her creative idea and impressive presentation landed her the job.”

Picking the Best and Brightest
Competition for jobs works both ways, according to Steinerd. He advises hiring managers to keep in mind the likelihood that a recent graduate is interviewing with several companies and may have several offers. “Companies need to articulate what differentiates them from their competitors and why that may be attractive to the prospective hire,” he says. Especially when the applicant doesn’t have a clear vision of what they want, the more informative the employer can be about the role, the culture, the potential for professional development, the better their chance for getting them on board. “Asking questions during the interview to understand their aspirations and interests is paramount,” he says.


To Train or Not to Train
Can employers reasonably expect an inexperienced worker to hit the ground running? That depends on the job, says Steinerd. If it’s sales or customer service and the candidate is bumbling through the most basic questions and not making eye contact, it’s going to be tough to expect them to sail into a meeting and hold court.

In the past three years Steinerd’s observed that grads tend to let basic interview etiquette slip. Not wearing professional attire, not preparing questions or research on the company, not engaging the interviewer in a professional manner, or not turning off the cell phone before the interview are growing trends he says, but professionalism can be taught on the job.

Bottom Line–Consider the Whole Person
Like many companies, Target encourages employees to bring their “whole self” to work. That’s why when hiring, Kozlak says, “Ultimately, moving beyond a resume and GPA and taking a more holistic view of a candidate leads to the creation of a team that’s set to succeed, challenging the status quo and innovating ahead of the industry curve.”

[Image: Flickr user Tambako The Jaguar]

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.