Referrals: A Powerful but Missing Element of College Recruiting (Part 2 of 2)

Things to Do

  • Offer rewards. Surprisingly, many people associated with a university are willing to make referrals with no promise of a reward. Why? Because they really believe in the abilities of the students they know and work with. You don’t need to give away a flat-screen TV in order to be successful. Students will readily refer with simple rewards like gas cards, iPods, software, movie tickets, a pizza party for their friends, professional sports tickets, or a chance to win a spring-break vacation. Offer students a choice from a list of rewards. It’s best to start small and then increase the rewards if you find those under $100 are ineffective. Since every campus is different, directly asking students or trial and error are the best ways to determine what works. You can also offer campus clubs and student professional organizations larger rewards for successful hires as a result of their referrals. The key is to offer an exciting reward but not one with an economic value so high that it might cause someone embarrassment.
  • Referral cards. Referral cards are under-used in both traditional employee programs and in college referral programs. Think of the excitement an individual gets when they’re handed a card that says “WOW, you really impressed me. You’re just the kind of person that would be perfect at XYZ firm!” Referral cards can be electronic (like an e-greeting card) or on paper. It’s important to limit the number you deliver (to make sure the people who get them feel “special”). It is also extremely important that individuals responding to such invitations to apply are not treated identically to applicants walking in off the street.
  • Utilize your databases. Use the information you gain from other sources, including scholarships, participation in community events, and working with alumni groups. Data mine the information in order to identify potential referrers.
  • Use blogs. Have recent grads and interns (and even college recruiters) write blogs that discuss what it is like to work at your firm. Blogs are an effective way both to attract and “sell” students on your firm. Ask your most successful bloggers to evaluate those that make great comments or ask good questions on their blog and to make referrals if they identify someone special.
  • Social networks. Encourage your recent grads, interns, and employees who work in functions that target college grads to be active on social networks like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. Ask them to build relationships with individuals who show promise.
  • Ads, posters, and campus radio. Although they can produce some good referrals, your screening program has to be able to handle a larger volume than when more targeted marketing approaches are utilized.


  • Global referrals. If your college recruiters are Internet-savvy and well traveled, you will find that it’s possible to set up basic referral programs at universities around the globe, without ever visiting them. The office of international programs at international universities might even be aware of and be willing to make referrals from among their crop of U.S. students who are currently studying as part of an exchange program. This allows you to get students with foreign experience and no visa issues that other U.S. firms are likely to miss.
  • Referrals at student conferences. It’s wise to send a recruiter to student conferences in order to make contacts and get referrals.
  • Ask for referrals from other schools. Don’t restrict referrals to students from the same school. Instead ask them for the names of students they know who are good at other name universities.
  • Collaborate with other college recruiters. Where appropriate, consider making informal agreements with other recruiters who visit your campuses to “trade” non-competing referrals from majors that “their” firm isn’t targeting but yours is. For example, in the case where one firm is recruiting only engineers and your firm is recruiting writers, both firms agree to make a referral should they run across a great student in the other firm’s recruiting target area. Obviously, no cash bonus should be offered in this case where both firms benefit.

Approach These People for Referrals

  • Approach grad assistants. The most successful college intern referral effort that I’ve ever encountered in my research received a phenomenal 100% success rate by asking the grad assistants of a few top professors to make referrals from the undergraduate students they had worked with. Grad assistants are easy to find, well-connected, and willing to make referrals, often without a reward. In addition, a simple call to the department office can identify them. In addition, one firm I know successfully recruited them remotely, without ever meeting them face-to-face.
  • Approach officers of student organizations. Other than grad assistants, no one is likely to know the very best students better than the student president of an honor society or an elite professionally oriented student club. Student organizations are easy to find without visiting campus because they are affiliated with student government. In addition, most have webpages that list their officers and contact numbers.
  • Approach honor societies. Referrals from officers and members are likely to be of higher quality than other student groups. Also ask award winners to refer other students.
  • Ask your recent college hires. Obviously, recent graduates will still know and be in contact with some current students. Ask them on the first day of onboarding to provide you with referral names and to help you in convincing the targeted student to apply.
  • Approach interns as referral sources. Make it a standard part of your internship program to ask students to make three to five referrals during their internship. Also consider making them “ambassadors” for the firm when they return to campus. While on campus, ask them to make one or two referrals each month. Even using former interns (who chose not to return) as referral sources can yield a few top referrals.
  • Ask references to make referrals. You might be surprised to find that the references of exceptional students, when asked, also turn out to know one to three additional students who are also likely to be exceptional. To take advantage of this phenomenon, make a list of those who referred the very best and make them a permanent part of your college referral process.
  • During conversations with exceptional students. Whenever you find a really exceptional student, find a way to make it part of the conversation, email exchange, or interview to ask them to identify and refer a handful of other exceptional students. Because they compete against each other in labs and classes, they will know the best of the best.
  • During conversations with diverse students. Diverse and international students can feel somewhat isolated from the rest of the university community. As a result they tend to stick together and share the same networks. Take advantage of this closeness, while simultaneously improving your diversity recruiting results by utilizing referrals. The key is to educate a few leaders in each community about the inclusiveness of your firm and the success that diverse and international student hires have had there. Use your current diverse and international employees as mentors and relationship builders. Once the relationships are strong, show your contacts how they can help themselves and their community by becoming a permanent part of your referral process.
  • Use current employees. Your employees with kids at top schools are likely to meet some of their children’s friends during visits and school breaks. Take advantage of these contacts and encourage your employees to make a few “exceptional” referrals. Consider allowing your employees to make one referral from among their own children if they are currently enrolled in a targeted major at a targeted school. If you know of any of your employees who teach or volunteer at targeted universities, make them part of your referral effort.
  • Ask high school counselors. Some firms start identifying talent early in their academic life. If you go this route, ask counselors at top high schools to give you names of their top students. Then build relationships with them as they move through college.
  • Ask community college faculty and counselors. Build relationships with these students as they go on to other schools. Often community college faculty are less reluctant to make referrals because an immediate job is really being offered.
  • Employees using educational reimbursement. Ask employees who are taking advantage of your educational reimbursement at targeted schools to make a few outstanding referrals.
  • Night and virtual students. At some schools, a significant portion of the student body is not on campus during most Career Center hours. However, in my experience, both night and virtual students form academic and social networks at least as tight as those formed by traditional students.
  • Approach faculty. Part-time lecturers and adjunct faculty generally have full-time “regular” jobs, and as a result, they are less likely to be fully aware of the services offered by the Career Center. In my experience, they are more likely to be willing to refer individual students directly to a firm than traditional tenured faculty. If you can build a relationship with them, ask if they would consider referring one or two students a year. Some tenured faculty will not make direct referrals, but some will (I do). Ask them to identify super students who might not appear on the “radar screen” of the traditional Career Center hiring process. Especially focus on faculty who already have some relationship with your firm. Some faculty are not comfortable making formal referrals, but if you ask them directly to “name your best student,” they will give you the name without hesitation.
  • Alumni groups. Recent grads who are part of the Alumni association can be asked to refer current students they know.
  • Administrative staff. Outside of “top 10″ schools and in low-demand majors, where the competition is not so intense, you will find that many staff employees are eager to help the students they know get an internship or job placement opportunity. If you find a university where that is the case, work with internship coordinators, tutoring coordinators, or the director of the computer or science labs.

Final Thoughts

If you are not fiercely competitive, you might initially resist the concept of student referrals just because you, or no one in HR, had ever heard of them before. But don’t let that stop you.

If you have concerns about the propriety of referrals, remember that students are not university employees and they are free to make referrals and even to accept gifts (like free pizza at your information sessions). If you use a referral program, you are not precluded from interviewing referred students through the traditional Career Center process.

Any concern about doing something new and bold will fade rapidly when you find, like other firms have, that college hire referral programs work almost immediately and they produce amazing results.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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