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How to Hire – and Retain – Recent College Graduates


Every business owner knows that hiring recent college graduates can be challenging – especially if it’s their first corporate experience. Many companies will try to shy away from it altogether. However, if you’re like us, you’ll inevitably have to take a risk and hire some of them. 

We have learned the hard way that many recent grads are not yet ready for the real world. To be honest, when I graduated, I don’t think I was either! Over the years we have had to interview a lot of recent grads to find those who are ready. We have found that there are some things you can look for – and other things you can avoid – in order to hire them successfully. 

Challenges of Hiring Recent Grads

Recent grads may be disillusioned because work isn’t as much fun as college was – and they’re probably not changing the world right off the bat, either. As an employer, you’re in a tough position if you’re offering them their first real job. Without a benchmark to compare it to, they may not even recognize it as a great opportunity. 

Recent Grads

On top of that, recent grads may be living on their own for the first time. While they had a degree of independence in college, everything in that environment was still relatively structured. Now, they are dealing with a host of responsibilities outside of work, including paying their own bills. 

Furthermore, most recent grads don’t really know what they want to be when they grow up, and thus present a flight risk. It’s pretty rare these days that anyone keeps the first job they get after college for long. There tends to be a professional learning curve – and a lot of job-hopping that goes along with it.

Before we even start the interview process, we have to recognize that we are hiring for raw talent. This is Hiring 101, and applies regardless of the position we are filling. First, we break the position we’re hiring for down into the raw talents that are essential for the job: for example, perseverance, thick skin and a positive attitude. We then structure a hiring process that will help us determine whether or not the candidate has the right raw talents. 

What to Look for During the Interview Process

When we get to interviews, we use a few screening criteria that have worked for us, and can work for most companies, too. Here’s what we do to maximize our chances of hiring the best recent grads:

  • Determine if they know what they want to do. As previously mentioned, most recent grads don’t know what they want to do – but they’re going to tell you during the interview process that they want to do your job. To ferret out what they’re really after, ask them what other jobs they’re applying for. The first few jobs they list will often be similar to yours – but keep asking. If everything aligns with your position, great. If they also mention that they’re applying to the Peace Corps and to law school, they probably don’t know what they want to do, and are therefore a flight risk. However, knowing exactly what they want to do isn’t a hard and fast rule. Some of our most successful employees didn’t know when they first got here.
  • Look for people who have deliberately done something difficult. Rigorous academics, athletics and working to pay their way through college are all great examples. This shows us that the applicant knows how to take on a challenge and work hard to overcome it, and has experienced the fulfillment of achieving their goals. And it means they’ll be more prepared to deal with the challenges they’ll inevitably encounter in the workplace.
  • Ask about near-term and long-term goals. We want their near-term and long-term goals to align with business, or at least with working in a for-profit environment. While there’s no one right answer to what their goals are, there are a few wrong answers, and “being in Austin” is one of them. If that’s what you’re optimizing for, then you could be doing anything – and you probably want an easier job than ours. 
  • Look for tough work experience. We like it when candidates have had an unglamorous job, such as waiting tables, bartending or working retail. And we love it when they have worked to pay their own way through college. Tough jobs are great for preparing grads for the real world, because they’ve had to learn the value of money, that it doesn’t come easily and that they have to work hard to get it. They probably also learned that the world isn’t fair and doesn’t owe them anything. 
  • Ask about their role models. We like it when applicants have role models: family or friends in the business world, or in the role we’re hiring for. If so, they’ll have someone else to turn to for perspective and guidance. Plus, if they’ve known their role models for a long time, they’ll already have a sense of what their own career trajectory is going to look like, both during and after the tough times. 
  • Assess whether they’ll give you a two-year commitment. We want only those employees who will stay with us longer than two years. And we are up-front about that with all of our candidates. Try to assess whether or not you think the applicant will stick around based on their goals, perspective and personality.

Things That Don’t Really Matter

Just as there are things you want to look out for, there are things that you can overlook when hiring recent college grads. Here are a few things that you may not need to consider:

  • Grade point average (GPA). There are some roles in which it does matter, but for a lot of entry-level roles, it doesn’t. For personality-driven positions, such as sales and support, we prioritize the candidate’s energy and confidence over strict intellect. For roles such as research, analysis and finance, academic performance is a stronger indicator of success on the job. However, for these positions, we also tend to hire people with more work experience than a recent grad would have. 
  • College major. Similar to GPA, a candidate’s major in college is often not indicative of their future job performance. Just because someone majored in marketing, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be good at it – or even enjoy doing it – in the real world. When a major could help is when it’s a really challenging one, such as math, engineering, or computer science. But we rarely see that on applications. 
  • Internships. There’s only one scenario in which internships help: if the applicant performed the specific duties of the role we’re hiring for in a very difficult setting. For example, if they had a sales internship in college, were they just supporting the sales team by making copies and running errands, or were they dialing 200 cold calls a day? Only the latter would matter to me. And an internship with a parent’s friend at Morgan Stanley is probably useless.

Very few recent college graduates will meet this strict criteria, so remember: patience is a virtue in this process. You’re going to have to interview a lot of recent grads, but if you know what to look for and look out for, you can hire and retain valuable members of your team.

Photo courtesy of Amanda.

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About the Author

Austin Merritt is COO of Software Advice. He has performed a number of roles at the company, ranging from marketing and research to taking out the garbage. Austin is an avid outdoorsman and can often be found running the Town Lake trail in Austin, TX or exploring the mountains of Southwest Montana with his wife, Melissa.

Connect with Austin Merritt via: 
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