Before she stepped into her first on-campus recruitmen interview, Tiffany Osterhout, a senior at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., went to 10 stores in search of the perfect interview outfit (a conservative gray striped suit).
She put as much time into researching the company, the accounting and consulting firm Arthur Andersen & Co., as she did preparing for a midterm.
"I was so nervous that I couldn't concentrate on my homework or in class for several days before the interview," said Ms. Osterhout, an economics major. "Besides being my first interview, it was a company that's at the top of my list, and my classmates', too."
The interview took place in the fall, when many scientific, technical and accounting recruiters make their first trips to campuses.
It turned out as Ms. Osterhout hoped: She was invited for a second interview in the firm's Tampa office, her first-choice location.
"I'm anxious all over again because it's one thing to do well in a 30-minute interview and another to come across effectively during five or six interviews in one day," said Ms. Osterhout, who has also received invitations for on-site interviews with several of the 10 employers that interviewed her on campus.
Like many students with strong grade-point averages, work experience and involvement on campus, Ms. Osterhout is not as worried about finding a first job as she is getting a job offer from one of her top-choice companies.
But for the majority of students, lining up a good first job seems to be a more anxiety-ridden process these days.
Next month they'll be streaming into career-planning and placement offices at colleges across the nation as the spring recruiting season, which attracts more employers than does the fall season, begins.
In students' concern about getting jobs, "Peer competitiveness and parental pressure are factors," said Dean Victor Lindquist, director of placement at Northwestern.
Getting on a popular company's interview schedule can be competitive, so schools such as Northwestern have instituted a lottery in which students draw a time when they can sign up for interviews.
The earlier the time a student draws, the wider his choice of employers.
Other schools use a bidding system in which students are given a certain number of points, which they use to bid for time slots on interview schedules. Interviews with popular employers require the most points.
While big-name employers such as IBM, GE and Hewlett-Packard are often students' top choices purely for their prestige, other companies that made efforts to have contact with students above and beyond the actual recruiting process enhanced their image among potential hires.
A survey conducted jointly by the magazine Graduating Engineer and Deutsch, Shea & Evans, a recruitment advertising agency, found that contacts with company people were one of the greatest influences in students' forming opinions of employers.
Employers create such contacts in a variety of ways. "We go to college job fairs, have a speaker-bureau network and make sure that students understand that we hire liberal arts majors as well as those with specific business backgrounds," said Judy McNamara, employment manager for Fidelity Investments, a mutual fund management and discount broker with headquarters in Boston.
"We also let students know about our computerized resume-tracking system, which allows us to contact those who send us resumes when job openings arise," she said.
During the actual recruiting process, companies that make an effort to deal candidly with students and treat them well also win high marks with students.
"Companies that were at the top of my list before the interview often dropped to the bottom because their recruiters weren't gung-ho on the company or they didn't go out of their way to interest me in the company during an on-site interview," said Matthew Kistler, a marketing major at Michigan State University, who has had interviews with 17 companies and already received two job offers.
One company flew him and a group of top contenders to the site of its largest store, put them up at a hotel for the weekend, gave them a tour of the city, had a local real estate agent explain the housing market, invited them to breakfast with the company's chief executive officer and set up meetings with professionals at different job levels.
"All of us unanimously came away with the feeling that this was a well-run company we'd like to work for," Mr. Kistler said.
On the average, companies spend about $3,500 to recruit each new college hire, according to L. Patrick Scheetz, assistant director of placement services at Michigan State. The estimated average cost of training a new employee is estimated at about $7,036 during the first year of employment.
Students like Mr. Kistler and Ms. Osterhout who attend academically prestigious colleges, large public universities or engineering and science schools have traditionally enjoyed the convenience of on-campus recruitment interviews.
Today, however, more schools, including small, less-well-known liberal arts institutions, are making efforts to ensure that even if their students don't have the chance to interview between classes, they have opportunities to talk to recruiters.
*At Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, some seniors are interviewing with prospective employers via two-way television. "Some employers aren't willing to add a two-hour drive after a flight into Columbus, the nearest airport," said Sara Kearsley, director of the university's career-planning and placement office. they go to our closer Lancaster campus and use the microwave communications system, which usually broadcasts lectures to our five regional campuses."
*Michigan State University sponsors a teacher-recruitment fair for its own students and those from nearby campuses.
"Students expect more concrete assistance from their colleges in developing career plans and finding jobs because of the cost of education and their parents' and their own expectations of achieving success in work," said Deidre Sepp, director of career development and placement at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.
Students at that liberal-arts institution are required to take a seven-week career-planning course as freshmen or sophomores. Students can take one of three levels -- the basic course is for the very confused, the next for the somewhat confused, and the third section is for those who are clear about what they want to do but need help in marketing themselves. Through alumni and faculty contacts, the school increased the number of on-campus recruiters by 61 percent during its last recruiting season.
An accounting major, Cheryl Gaffney, is one of the students who has greatly benefited from her college's efforts. She has had on-campus interviews with five of the Big Eight accounting firms and hopes to be able to take her pick of several job interviews.
"It will be great to know that my education has paid off before I graduate," she said.
Traditionally, on-campus recruiters were primarily interested in engineering, computer and other science majors. But recently, a dramatic change took place: Almost as many job offers were made to students in non-technical majors, according to the College Placement Council, a national association for career planning, placement and recruitment.
"Business majors are particularly highly sought after," said H. Richard Hess, the organization's president. In particular, those who specialize in accounting and finance are in demand, according to Michigan State's "Recruiting Trends" report.
"Liberal arts graduates are also making themselves more desirable to recruiters because they're minoring or taking courses in business subjects," said Mr. Hess, who is associate director of career development and placement at Pennsylvania State University. The school attracts major employers including AT&T;, Armstrong World Industries and Electronic Data Systems to a special day of interviewing its liberal-arts students.
In absolute numbers, however, education majors make up the largest proportion -- 20 percent to 25 percent -- of new college graduates hired, according to Mr. Scheetz. "School districts are often very active recruiters because the distribution of job openings and where education graduates attend college is uneven," he said.
The job outlook for women and minority members is better than it is over all for graduates with bachelor's degrees, according to "Recruiting Trends." "These two groups are in critically short supply in the technical areas we recruit in and we're concerned about the drop-off in the percentage majoring in engineering disciplines recently," said Allen G. Bormann, corporate director of college relations and recruiting for Rockwell International Corporation, which plans to hire some 1,300 graduates this year.
One technique employers use to attract women and minority candidates is co-op or intern programs, which have long been established in engineering disciplines but are expanding to others as well.
"The competition for the best-qualified minority students is intense," said Roy Chapman, college-relations manager for J.C. Penney, based in Dallas. "Getting students working for us between their junior and senior years was a good way to identify candidates before the formal recruiting season."
Recruiters look at a number of factors in evaluating candidates, according to a recent Michigan State survey titled "The Ideal Candidate."
They are, in descending order of importance: outside activities, personal traits, grade-point average, work experience and communication skills. But when asked about the most important factors in making decisions about which applicants to interview on campus (a procedure known as pre-screening), grades are at the top of the list. "A grade-point average is the only quantitative comparison employers have, but there are plenty of talented people with GPA's below a 3-point," Mr. Scheetz said.
During the interview, employers look for indications of how motivated, team-oriented and conscientious an employee will be asking questions about extracurricular activities and work experience.
They're also impressed with students who have made significant financial contributions to their education.
"Even if their grades aren't as good as those of the students who didn't work, the fact that they're managing work and school shows personal stick-to-it-iveness, which is an important quality," Bormann said.
For some employers, work experience of any kind -- whether it's waiting on tables or answering phones -- counts for a lot, particularly if a student can articulate how he managed his responsibilities and worked with others.
In some fields, however, summer or part-time jobs related to the business of the recruiting employer are essential. "We want students who already know they like the retail business," said Mr. Chapman of J.C. Penney.
Non-profit organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America place a great importance on extracurricular activities.
"The job of the District Scout or Exploring Scout executive
involves organizing new scouting units and helping them succeed," said Don Adkins, director of professional selection and placement. "So candidates must show ability to work successfully with others."
Communications skills -- both written and oral -- are important to all kinds of employers, regardless of how many students with technical backgrounds they hire.
"It doesn't do us much good to hire someone with terrific ideas who can't communicate them to everyone else," said Sally Odle, manager of employment and recruitment in the United States for IBM, which hired 3,000 recent graduates last year.