Skip to content

Early talent recruitment – are you fishing in the wrong pond?

Early talent recruitment – are you fishing in the wrong pond?

Where are you focusing your campus recruiting efforts? It goes without saying, there’s a lot to be said for Ivy League schools. Yet, they aren’t the be-all and end-all — particularly if your business is wanting the best early talent. 

Tunnel vision is jeopardizing your campus recruiting efforts

We’ve all been there, you are flicking through a bunch of applicants, and your eyes are immediately drawn to the part of the resume that states which college the applicant attended. 

Because for many corporations, if the name isn’t part of the ‘Ivy League’ — Harvard, Yale, Brown, etc — the application gets filtered out, promptly. 

This isn’t only risky for diversity and inclusion. It also undermines your efforts to hire the best early talent available.

Why? Because the ‘Little Fish in a Big Pond’ phenomenon argues that the best colleges don’t always deliver the best new grads. When looking to recruit rising stars, businesses should be looking to mid-level colleges too — not just the Ivy League. 

The Ivy League may have status, but employability doesn’t strictly follow

Students with exceptional knowledge and talent end up at Ivy League colleges because society tells them to. It’s the gateway into a high paying job, the ticket to unlocking wealthy contacts, and the place to gain a respected status. 

These ideas, draw in the most ambitious students.

But while an illustrious education might indicate a certain level of prestige, that isn’t really the full story.

Ready to turn your thought process upside down?

What happens when early talent gets out-talented?

Where they were once top of their class at high school — a big fish in a little pond — they’re now little fish surrounded by countless other talented (and even more talented) pupils. For students beneath the very upper echelons, this is a damaging experience. At best, they may plateau in academic performance. At worst, they may drop out altogether.

These academic aristocrats, who are so used to being winners, are suddenly the underperformers; which diminishes their creativity and ambition.

This pattern means that the best students from mediocre schools almost always outperform good students from the most reputable schools. 

The birth of the ‘Little Fish in a Big Pond’ phenomenon

Conley and Önder proved the phenomenon by comparing the numbers of papers published by big fish in little ponds (clever students in mid-level colleges) with the papers published by little fish in big ponds (students in high-level colleges).

They found the best, and mid-tier, students from mediocre schools almost always went on to fulfill their potential faster than students from the Ivy League.

early campus recruiting - young student with glasses on looks into the camera, he is stood in a library

This is groundbreaking. It suggests that many businesses have been doing campus recruitment all wrong. Perhaps you have been too?

While this may sound counterintuitive, it isn’t easy to repute.

new report on the skills gaps in data science and AI from recruitment firm Correlation One backs this up. They found that candidates from tier-2 and tier-3 schools are significantly more skilled than average students from tier-1 schools. The latter struggles with vital tasks like problem-solving and overcoming failure.

This is groundbreaking. It suggests that many businesses have been doing campus recruitment all wrong. Perhaps you have been too?

Join the Hire Up Newsletter

Spotting a skewed campus recruiting strategy

When hiring, employers will often draw up a list of the qualities they are looking for in potential candidates. And whether they realize it or not, this is where biases are born.

  • 29% of hiring managers prefer to select candidates from elite universities alone.
  • 48% said the caliber of the institution played an important role.
  • Only 4% said they didn’t take it into account.

What does this mean for campus recruitment and workforce selection in the long-run? Recruiters often use the last person to hold the post as a benchmark for the candidate they’d look for next.

So, if they began recruiting from Ivy Leagues, they’ll continue to do so perpetually. Raising the question: how on earth can we turn such an ingrained ideology around? 

5 Steps to bias-free early talent recruitment

Early talent is arguably the most important investment you’ll make in your business. 

This pool of next-generation pioneers will help to define your company culture for years to come, bringing an abundance of enthusiasm, a fresh outlook, and skill. 

By developing a diverse hiring process, you’re ensuring that your company is accessing and considering the full spectrum of this sought-after group of job-seekers. 

Start implementing procedures that will take the bias out of your early recruitment –– stat. Here are some ideas: 


Throw away the job description rule book 

Generation Z are more on-the-ball than the stereotypes tell you.

While their screen-time might be high, their awareness of bias and discrimination is second to none. And they won’t hesitate to swipe left on a questionable job description. 

Employers have to be on their toes, to ensure their ads are as inclusive as possible. Consider swapping up the language, avoiding pronouns, and potentially gender-specific terms. And as we’ve learned, we should remove any criteria relating to college names and status too. 


Fish in another pond

There will always be a place for in-person campus recruitment events. But if you want to cast your net wide, you need to reach out to early talent candidates who might not show up on the day. 

You’ll find students from myriad universities congregating in groups on Facebook and LinkedIn, all with a diverse set of skills and a common desire to get hired. A digital recruitment campaign can help attract talented students from mid-tier backgrounds who may not have otherwise found out about your organization.


Forget pedigree, it’s all about potential 

We’ve discussed the big fish in a little pond ideology, and how mediocre university students are often bigger performers than their Ivy League counterparts. 

So let’s action this revelation and shift our focus from pedigree to potential. 

This isn’t to say that Ivy League candidates are useless and to ignore them — not at all. We’re challenging you to open your mind and ask a critical question: which of these candidates will bring my business the most dependable results, regardless of their education? 

This will enable you to clearly compare the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses and push towards a focus on skills rather than credentials. Eliminating any bias from your hiring strategy as a result, and ensuring you hire the right person for the job.


Get a ‘headstart’ on your competition

Headstart is a unique, and highly effective, early talent recruitment software platform — designed to support your bias-free recruitment efforts. 

Early talent recruitment software

Assess every candidate equally with data science, reduce time-to-hire with automated workflows, and drive tangible business results like reducing hiring costs. Set whatever parameters work for you and your team, but for early talent selection, we’d recommend completely forgoing academic background and screening for the skills that matter.

This will guarantee your process is as inclusive as possible. And it’ll set you apart from your competition as an equal opportunities employer.


Keep learning, critiquing and improving. 

You can never know too much about diversity and campus recruitment; a topic with such a huge influence on your business success. 

In our recent ‘Ultimate Guide’, we break down everything there is to know about campus selection and early talent. It’s the non-bias bible — covering everything from understanding Gen Z and the importance of diversity, to learning how to build a campus recruitment strategy and retaining that talent.

And you’ll find more insights surrounding D&I, recruitment, and talent management on the rest of our blog too.

Get HR Insights In Your Inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter for original insights and bias-busting resources, every month.

What is conscious leadership, and how can it help make recruitment more equitable?

Hard as you might try, it’s very difficult to build an inclusive organization without switched-on leaders who are committed to…

Why creating a DEI team is only half the battle

You know that focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion is important for your company. You’ve probably seen the stats a…