Referrals: A Powerful but Missing Element of College Recruiting (Part 1 of 2)

Employee referral programs are the most powerful tool in recruiting, routinely producing the highest quality and volume of experienced hires.

Yet for some unexplained reason, most corporate college-hire programs don’t have a referral component.

A few firms have pioneered in the college referral area. For example, the always leading-edge talent team at Intuit has produced amazing results with micro-cash bonuses (over 50% of their hires from one university came from their student referral program).

And Endeca found that Harvard and MIT students were willing to make amazing referrals with the promise of a flat-screen TV as a reward. Bold, but effective!

Not having a referral program as a key element of your college recruiting effort is a missed opportunity because no group of potential candidates are more connected with their peers than college students.

And the stronger the connections, the better referral programs work. Students connect through social networking sites, text messaging, online forums, face-to-face in classrooms, at social events, and in student organizations. If you understand their social connections, it’s relatively easy to develop a formal “college hire referral program” that can supplement your career-center efforts and produce a majority of your intern and college graduate hires.

Think about it, you can have others do more than “half of the work” in college recruiting (by making referrals), which frees up time and resources to focus on the other half.

The Referral Concept

The basic premise of all employee referral programs is that “the very best” know other top individuals. They get to know them because top performers learn from and compare themselves to other top performers. Professionals are constantly talking to each other on the phone, through text messaging, and Internet forums.

Shifting the focus to students, it’s clear that the best students know other top students because they identify them and compete against them in classes. They also meet each other in social situations, in student groups and clubs, in honor societies, and of course, online.

All referral programs work by getting others to share with your recruiters the names of the top individuals that they know. By merely asking or by offering a small incentive, they will likely share these names.

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In the case of most employee referral programs, the identification is made by your employees. In the college recruiting variation, you contact a broader array of individuals (students, faculty, and alumni) in order to compile a list of the very best. Because college students are relatively poor, it takes a much smaller incentive to get them to refer other top students.

The Advantages

Placing a significant portion of your college hiring effort into a referral program has some key benefits and advantages over relying 100% on the traditional Career Center approach. Some of these benefits include:

  • Quality. Referral programs routinely produce the highest-quality candidates and new-hires. Top-quality college students are relatively easy to identify by those in the campus community because college life is performance-based. Students are constantly graded and ranked in professional programs. There are numerous awards and honors programs to recognize these individuals. And you can easily find them in the most advanced classes with the most difficult professors. As a result, if you design your college referral program correctly, it will target and accept referrals only from students and individuals who are likely to know top performers.
  • Costs. Having someone else do your name identification and recruiting saves on expensive recruiter time. And because students typically expect little in return for referring their peers, effective referral bonuses can be as little as $50 or a free iPod (make sure to provide a choice of rewards to choose from to meet different student needs). If you have a strong employment brand on campus, getting student referrals is even easier.
  • Remote capabilities. Most Career Center recruiting requires a campus visit. In direct contrast, most of the student referral process can be carried out electronically. This means you can identify top students at a lower cost.
  • Assessment. In addition to generating names, college referrals add an additional level of assessment. This assessment may include the students’ fit with the corporation, their ability to work in teams, their leadership potential, their interest level, and their willingness to relocate. By having other students do some pre-assessment, you can end up with a candidate pool that is closer to your needs.
  • Selling. Students who already know of and think highly of your firm will help your recruiting efforts by helping to convince or sell the targeted individual that your firm is a top opportunity. Peer encouragement increases the chances that top individuals will come to information sessions, apply for positions, and come to your interviews and plant visits.

Be Responsive

The key to any successful referral program is responsiveness, so treat your best referrals like they are gold.

If for any reason you fail to respond rapidly and to communicate often, you will forever “kill” referrals from your frustrated referrers.

The best way to ensure that you have the necessary time and resources for responding rapidly is to limit the volume of “average” referrals. You don’t want to clog your referral program with a high volume of students you could have found using other sources and who have little chance of ever getting hired.

To generate a small number of high-quality referrals:

  • Restrict the number of referrals. Restrict the number of referrals you accept from any one individual to a handful each semester; after all, you are targeting the “cream of the crop” and need to limit referrals to truly exceptional individuals.
  • Make the skill sets clear. Use detailed position summaries so that everyone who is considering making a potential referral knows precisely what you’re looking for and more important, what you are not seeking.
  • Target your referrers. Rather than spamming the campus and asking everyone to refer, target your campaign toward individuals who have a higher likelihood of making quality referrals. If you have the capability, send “targeted invitations to refer” only to those individuals on a campus who you know by name or title. These students are likely to know the right candidates. This group of “targeted referrers” might include faculty, teaching assistants, heads of student groups, key administrators, and senior and honors students. Finally, when you use posters or websites that notify a large population that you are seeking referrals, be sure that these referrals are “coded” (Attn: Mary Sue or a separate webpage). This is so that your recruiters will know that these referrals are likely to be of a mixed quality.
  • Avoid “they approached you” referrals. In traditional employee referral programs, it’s not unusual for a majority of the referrals to come from individuals who were “approached” by a relative stranger and asked if you would make this person a referral. I call these types of referrals “they approached you” or “stranger” referrals. The same “stranger referral” problem can occur in student referral programs when the student that “approached you” is not well-known by the potential referrer. These unwanted referrals can be minimized by telling your potential referrers up front that you don’t want them to make these types of referrals. Ask the person making the referral to answer how long they have known them; whether they have known them in a professional context; and what they know about the person’s specific skills and experience.
  • Assess previous referrals. After final hiring decisions are made, identify which referrals turned out to be the best. In the future, you can weigh referrals from the best individuals and in contrast, limit or downgrade the referrals from individuals or groups with a bad track-record.

Next week in part 2, look for advanced approaches and tips for generating great college referrals.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.