I just came across a study of what top-tier investment banks, law firms, and management consulting firms look for when recruiting. The author of the study interviewed over 100 recruiters at these firms to find out what criteria they used.1
The Chronicle of Higher Education summed up the results:
If you want to get a job at the very best law firm, investment bank, or consultancy:2
1. Go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or (maybe) Stanford. If you’re a business student, attending the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania will work, too, but don’t show up with a diploma from Dartmouth or MIT. No one cares about those places. 2. Don’t work your rear off for a 4.0. Better to graduate with 3.7 and a bunch of really awesome extracurriculars. And by “really awesome” I mean literally climbing Everest or winning an Olympic medal. Playing intramurals doesn’t cut it.
Here’s a chart showing the key signals that recruiters used to screen candidates.
This isn’t to say that coming from a prestigious school is required to get these jobs – there are many cases of people who get them without – just that it’s going to be much harder.
Another finding was that most candidates were screened out very rapidly:
[When screening candidates…][E]valuators tended to do so very rapidly, typically bypassing cover letters (only about fifteen percent reported even looking at them) and transcripts and reported spending between 10 s to 4 min per resume.
And you need to have the “right kind” of extracurriculars:
Across the board, they privileged activities that were motivated by “personal” rather than “professional” interest, even when activities were directly related to work within their industry (e.g., investing, consulting, legal clinic clubs) because the latter were believed to serve the instrumental purpose of “looking good” to recruiters and were suspected of being “resume filler” or “padding” rather than evidence of genuine “passion,” “commitment,” and “well-roundedness.”
You can see a great summary of the paper and more interesting discussion in the comments on Bryan Caplan’s blog.3
Steve Hsu points out4 that elite jobs can be roughly divided into “hard” and “soft”. This study mainly focuses on “soft” elite jobs like consulting, law and deal-making investment banking. The “hard” elite jobs are those in trading, hedge funds, venture funds, technology and startups. In these, performance is easier to measure and raw intelligence is more important, so recruiters put more weight on standardised test scores, track record and academic record, and less on school prestige.
In the “soft” jobs, the ability to sell to and impress clients is relatively more important, so recruiters fall back on signals that will look good to clients, like school prestige and impressive extracurriculars. Quoting from Hsu:
The soft firms know that what they do isn’t “rocket science” — it just isn’t that hard, and any academic admitted to a top university is smart enough. They just have to appear elite and smart enough to snow their clients and sell the work.
Jim Manzi responds5 that the big three strategy consulting firms seem to put more emphasis on standardised test scores than the study suggests, and says there’s a shift in consulting and finance towards a greater proportion of “hard” jobs vs. “soft” ones.
All of these commentators are focused on the US. I expect the results would be similar elsewhere in the rest of the developed world, but can easily imagine differences in emphasis.