Letter to the Editor: No student should be forced to choose a career path by sophomore year

I graduated from Northwestern in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in political science and started my career in investment banking. Over the past seven years, I have met with and mentored dozens of students seeking similar career paths. I am incredibly appreciative of the strong foundation that NU’s liberal arts education has provided for my career, and I believe mentoring students is how I give back to my alma mater.

The beaten path of breaking into the investment banking industry starts with a junior year internship. Recruiting begins in winter of junior year, which means that students should decide on their career paths by then, attend information sessions and mixers throughout the winter, ace interviews and secure a spot by spring. Those who have proven their ability and commitment to the job during the internship receive a full-time return offer.

However, this recruiting timeline seems to have changed recently: in a recent chat with a current student, I was surprised to learn that junior internship recruiting now begins in the spring of sophomore year. Effectively, students now need to interview for a position, which starts in 15 months, that may or may not turn into a full-time position, which then starts in another 12 months.

This is an almost comical proposition to those working in different industries, but the logic is simple and well understood: every year, talent-obsessed investment banks have been competing for “top-tier candidates” by recruiting earlier than their competitors. There were already signs back when I was in college — I recall having heard whispers of invitation-only events and networking chats with fraternity alums in the hallways of my macroeconomics class.

Even without referencing game theory (thank you, NU), it’s not difficult to see why this recruiting race creates a mutually inferior outcome for both recruiters and universities. But my sympathy is really reserved for the students. I find it hard to believe that a 19-year-old with a few intro level classes under his belt would have the knowledge and maturity to be fully convinced of his career choice (at that age, I didn’t). But peer pressure gets the better of him, and so he sits in his dorm room and studies how to do discounted cash flow analysis instead of reading Machiavelli and write dozens of emails to guys like myself — with the slim hope that someone will eventually pick up the phone for him.

This practice also hurts the socioeconomic diversity of Wall Street’s young, incoming analysts. Students who have attended prestigious prep schools or have friends and family working in the industry will have the upper hand in access to closed door mixers and interviewing tips. And the disparity in social capital continues to widen, as private equity and hedge funds then recruit from this self-selecting pool of investment banking analysts.

In business or law school recruiting, universities forbid this practice from recruiters to give students more time to explore their career options. Generally, recruiters must go through a single standardized schedule mandated by the University and are not allowed to give “exploding offers” which candidates must accept by a certain date ahead of the mandated schedule. Recruiters that violate this policy may be uninvited to the campus in the following year’s recruiting cycle. The policy is not perfect, but it does force recruiting firms to play on the same field.

The solution appears to be pretty simple: University administrators should consider creating a similar policy for undergraduate students. Realistically, it would work best if universities were to form a consortium and enforce the policy collectively. So, who would want to be the first to lead and set the example in this race? I certainly hope my alma mater would.

—Richard Bae Gong, Weinberg ’11