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Coming to a B-school campus near you... Photograph by George Rose—Getty Images

The crazy things companies are doing to recruit business school students

As Juhyun Kwon walked through a September recruitment event on the campus of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, the General Mills table caught her eye. A box of Lucky Charms or Honey Nut Cheerios didn’t draw her in—but a large set of goggles did. Kwon tried on the goggles and was soon on a virtual realty tour of the company’s Golden Valley, Minn. campus. She was able to visit everything from the company gym to executive offices.

“I loved the experience because it was something completely different from what you normally see,” Kwon, a junior majoring in marketing, says. Kwon and her fellow students are used to information sessions, corporate presentations, and networking events from top companies recruiting them. “It can be very similar from all of the different companies,” she admits, speaking of the monotony of on-campus recruiting.

The General Mills goggle tours use GoPro footage and Oculus Rift virtual reality systems to offer students a novel sense of what it’d be like to work for them. “It was fun. They used their cereal mascots like the Lucky Charms guy and the Cheerio’s bee,” Kwon explains. “Personally, I haven’t seen any other tools like this from other companies yet.”

The unique tactic comes at a time when companies are trying to differentiate themselves in the eyes of talented business students. Today's business students have been inundated in messaging and technology and are comprised of a generation wired since birth. Many companies that don’t have immediate tech 'street-cred'—like the Apples, Googles, and Amazons of the world—are coming up with some creative and tech-savvy ways to get the attention of top talent. In addition to General Mills’ Oculus Rift, Goldman Sachs is using Snapchat to recruit college students, and PwC is even offering to pay back student loans for its junior employees.

It's a sign of the times, according to Susie Clarke, director of the Undergraduate Career Services Office at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. "Before the web, long presentations were okay, because it was the only way to get information about the companies," Clarke explains. "Now it's so readily available to these students. They don't need that. It's all online."

Carlson's Career Center Director, Maggie Tomas concurs. “Companies are getting creative and going beyond the typical campus info session that is usually just sharing some slides and that’s it,” she claims.

Among the stunts in recent years, companies have brought sports cars, ATVs, burrito trucks, ice cream trucks, coffee trucks, and personalized baseball cards. "There's always someone looking for an edge to brand themselves with our students and get their attention," Clarke explains, also noting she's been seeing these efforts for a while.

Clarke says Polaris, a snowmobile and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) manufacturer brought ATVs to the doors of Kelley's campus. General Motors recently took it a step further on the campus of Michigan's Ross School of Business. The Detroit-based car manufacturer parked cars on the school's stoop and invited students to take test drives. And of course they didn't bring the latest line of Buick LeSabres—they brought Camaros and Corvettes.

“Every year, some company will do something that makes us sit around the career services office and say, ‘that was really clever,’” explains Damian Zikakis, the director of career services at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, adding that companies are constantly competing with one another for student “mindshare.”

According to Zikakis, accounting firms and investment banks are competing the most for Ross's top students, which is leading to some of the unusual tactics. “It’s hard for the big four accounting firms to differentiate themselves when they’re all in the same room," he claims. "And they all have large hiring needs.”

Last year, PwC took to food. The accounting firm parked a PwC branded coffee truck on the footsteps of Ross’s campus and handed out free coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. “Students could walk up and get a cup of coffee—whether they were interested in accounting or not,” Zikakis recalls. “It created a buzz.”

On Kelley's campus, PwC replaced the coffee truck with an ice cream truck. "Food seems to be attracting students right now," Clarke says. "We tell companies to come in and bring pizza, bring a bunch of people, and sit down and talk, they'll get way more out of that than trying to do a PowerPoint presentation. The students don't need that. Food's critical."

Tomas also sees companies "wooing" Carlson students with dinners and food. “One thing students never get tired of is food,” she concludes. “But I also see food companies needing to show they care about nutrition and how products get sourced and how they share that story with students.”

The career services directors are also seeing a generation of students seeking more connection with their potential employers and the missions of those companies. Tomas says for the past couple years her office has recommended companies creatively communicate their social impact. “Today’s students want to be connected with the mission. On a larger scale, students want to be connected to what the company does,” she points out.

Zikakis recalls "one of the big consulting firms" printed baseball cards with unique information about their recruiters. Although Zikakis and his office couldn't remember which company it was, he says it changed the perception of the company's representative, which at times can come off as impersonal or distant.

PepsiCo did something similar, creating an info-sheet that had fun-facts about each of their 15 recruiters to visit Ross. Zikakis says the info included everything from their favorite PepsiCo product to what they love about where the work to their favorite Michigan memory. “They personalized the recruiter—as opposed to the student walking into a big corporate presentation and seeing 15 people at the front of the room and not knowing anything about them or what to talk about," he explains. "This kind of seeds that conversation.”

Sometimes, though, even the personalized cards and fun-facts aren't enough. Zikakis says his office will recommend companies "do an invitation-only event earlier in the day or the next day.” He says personal invites and opportunities to chat with executives are attractive to top talent. “We’ll see companies do what they call a fireside chat—it’s funny how these names get used over and over again, we don’t have a fireplace—but it winds up being a small group with an executive," Zikakis says, chuckling. "There aren’t many companies that do it, but those that do find them useful.”

Tomas says Minnesota-based Land O’ Lakes has seen success in recruiting Carlson students by bringing in their CEO, Christopher Policinski. “It helps students see they will have access to the leader and helps them connect with the company and mission,” she adds.

But of course, some recruiting efforts are in vain. And increasingly, those efforts revolve around swag. “When I first got here there was lots of swag,” Zikakis claims. “There were a lot of plastic water bottles—like Nalgene bottles.... There were key chains, pens, thumb drives, and backpacks—all sorts of swag with company names on it. And this year, there's almost no swag at all.”

Zikakis says students are now viewing swag as a waste and it often ends up in a landfill. Tomas and her office take a thanks, but no thanks approach. “We’ve actually asked them [companies] to stop bringing it,” Tomas says.

Allison Penning, the San Francisco branch manager of Lasalle Network, a firm specializing in staffing and recruiting, says the current generation of college students want to get a clear sense of what makes a company unique and a great place to work. "I think most millennials these days are looking for what does the company culture look like, what does the office look like, what are the perks, what is the manager going to be like, what is my exposure to leadership, when can I get promoted," she says. "It's sharing things outside of the job description."

Opposed to outlandish events, though, Penning believes this can be communicated through some good ol' fashioned social media presence. "They want to see pictures of your employees having as much fun as they're having in college. It's showing them life after college isn't going to be terrible, it can be fun," she says.

Regardless, does all the recruiting hoopla actually work? It's complicated, says Zikakis.

“I can say as a matter of fact that PwC hired more students after they did the coffee truck than the year they didn’t do it, but I’m hard-pressed to say it’s because of the coffee truck,” he says. “But it was another touch point in the marketing of students. It’s the same way you start noticing a car, then you see a billboard for a car, then it’s in a TV show. The more you’re exposed to it, the more you pay attention to it.”

For Kwon, it definitely helps. “It was surprising and reinforced the reason I’m interested in working there,” she says, noting General Mills was already a company she admired. “This tool bumped them up a couple notches as an ideal company to work for,” she adds.

Either way, Tomas thinks this will be the new norm. “Students have come to expect it,” she says. “The stakes have been raised. Companies know they need to compete for these students."

Tomas also believes companies will soon be competing with more than just other companies—they'll also be contending with entrepreneurial-minded students.

“Some of the most talented students are taking their skills and going into business themselves," she claims. "And so, we're asking, 'consulting firm, what are you going to do to get that student to commit to a few years at your firm before they launch that venture as opposed to doing it right now?' Because more and more B-schools, Carlson included, are trying to help students do just that.”

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