Connections Help in Senior Recruiting

"It's not what you know; it's who you know."

Harvard students don't like to hear this phrase. Here in the ivory tower, we like to think that everyone advances according to his or her abilities. After all, that's what got us here, right? Those long nights in high school, cranking out a 10-page paper when everyone else stopped at page eight. Doing your BC calculus homework on the bus to a soccer game, as teammates around you instead carried on about who was hooking up with whom. Nobody else worked as hard as you did, and here you are at Harvard--that's the way it should be.

You need look no further than the fact that "legacy" students on campus quite often elicit whispers and snickers behind their backs from "real" Harvard students. The latter know that they didn't have to rely on Dad's name or money to get them into the college, gaining entrance instead by virtue of their hard work. The top efforts garner the top rewards--this is the model that has become entrenched in our brains. And this mindset will serve us well the rest of our lives, no?


I hate to burst everyone's idealistic bubble, but I feel it is time to impart some valuable knowledge that I have picked up during my several years at this school. After all, what are columnists for? Well, largely, for bitching and moaning about stuff they don't like. But also, they are here to lend advice and get important messages across to you, the reading population. And my counsel here today is this: in the real world outside Harvard, it really is who you know, and very little of what you know.

I can speak the truth having personally experienced it through the maddening ordeal that is recruiting. For the uninitiated out there, recruiting is the brutal, puerile, demeaning process by which seniors jockey for plum positions within investment banks, consulting firms and various other fast-track jobs in the business world. It is also the process by which the realities of the real world come crashing down on our sheltered little heads.

In competing--and there is no nicer way to describe it--against your fellow classmates for the best jobs at the best firms, you begin to see how things really work. True, you submit your resum and transcript to each employer, outlining your achievements and scores. But if you have a friend already working at the firm, you can guarantee yourself a first-round interview, avoiding the massive weeding-out process that comprises the initial stage of recruiting.

Once you are interviewing, a sparkling GPA or a litany of awards may get a brief mention as the face across the table quickly scans your resum. However, the discovery that you and the interviewer have a common friend, or share a common interest, is golden. You could have no idea how to spell "investment bank," but if you're both amateur pilots, or your fathers went to the same law school, by golly, you're in. Your interviewer becomes your fiercest defender during the firm's decision-making process, and if he's got pull--again, it's who you know--you've got yourself a job.

The upshot of this is that as the process continues, you think you're getting rooked. You worked hard during college, yet you look around at the job offers others are landing and think to yourself, "Good Christ. These people can't carry my intellectual jockstrap. How in the world did they get that job?"

What you don't realize, of course, is that people are saying the same thing about you. And in effect, you played the same game--calling people you know at various firms, getting your name out there, talking the talk and eventually getting the job. Either explicitly or implicitly, it's who you know, not what you know.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. When applying to grad schools, for example, you're just another application, a set of numbers. You might get an interview in which you can show off your personality, but even the smoothest of cats can't charm his way into Yale Law if he doesn't have the scores. But even then, school doesn't last forever (this is unsettling news to many people), and then the connection game starts up again when the hunt for a real job is on.

A lot of people have a tough time accepting this fact--that for all of their hard work, they might not get as sweet a deal as those who know more people, even if the latter don't shine as brightly in the classroom. This, I think, is the rationale behind many individuals' peculiar distaste for final clubs and similar organizations at Harvard. It's not the exclusivity of such groups that bothers people, it's the fact that they allow access to a large network of individuals who can help them out in the real world. It gives members a leg up in the connection game and thus a significant advantage in getting jobs or other favors. This taps into people's dislike of the "who you know" axiom, and they start foaming at the mouth.

Yet for all the denunciations of final clubs and their ilk, their detractors play the same game. Everyone does. It might not be as obvious, but every single organization on campus is, in effect, a jumping-off point for making and using connections. Every group, from the Juggling Club to Model United Nations, allows its members to expand their web of who they know, tapping into this network at later moments in their life, whether it's for a job, a recommendation or a good place to buy a set of snow tires. The routine simply is not limited to final clubs or other organizations that similarly practice togetherness in freedom of thought.

In fact, nearing the completion of my time here at the College, I can say that this is one of the great benefits of the Harvard experience. Nowhere else will you have the opportunity to meet such ambitious, dynamic, brilliant individuals. And in a world where who you know, rather than what you know, is key, there is no better way to meet the challenges of the real world than with the help of the friends you make during your precious few years here.

It is a clich to state that the best thing about Harvard is its people, but like the old adage, "It's not what you know, it's who you know," it is a clich that rings remarkably true.

George W. Hicks '99-00 is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House.