For Harvard students who want to pursue an internship in finance, the Office of Career Services’ On-Campus Interview program has typically offered the clearest pathway to Wall Street. Recruiters from banks both big and small come to campus with open slots for undergraduates and a schedule of interviews lined up, courtesy of OCS. Banks must then simply winnow the stream of applicants and select whom to hire.
But this year, the carefully-planned pipeline did not work as promised.
Banks allowed to participate in the On-Campus Interview program—primarily for sophomores and juniors seeking internships—must agree to a set of guidelines that protect students from aggressive hiring practices and undue interference in their academic schedules. But this year banks circumvented OCS and began recruiting students earlier, before official On-Campus Interviews for finance internships started in January. Some students who underwent the recruitment process with banks outside of OCS-sponsored channels lost the protections the On-Campus Interview system provides, and those who participated in the traditional system were left with fewer potential internship slots.
The tug-of-war and resulting breakdown caused OCS to move up its interview schedule by several months next year to avoid contending with the banks.
‘THE WILD, WILD WEST’
The On-Campus Interview system is designed to be mutually beneficial, providing convenience for banks and protection for students. The banks benefit from a system that allows them efficient access to potential interns, while students are granted assurances that the process that aims to be as fair as possible and interfere minimally with their academics.
“We’re just coordinating [an employer’s] visit to campus and their space and their scheduling,” OCS Director Robin Mount said. “We’ll do that for anybody who wants to come and do it; it’s an open system.”
The winter interview program is one of the principal opportunities for undergraduates seeking careers in finance to land an internship. OCS boasts that more than 25 industries participate in the On-Campus Interview program, and finance is among the most highly represented. In the 2014-2015 academic year, more than 600 juniors participated in the program, which also includes industries such as engineering.
Raine R. Mackey, director of recruiting for investment banking firm Peter J. Solomon Company, said her firm chooses to participate in the On-Campus Interview system because of its structure and efficiency.
“The reason we go through the On-Campus recruiting department as opposed to doing off-site is that it’s very civilized, and it’s very organized,” Mackey said. “It just works.”
While offering benefits to employers, the campus interview program tries to be helpful for students. OCS restricts banks’ interview start dates, ensuring that students have a specified amount of time to decide on an offer, limiting when second round interviews can occur and when students can be asked to travel for extensive interviews, and setting a deadline for employers to give students return offers.
“For students, it’s great because [OCS] works out deals with the employers where you don’t have to accept an offer right away and generally protects the students,” Vincent K. Ong ’17 said of the On-Campus Interview program.
Traditionally, the bulk of internship interviews in the OCS system occur in the winter—the first-rounds this year occurred between January 19 and February 18—with no off-campus, second-round interviews allowed until after a certain timeframe. This schedule avoids the majority of the semester’s midterm season, and many interviews occur before classes even begin, during Wintersession.
This year, however, many banks sidestepped OCS to begin the recruitment process in the fall. Those who applied directly to banks earlier in the year went around the system and did not receive OCS protection. Those who waited for the On-Campus Interviews in the winter had to compete for fewer spots because many had already been filled.
OCS associate director of employer relations Deborah A. Carroll, who helps coordinate the On-Campus Interview program, called the 2015-2016 cycle “a funny animal.” Not only did the banks move up their own recruiting timelines while OCS’s stood still, but the issue was made worse by other universities,that had also moved up their recruitment schedules, leading to a decrease in the amount of jobs available later in the year.
“I don’t even know how to describe it,” Carroll said. “Since some of the other schools started moving earlier… honestly some of it was our own alums saying ‘Hey, they’re hiring all the Michigan students. We need to get the Harvard students hired.’ So they would start doing some things on campus outside of our process, which the employers kept assuring us was a smaller process, but it sort of snowballed a little bit.”
Mount, stronger, called this year’s cycle “the wild, wild West.”
‘A SEISMIC SHIFT’
In response to firms’ decisions to begin recruiting earlier, OCS has shifted next year’s internship recruiting schedule up several months, Mount said. Instead of the bulk of interviews for finance happening in winter, most will take place in September. This way, students can participate in earlier recruiting but still receive the protections the On-Campus Interview program affords.
“This will be the very first time for Harvard. A few of our peer institutions moved in that direction last year,” Mount said.
Carroll emphasized that OCS made the move to the earlier time frame with students’ interests in mind.
“A lot of other schools moved last year. We had a lot of conversations. We loved the January timeframe, students loved the January timeframe,” Carroll said. ”But we really felt that we couldn’t put our students at a disadvantage and not allow them to be competitive with other people who are interviewing for these positions.”
“We’re a little heartbroken because we’re not in the Wintersession period. That was so convenient because there were no classes for students,” Mount said. “We positioned our interviews to be early in September because we don't want juniors in the middle of midterms to be flying off for second round interviews.”
OCS wasn’t the only organization that was forced adapt. Mackey, the recruiter from Peter J. Solomon, said her firm also felt squeezed from other banks’ earlier recruitment.
“We used to recruit both in the fall and the spring, but now since everything has gotten so aggressive we do most of our recruiting in the fall,” Mackey said. “You want to play by the rules when you can but you also don’t want to end up with egg on your face.”
Other universities’ career service offices have also navigated a changing landscape, with many moving their schedules up in response. The University of Pennsylvania, like Harvard, only recently switched to an earlier schedule. Both made the switch for similar reasons.
“Employers have made it clear that they wish to conduct on campus interviews—or many do—in the fall, and our students were frankly at some disadvantage if we continued to restrict internship recruiting to the spring,” Patricia Rose, who oversees the University of Pennsylvania’s career services, said. “Students were anxious to talk with employers and were reaching out on their own and employers were reaching out to them… and so the interviews were happening anyway.”
The earlier time frame will give Harvard students a better chance to land competitive internships, but it also means they will have to prepare earlier for recruitment. With a September start date, students who wish to prepare effectively must study during the summer and the beginning of the school year.
Alex F. Kaufman ’18, who participated in finance recruiting over the winter, said he worries that less time to prepare could make for a stressful start to the year.
However, other students were supportive of the change—albeit with some reservations.
Ong said that while students are generally “super busy” in the fall, the decision by OCS to bump up their timeline was beneficial for undergraduates.
“Now you have a longer horizon to decide what you want to do,” Ong said. “If you don’t get anything through the campus interview program or don't find anything that you like, then you still have a longer period to find something that you do like.”
Geoffrey B. Kristof ’17, who has previously held finance internships, was also supportive of shifting the On-Campus Interview program up, as it provides structure to the recruitment process that can be helpful for students.
“OCI tends to be pretty well organized and definitely more convenient as opposed to having to fly out to New York or wherever every time you want to interview,” he said. “On balance, I would say that this is good for students. Just for convenience reasons, it’s more clear what’s going on. I know a bunch of students who knew that there was recruiting going on in the fall but didn’t have time to stay in the loop with it… and were sort of caught off guard by firms who had filled their classes by the time of the winter OCI.”
OCS is trying to prepare students for the change with more programming and orientation, Mount said, adding that “it puts a lot of pressure on the current sophomores who are going to be juniors in the fall.”
—Staff writer Nathaniel J. Hiatt can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nathaniel_hiatt.