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I highly recommend Lauren Rivera's "Ivies, Extracurriculars, and Exclusion" (Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 2011). Not only is the piece careful, edifying, and interesting; it's even emotionally affecting. Learning more about elite hiring actually replaced my apathy toward elite firms with sour grapes: "I never wanted to work for you anyway!"
I examined hiring processes in three types of elite professional service firms: investment banks, law firms, and management consulting firms. These types of firms share important similarities, allowing for a robust comparison.
From 2006 to 2008, I conducted 120 interviews with professionals directly involved in undergraduate and graduate hiring decisions in top-tier firms in each of the three industries under study (i.e., 40 per industry). Participants included hiring partners, managing directors, and mid-level employees who conduct interviews and screen resumes as well as human resource managers.
To supplement interviews with behavioral data, I conducted fieldwork within the recruiting department of one elite professional service firm over a period of nine months. My role was that of a participant observer. Given my prior professional experience at a peer firm and in event planning, I was brought on as an unpaid "recruiting intern" to help plan and execute recruitment events... I shadowed recruiters through the recruitment process for full-time and summer associate candidates from a single, elite professional school, debriefed interviewers on job candidates immediately following interviews, and sat in on group deliberations where candidates were discussed and ultimately selected.
1. Most applications practically go straight in the trash.
Because professionals balanced recruitment responsibilities with full-time client work, they often screened resumes while commuting to and from the office and client sites; in trains, planes, and taxis; frequently late at night and over take out... [E]valuators tended to do so very rapidly, typically bypassing cover letters (only about fifteen percent reported even looking...