How to attract good students from the ICS department

09 Feb 2010

Several times per semester, local companies contact me to ask if I know of any “good” students who might be interested in working with them on a project. I am always delighted to receive these emails and want to facilitate these kinds of interactions. In general, even if I happen to know of a student, I will always suggest that they send me a short email that I can resend to our internal student mailing lists. With hundreds of students in our department, there may well be an ideal candidate who I have not had the opportunity to get to know personally.

Here are some hints that you can use to help maximize your chances of connecting with a good candidate:

You will need an first-rate pitch to attract our first-rate students. Some context: our department has from 400-800 computer science majors. We are an “open” department, in that any student who wants to major in computer science can try to do so. As computer science is a white hot discipline, we attract students with a variety of aptitudes. The quality of your solicitation will have a tremendous impact upon whether your respondents come from the upper, middle, or lower quartiles of our student body.

Note that your pitch is unlikely to be the first solicitation our students have received this semester. Indeed, your pitch is unlikely be the first solicitation our students have received this month, or even this week. It is crucial to point out what makes your opportunity special beyond being just a job so that it stands out in some way from all the other offers.

Our students tend to be busy. Really busy. Most already have part-time jobs in addition to a full academic load, and many are juggling a full-time job with a full-time load. Naturally, pursuing new opportunities requires yet more time and energy, and switching from a currently stable employment situation to a new, unknown situation has real risks for our students. Your pitch needs to help them to see the rewards that might come from pursuing your opportunity.

Some companies send me a description that focuses only on the qualifications they desire from a candidate. If that’s all you discuss, it may not be enough to attract good students. I suggest you rewrite your description to focus mostly on how the student will benefit from working at your company. Remember: our good students have a lot of opportunities: it’s up to you to stand out from the crowd if you want to attract them.

Don’t be vague. In your pitch, the more details you provide up front, the higher the chances that our good students will respond. In addition to the overall intellectual/professional opportunity, our students are very interested in logistics. What is the pay? What are the hours, and what level of flexibility is available? Will the student need to work with you on-site, and where is that? Are there citizenship issues? What technical background are you hoping for? What technical skills will the student acquire? Will the student work alone or as part of a team? If you are looking for interns, could the position develop into summer job, or full-time work after graduation?

The pay is crucial. Let me emphasize this: our students want to know, up front, about the pay. If you waffle by stating something like, “Pay based upon qualifications”, many of them will assume that the pay will be bad and they will not respond. The single most effective thing you can do to attract good students is to state your pay up front, and make it competitive. As of 2015, “competitive” means at least $20/hour.

What is the yearly income stream? Beyond the hourly rate, the other crucial compensation issue for our students is whether your opportunity will lead to a long-term income stream. Many of our best students already have a “stable” income stream—part-time and flexible during the school year, and up to full-time in the summer. To be competitive, your opportunity should have the potential to continue beyond the summer into the school year, or vice-versa.

Provide the details in a plain-text email. While you might be tempted to create a Word document with this information and attach it, resist. To minimize the “barrier to entry”, describe your offering as plain text in two to three paragraphs directly in the body of the email. It is always appropriate to provide URLs to further information on your company website.

The folks at GitHub have written a nice post summarizing their thoughts on what makes for an enticing job description. Check it out for additional tips.