Does Your Alma Mater Matter?

Does your alma mater matter?
Does your alma mater matter?

Throughout my career, I’ve spent a lot of time on both sides of the interviewing desk. It is nerve-racking sitting on the opposite side of that desk. No matter how confident I was, I was sure they would ask that zinger that I couldn’t answer. Worse yet, I was afraid they would ask an easy one, to which I would blurt out something so stupid, they would just get up and walk out.

Over the years, I began interviewing people for entry into the firms I worked for. I found that that made me a better interviewer. I could identify the ones that hadn’t prepared. They were just going down the same list of questions they ask everyone. I knew when they had read my resume or were reading it for the first time as they sat down.

At one large firm that I worked for, we held recruiting days. The firm would arrange for several candidates – mostly college entry – to come to our office and go through a full day of four interviews. They would meet with two managers, one senior manager and one partner. At the end of the day, all of the interviewers would meet at a “round table” meeting. There, we would go through each candidate and the interviewers would give their assessment.

In these round table meetings, I learned about the various things different interviewers focused on. Some discussed the candidates’ confidence. Others focused on appearance and their ability to face a client.

I found that many people focused on the college the particular candidate went to. It caused me to wonder what the value was of the school a candidate attended.

Experience reduces risk

When I went to school in the 1980s, school was cheap compared to today’s tuition rates. I graduated from Illinois State University. ISU is not heavily recruited from the top consulting firms. Those that give it the time of day only hire a select few. I received, at best, a passing glance from them. There were no second interviews.

Instead, I took a job at a small, privately held consulting firm as a computer programmer. I did the same as a lot of new developers for the big firms. I didn’t get paid as much, because my firm couldn’t bill me out for as much.

After four years with that small firm, they went out of business. It was a scary feeling. But within a couple of days, one of those large firms came in and said they would interview anyone interesting in talking to them.

Many of our people interviewed. That firm ended up extending offers to four people, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. It made me wonder, why was it that they couldn’t be bothered with me four years ago, but now I was so valuable.

It was pretty obvious to me that my four years of consulting experience proved a lot more than a four-year degree. Lots of people can eek through college. They can even get good grades. But they aren’t necessarily consulting material. Consulting demands more than just smarts. It requires the ability to think on ones feet. It requires people that have the confidence to make decisions, do hard work, lead others, and sell, all at once.

My four years of experience in consulting, and my willingness for more, showed them that I was good enough for them. At that point, they didn’t care what school I went to.

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It goes both ways

When I began interviewing experienced people, I found that some would draw attention to where they went to school. I would ask a question and they would reference an experience they had in college.

If someone went to the trouble of looking up my LinkedIn profile, they might bring up the fact that we both did our graduate work at Northwestern. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

I’ve always wanted to say, “Oh! I get it. The old boys’ network. You want me to hire you because we’re both in the same ‘club’.”

“Yeah. That’s how it works,” was the response I imagined.

When I interview experienced people, I might glance at their alma mater at the bottom of their resume (and it should be at the bottom). But it isn’t a factor in my decision. In my opinion, if you have four or more years of experience, you should have an entirely different set of laurels to rest upon.

If you have that much experience, and you’re still counting on the alumni network to get you a job, you might be doing something wrong with how you manage your career.

I’m not alone, but I’m not the majority

There are many people who feel the same way I do. Particularly those that have had to prove themselves every day because they didn’t go to Harvard. There is a large population of people who went to nobody schools, community colleges, or didn’t even finish. Many of them figured things out for themselves. They are successful despite a so-called limited education. Some of them are more successful because they were getting experience when many others were partying and going to football games in college.

There are many interviewers like me that look for those people. However, there are still those in power that will hire a twenty-year veteran because they were in the same fraternity at the same university. They may pass up someone with better experience, but with the bad DNA of a lowly college.

Conclusion

I suppose, what it comes down to is that you should market yourself with as many positive values as you can. Attend the most prestigious school that will accept you and that you can afford.

Once you get that education, make it count. A 3.6 GPA doesn’t add to a company’s bottom line. That GPA should translate to knowledge. Knowledge should transfer to ability. Ability should transfer to results. And those results should contribute to the bottom line.

What is the focal point of your resume?

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com