Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs

August 30, 2016 | By Paul Barrett


This is the title of a recent book by Lauren Rivera[1][2], who utilised ethnographic and interview information to detail how US elite professional service firms (EPS: think Wall Street) go about the process of hiring new graduate-entry employees. These EPS firms are commercial businesses spanning the domains of law, organization and financial service consulting, and financial investment advice. Data were collected over the period 2006 to 2008, including 120 semi-structured interviews and 9 months of participant observations/field-work within a recruiting department of an elite professional firm.

The key results from this work are:

  1. Psychometric assessment was not used at all by any of these firms.
  2. EPS firms only hire from elite, selected universities where close personal contacts exist between relevant university staff and the firms (for targeted proactive recommendations of particular students by these staff). Applicants responding to online advertisements are never contemplated for the positions.
  3. Although EPS firms set up recruitment stalls at other universities (for ‘diversity’ purposes), they never hired from them.
  4. Those partners doing the recruiting possessed no formal training or qualifications in such activities. A firm’s HR were never involved in making selection decisions.
  5. Candidate résumé’s were screened more for a similarity between the evaluating partner’s extracurricular activity and school affiliation than for grades or academic achievement. Previous jobs and internships were considered relevant only if students possessed “high-status social connections”.
  6. Candidate skills, abilities, and personality were assessed during formal interviews with partners of firms, but even here similarity to the interviewing partner/s own ‘cultural preferences’ affected how even the same information provided by different candidates would be weighted. It was not whether an answer might be correct that took precedence, but how that answer was communicated to the interviewers.
  7. In the final decision-making process, usually very late in the evening after all the interviewing had been completed, minority-ethnicity and women decision-makers tended to avoid supporting candidates “like them” because they felt that doing so might endanger their own perceived tenuous position within their firms; while white, male alumni from the elite universities were more attracted by candidates who looked and engaged in similar extracurricular activities as them.

The 2012 article is full of very illuminating quotations from hiring partners. This one especially resonates with me:

“A lot of this job is attitude, not aptitude… fit is really important. You know, you will see more of your co-workers than your wife, your kids, your friends, and even your family. So you can be the smartest guy ever, but I don’t care. I need to be comfortable working everyday with you, then getting stuck in an airport with you, and then going for a beer after. You need chemistry. Not only that the person is smart, but that you like him.” p. 1008

Jennifer Merlizzi[3] sums up the essence of the book as:

“Pedigree is a compelling and impressive work, offering readers a rare look inside elite hiring processes. Importantly, Rivera never promises that this book will solve class inequality but rather that it will reveal a critical, understudied route by which it is occurring”. p. 16

From the academic I/O and HR perspective the selection practices are patently unfair to those not already privileged by social status, money, parental prestige, and opportunity. Furthermore, the entire selection process should lead to these EPS firms failing or at least performing consistently poorly over time, as they are not hiring using best/most-valid practices, not hiring the highest-psychometric-ability candidates, not using personality assessments, not selecting for diversity, and not utilizing HR in any selection processes. Yet these organizations succeed and persist in succeeding as profitable organizations.

One likely reason is that in a 2013 meta-analytic update to the famous 1998 article from Schmidt and Hunter on the validities associated with methods of employee selection, Frank Schmidt and colleagues[4] showed that unstructured interviews possess equal to or greater validity than structured interviews (.60 vs .58 respectively) in predicting job performance. Those EPS interviews and seemingly biased decision-processes may after all be powerful selection devices in their own right.

A second likely reason is that the selection stages a child goes through to attend their elite schools, elite sports clubs, and their elite university has already ensured the majority of graduate candidates are of high through to exceptional ability. So why bother with an IQ test?

A third likely reason is that the usual clutch of self-report personality, values, and motivation assessments from the major test suppliers do not reveal anything about a candidate of sufficient psychological import to be of any substantive practical value in these kinds of high-stakes, elite-candidate assessments.

The issue for a unique assessment provider like Cognadev is whether the deep psychological information describing a candidate’s cognitive information processing style, values, and personal motivations would add something substantive to the current EPS selection processes. The question an EPS partner might well ask is “what is unique about this psychological information that is relevant to the decision I need to make?” The answer to this question might only be worth exploring if the cost of poor hiring decisions is so significant that something more than ‘carry on regardless’ is required.


[1] Rivera, L.A. (2015). Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[2] Rivera, L.A. (2012). Hiring as cultural matching: The case of elite professional service firms. American Sociological Review, 77, 6, 999-1022.

[3] Merluzzi, J. (2016). Book review of: Lauren A. Rivera: Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs. Administrative Science Quarterly, 61, 2, NP, 13-16.

[4] Schmidt, F.L., Oh, I., & Shaffer, J. (2013). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 95 years of research findings;