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Early talent trends

How students explore careers & engage with employers on Handshake

Understanding the candidate experience by offering the guidance of having been there yourself goes far with students.

Reflecting back on your own journey of career discovery, how did you feel? Overwhelmed? Intimidated? Not sure where to start? Curious about moving to a new city?

Some students and recent graduates know what they want their careers to look like and have a clear blueprint for getting there, but most are on a journey of exploration and discovery. Despite the training of school, it can be hard for students to envision how their studies translate into day-to-day jobs and ultimately a career they’re proud of.

But what if these students were to receive guidance from employers over the course of their undergraduate experience? And what if that guidance didn’t require a ton of your team’s bandwidth or resources to fulfill? This isn’t a far-fetched reality—it’s all possible on Handshake.

Helping students to match their skills and interests to types of roles, to navigate the transition from college to career, and offering empathy throughout their engagement with you, your team, and your brand can shape the course of a student’s entire career. By intentionally investing in early talent, you are directly impacting your future workforce.

Get into the student mindset

Early talent goes through many phases of exploration and discovery: where should I go to school? What should I major in? Which first job or internship should I take? Which clubs should I participate in? Every student you interact with on Handshake has asked themselves some or all of these questions—and maybe you’ve asked yourself the same! Understanding the student experience by offering the guidance of having been there yourself goes far with students.

While students unlock their potential at employers like yours, you can chart a similar course of discovery by unlocking potential in early talent. The key to supporting this process is building authentic relationships. By fostering meaningful connections with early talent, you can lead students to career-defining moments that move early talent through their journey of discovery and help shape their future. Students engaging 1-on-1 with employers are more likely to apply to their jobs. Why? Because Gen Z talent values relationships and connecting with employers. And at the core of these connections is empathy (which every student needs as they find their way).

Be sensitive to the student lifecycle

Consider what students may be thinking, concerned about, or motivated by at various stages of their college journey. You can root your engagement with them in empathy simply by recognizing the challenges and opportunities that arise over the course of their college experience.

First years

When just starting out in college, first year students are going through a major life change. Often it’s the first time they’ve been away from home, with newfound independence and responsibilities. They have a campus to navigate, new people to meet, schedules to adopt.

Because they may not have a firm grasp of their major, let alone career options at this stage, employers should focus their engagement with first year students not on a specific job opening but on creating brand affinity and building a solid relationship instead. That relationship will probably center on guidance–helping them determine what skills they need for different career paths, tips on applying for internships, and more.

Find out some of the ways that Early Talent Award winners thoughtfully engage students at various stages of their college experience.

Second and third years

Sophomores and juniors have taken enough courses to know what their interests are. Their focus is on internships that help them gain the skills needed to land a job that matches their interests. They still need guidance, but more so regarding standing out in the hiring process, internship expectations, and defining a clear career path.

Tailor your engagement with them by offering a variety of employer-hosted events such as resume writing workshops, building out your mentorship programs, and exposing them to various career paths within your employer.


Seniors are getting introspective, determining what jobs they can get based on their major or skills, considering where they want to work and mapping out their career goals, and refining the values they look for in a potential employer. Of course, some rising seniors are already applying to jobs, depending on the industry.

At this stage, students want to build their professional networks and get set up for career success. Instead of limiting your discussions with students based on their major, offer meaningful conversations about their goals and expertise. Help them explore their interests and highlight any entry-level roles you have that match their interests. The possibilities are endless, and it’s okay to tell early talent that!

To help students feel supported by your employer, introduce them to folks who are invested in the candidate journey such as ambassadorsfrom the team they might join, ERG representatives, or recently hired alums from their schools.

Infuse the candidate experience with empathy

Now that you have an idea of what the student experience looks like, implement this knowledge and curate a candidate journey to help talent discover and connect with opportunities:

Handshake data show that employers who participate in 1-on-1 relationship building via messaging AND video see up to 16x more applications. Learn more.

  • Be clear about internship and job requirements. Sure, you want to attract top talent to your internship programs and entry-level roles. But it’s mutually beneficial to set students up for success by providing transparency into skills and requirements, like relocating to HQ or expectations around workload. Students don’t want to waste their time applying for roles they’re not qualified for just as you don’t want a pipeline of unqualified candidates.
  • Schedule 1-on-1 video chats to build rapport. Whether virtual or in person, meetings aren’t just for interviews or discussing open roles. Handshake advises students to simply start relationships by “saying hello.” Students need guidance as they navigate their career journeys, but they also want to meet with employers to stand out from other applicants and start building their networks. Meet with them to offer advice, clarify questions, share information about your company, and create a lasting relationship.
  • Host events led by hiring managers to foster connections and build a solid reputation for your organization. Seniors and recent grads who already have some clarity into how they want to kickstart their careers are eager to hear from employees in similar roles or hiring managers to learn more about your company.

    Tip: Employers can host their own virtual events on Handshake across schools to engage their target segments, which make it easy for alumni ambassadors and hiring managers to commit half an hour and join from anywhere.
  • Communicate consistently and authentically. You do so much outreach to engage with students and encourage them to apply for internships or jobs, but the communication shouldn’t stop there. To be an empathetic employer, take the mystery out of what happens to an application by actively communicating status updates throughout the process. If a student’s application is rejected, consider going the extra mile by providing feedback. Candidates want to know there’s a human on the other side of the process.
  • Personalize messages the way you’d want to be spoken to. How you communicate matters too. Instead of sending a generic message, personalize it by telling candidates why you're interested in them specifically. What stood out to you about their experience or interests? How do their skills map to opportunities with your employer?

    Tip: Use the nearly 20 candidate filters on Handshake to create targeted segments and personalize your campaigns.
  • Cultivate individual relationships. You are in a unique position to help early talent discover their individual gifts and discover how they can be an asset to your teams. We all want to be seen and heard–you are in a position to do that for students every day! For example, if your candidate is trying to break into the tech industry, you can send them an article about the most desirable skills tech companies look for in candidates. Since 80% of Gen Zers on Handshake believe it’s easier now to make a wider range of professional connections than their parent’s generation, your actions show them you want them to be successful and that you will assist them in getting to where they want to be (a great way to build rapport).
  • Humanize the experience by being open and honest. Take the time to talk openly with students about your personal experience and help them explore the world of possibilities with your employer. What has your careerprogression been like, and how do you like working there? What has your unique experience been? Be candid, empathetic, and real.

Extend a virtual handshake

Students and recent grads are on a journey to uncover their career aspirations and are exploring which paths to follow to achieve career success. They’re exploring and discovering new companies and opportunities, evaluating what matters most to them, contemplating where they want to live and work, how they want to work, and the companies that most align with their values.

Extend a virtual handshake and build meaningful relationships with students centered on trust and guidance. Support early talent with these principles throughout their college journey, the interview process, as they onboard, and beyond.

Empathy goes a long way with early talent. Put yourself in their shoes and connect them with the resources they need to be successful. They won’t forget it.

Handshake’s 3-sided community connects 15+ million students and recent grads, 1,500+ higher education institutions, and 900,000+ employers to bridge access to opportunity. For help with adopting best practices for engaging with students as they discover careers and roles, reach out to our team.

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