Who Wins with Virtual Recruiting?

Leveling the playing field for underrepresented students

summer 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed us to discover new ways of collaborating–shifting work, school, and other activities that drive everyday interaction onto the computer screen. The student job search is no different.

Handshake’s May 2021 survey results reveal student’s perceptions of virtual recruiting at a time when campuses have solidified their reopening plans for the fall and the majority of Americans have been fully vaccinated. The report also explores the ways in which employers and higher education are reinventing their strategies to offer more accessible opportunities for students who are preparing to launch their careers.

Employers who have long attended in-person career events and interviews are now also being swayed by the 21st century benefits of virtual recruiting: a wider, more diverse talent pool, scaled engagement, and data to back their approach.

Almost all institutions and employers plan to host virtual career events this fall
Two waffle plots of the percentage of higher education institutions and employers surveyed by Handshake who reported plans to host virtual career events this fall. Of the 500 higher education institutions surveyed, 97% said that they planned to have all virtual or hybrid career events compared to 3% planning exclusively in person. Of the 431 employers surveyed, 93% said they planned to attend career events virtually or in a hybrid fashion compared to 7% who planned to attend in person.

Our study finds that women, students of color, and neurodiverse students find virtual career events and interviews to be less anxiety-inducing, easier to balance, and more accessible when compared to meeting with prospective employers in person.

This report explores May 2021 survey responses from 505 higher education professionals, 479 employers, and over 2,400 students attending 393 colleges and universities across the country to capture the experience of planning and participating in virtual career events.

Student quotes have been edited for length and clarity. Student survey responses have been weighted by gender and race/ethnicity using institutional enrollment numbers from federal NCES datasets. This was done in order to provide a more representative snapshot of student attitudes toward virtual career events.

While students prefer socializing and graduating in person, nearly half prefer interviewing virtually
Three gauge charts of student preferences for in-person or virtual activities. The first two charts show socializing and graduating, which students prefer to do in person: 83% of students prefer to socialize in person and 79% prefer to graduate in person. The third chart shows that 49% of students surveyed preferred to interview virtually.

Students Upvote Virtual Recruiting

More than a year into an unexpected transition from on-campus student recruitment to virtual career events, our data reveal how higher education institutions, employers, and students feel about the shift.

Even after COVID, students favor virtual recruiting.

In the last year, students have increasingly embraced virtual career events for delivering more flexibility, structure, convenience, and clarity, along with less stress and anxiety. The increased access to employers, informational sessions, and jobs is undeniable: students who signed up for a virtual fair session in fall 2020 were almost 10 percentage points more likely to attend than students who registered for an in-person fair in fall 2019.

With virtual career events, students appreciate the ability to schedule an online peek into different organizations’ requirements and roles between classes and other obligations, without having to travel anywhere, reducing the time it normally takes to commit to meeting with prospective employers and resulting in the likelihood of more students attending the sessions they sign up for.

When compared to in-person events, a majority of students agree that...
71% said virtual made it a less intimidating environment to learn about employers.
        75% said virtual provided more flexibility around scheduling.
        60% said virtual made it easier to prepare to meet with employers.
        67% said virtual made the job search process more convenient.

Once pandemic restrictions are no longer a concern, 87% of students still prefer some virtual recruiting.

While students are overwhelmingly ready and willing to socialize in person, attend in-person classes, and get back to life in 3D beyond a computer screen, the majority still prefer some aspect of virtual career events.

Even students who assert their preference to gauge company culture and interview in person appreciate the many benefits of virtual recruiting. Once the pandemic is no longer a concern, 54% of students we polled indicated partiality to continue attending at least half of career events virtually.

About 9 in 10 Students prefer an element of virtual career events in a post-COVID world
A waffle plot of student preferences for career fairs events COVID-19 precautions are no longer a concern. 54% prefer at least half virtual, 33% prefer some virtual, and 13% prefer exclusively in person.

Virtual career events will remain a key part of recruiting strategies well into the future.

More than 3 in 4 employers predict that even after the pandemic is decidedly in the rearview, they will continue to engage college students remotely. This preference from employers is a good thing, since 92% of the schools we polled also say that they prefer to continue incorporating virtual career events as part of their strategy once COVID is no longer a concern.

With virtual recruiting, employers can now reach qualified students anywhere, unlocking talent pools once deemed too far away. As a result, Handshake has seen exponential growth in employer-hosted virtual events. In 2020, employers hosted 7x more virtual events than in 2019. And by May 2021, the number of virtual career fairs hosted on Handshake has already surpassed the total number held in 2020.

Virtual career events will continue once COVID-19 restrictions are no longer a concern
Two pie charts representing higher education and employer preferences for career fairs after COVID-19 precautions are no longer a concern. 92% of higher education institutions prefer all virtual or hybrid virtually career events. 79% of employers prefer all virtual or hybrid career events.

Virtual Recruiting Unlocks Equity And Accessibility

In addition to convenience, virtual leads to more access and equity. There are fewer barriers for students to connect with employers, and in return, employers can build wider, more diverse candidate pools and recruit anytime, anywhere.

One-on-one virtual interactions empower more students from underrepresented backgrounds and women.

Most (55%) women we surveyed prefer virtual interviews compared to (41%) men. The well-documented confidence gap results in fewer women than men pursuing jobs and promotions because they may underestimate their abilities. Virtual changes those dynamics.

Being better able to prepare and participate in uninterrupted one-on-one time with recruiters provide a critical confidence boost to women as well as students from underrepresented backgrounds. To these students, personal one-on-one virtual interactions feel more fair to the screening process than the jostling, disruptions, and snap judgments they may have experienced while fighting for a recruiter’s attention at an in-person networking event.

Most women students prefer virtual interviews while most men students prefer in-person interviews
Two donut charts showing women and men student preferences for interviews. 55% of women surveyed prefer virtual interviews compared to 41% men.

Virtual career events help level the playing field for students of color, women, and people with disabilities.

Along with physical health and safety, mental health and psychological safety issues among students have been predominantly featured on college administrators’ radars throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of our respondents cite experiencing less anxiety and stress throughout the virtual recruitment process. Remote career events offer comfort to students across groups that traditionally face explicit and implicit bias, including students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, women, and those who are neurodivergent or differently abled.

Most students of color prefer virtual interviews while most white students prefer in-person interviews
A dumbbell chart showing preferences for interview modality by ethnicity. A majority of students of color (that is, Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian, Two or more races) prefer virtual, while a majority of white students prefer in person.

Virtual Career Events Lend More Visibility, Lead to Action

In virtual spaces, more Asian, Black, and Latinx students feel more visible to employers than white students. Moreover, a majority of students of color and women say that they are more likely to apply to a job after a virtual career event compared to an in-person one.

Students of color feel seen in a virtual world.

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The majority of Black students feel that virtual career events give them more attention from employers and allow them to make a stronger impression than in person.

Many note that in-person events do not deliver time with recruiters, who are often monopolized by talking to a few students. One respondent said there is little opportunity for candidates to “hijack the conversation” during virtual events, stopping the most aggressive, extroverted candidates from cornering the spotlight.

Virtual career events make me feel more likely to be noticed by employers than in-person events
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Virtual career events motivate more women and students of color to apply.

Forty-three percent of all respondents reported that attending virtual career events compelled them to apply to positions showcased during these events. When compared to in-person events, the majority of Black or African American and Hispanic or Latinx students were more likely to apply to positions after attending a virtual career event because they felt higher degrees of connectedness to employers.

In their view, the personal time with recruiters, lack of crowd noise and other distractions, and ability to focus on prepared talking points and questions helped build greater rapport with prospective employers.

Virtual career events make me more likely to apply for a job than in-person events
Lollipop chart showing by ethnicity whether students agree that virtual career events make them more likely to apply to a job afterward than in-person career events. 62% of Black and 60% of Hispanic/Latinx students agreed that they were more likely to apply after a virtual career event. This was at least 26 percent points higher than white students.

Improved accessibility leads to more student equity.

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As the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel shines brighter, the job market is on an upswing, with many positions opening up for early career candidates—a welcome change from the daunting job market that faced 2020 graduates.

While it might seem that students would lament the increased competition that virtual recruiting brings, the majority of candidates of color and women prefer remote events, with some reporting the ability to forge deeper connections with employers through a virtual medium.

Virtual career events allowed me to build more connections with employers than in-person events
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Students of all backgrounds—particularly Black, Latinx, women, and neurodiverse students—believe that virtual recruiting unlocks unique opportunities to connect with more employers and prepare in advance for those conversations.

Higher education institutions recognize the unparalleled access virtual career events promise and deliver for their students, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds, and see the clear link between virtual recruitment and graduate outcomes.

For employers looking to approach recruitment with a deeper lens on equity, the benefits remain clear: students who have long been marginalized now feel seen and are inclined to take action following a virtual career event.

These students want you to meet them where they are, and that includes on the places and platforms where they feel most comfortable—whether in person or online.