Before she stepped into her first on-campus recruitmen interview, Tiffany Osterhout, a senior at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., went to 10 stores in search of the perfect interview outfit (a conservative gray striped suit).
She put as much time into researching the company, the accounting and consulting firm Arthur Andersen & Co., as she did preparing for a midterm.
"I was so nervous that I couldn't concentrate on my homework or in class for several days before the interview," said Ms. Osterhout, an economics major. "Besides being my first interview, it was a company that's at the top of my list, and my classmates', too."
The interview took place in the fall, when many scientific, technical and accounting recruiters make their first trips to campuses.
It turned out as Ms. Osterhout hoped: She was invited for a second interview in the firm's Tampa office, her first-choice location.
"I'm anxious all over again because it's one thing to do well in a 30-minute interview and another to come across effectively during five or six interviews in one day," said Ms. Osterhout, who has also received invitations for on-site interviews with several of the 10 employers that interviewed her on campus.
Like many students with strong grade-point averages, work experience and involvement on campus, Ms. Osterhout is not as worried about finding a first job as she is getting a job offer from one of her top-choice companies.
But for the majority of students, lining up a good first job seems to be a more anxiety-ridden process these days.
Next month they'll be streaming into career-planning and placement offices at colleges across the nation as the spring recruiting season, which attracts more employers than does the fall season, begins.
In students' concern about getting jobs, "Peer competitiveness and parental pressure are factors," said Dean Victor Lindquist, director of placement at Northwestern.
Getting on a popular company's interview schedule can be competitive, so schools such as Northwestern have instituted a lottery in which students draw a time when they can sign up for interviews.
The earlier the time a student draws, the wider his choice of employers.
Other schools use a bidding system in which students are given a certain number of points, which they use to bid for time slots on interview schedules. Interviews with popular employers require the most points.
While big-name employers such as IBM, GE and Hewlett-Packard are often students' top choices purely for their prestige, other companies that made efforts to have contact with students above and beyond the actual recruiting process enhanced their image among potential hires.
A survey conducted jointly by the magazine Graduating Engineer and Deutsch, Shea & Evans, a recruitment advertising agency, found that contacts with company people were one of the greatest influences in students' forming opinions of employers.
Employers create such contacts in a variety of ways. "We go to college job fairs, have a speaker-bureau network and make sure that students understand that we hire liberal arts majors as well as those with specific business backgrounds," said Judy McNamara, employment manager for Fidelity Investments, a mutual fund management and discount broker with headquarters in Boston.
"We also let students know about our computerized resume-tracking system, which allows us to contact those who send us resumes when job openings arise," she said.
During the actual recruiting process, companies that make an effort to deal candidly with students and treat them well also win high marks with students.
"Companies that were at the top of my list before the interview often dropped to the bottom because their recruiters weren't gung-ho on the company or they didn't go out of their way to interest me in the company during an on-site interview," said Matthew Kistler, a marketing major at Michigan State University, who has had interviews with 17 companies and already received two job offers.
One company flew him and a group of top contenders to the site of its largest store, put them up at a hotel for the weekend, gave them a tour of the city, had a local real estate agent explain the housing market, invited them to breakfast with the company's chief executive officer and set up meetings with professionals at different job levels.
"All of us unanimously came away with the feeling that this was a well-run company we'd like to work for," Mr. Kistler said.
On the average, companies spend about $3,500 to recruit each new college hire, according to L. Patrick Scheetz, assistant director of placement services at Michigan State. The estimated average cost of training a new employee is estimated at about $7,036 during the first year of employment.
Students like Mr. Kistler and Ms. Osterhout who attend academically prestigious colleges, large public universities or engineering and science schools have traditionally enjoyed the convenience of on-campus recruitment interviews.