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  • Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs by Lauren A. Rivera
  • Edward J. Smith
Lauren A. Rivera. Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015. 392pp. Hardcover: $35.00. ISBN: 9780691155623

Lauren Rivera’s Pedigree unveils the mystery surrounding the hiring practices of top-tier Elite Professional Service (EPS) firms to offer insight into the sorting criteria and ways of measuring candidates’ potential that are highly correlated with candidates’ parental income and educational attainment. These tactics, used to discern a “cultural fit” between the applicant and workplace, systematically eliminate low-income, high-performing college students who may be qualified for jobs at such firms (p. 139). Moreover, Rivera finds that cultural screening tactics are responsible for keeping levels of racial, gender, and socioeconomic diversity at these firms artificially low.

Drawing on an abundance of in-depth qualitative interviews, survey data, and firsthand observations of hiring practices at several of the most prestigious firms in the U.S. northeast, Rivera showcases the myriad ways that employers construct definitions of talent and merit to further bend the arc of candidate assessment in favor of applicants from affluent backgrounds. The author focuses on EPS Firms (e.g., top investment banks, management consulting firms, and law firms) for three reasons. First, these firms typically offer the highest paying entry-level jobs in the country. Second, these firms are likely to catapult recent graduates into the top ten percent of household incomes in the U.S. Finally, these jobs often matriculate employees to positions in the upper echelons of political and civic governance or the highest levels of private and public sector organizational leadership (e.g., trusteeship, board of directors, executive leadership).

Readers will be impressed by Rivera’s clear, concise prose as she crafts a compelling narrative about the rampant discrimination at these firms, whereby hiring managers dispense an array of filters (informally known as “screens” and “evaluative metrics”) that are commonly associated with high levels of family income and educational attainment. Taken together, these seemingly class-neutral filters result in a hiring process that sorts undergraduate and graduate students based on their families’ socioeconomic status and leads employers to focus almost exclusively on cultural match while neglecting top talent from less affluent backgrounds.

While Rivera’s findings are not entirely novel to anyone familiar with these industries, the book offers a succinct, cogent, and beautifully written sociological analysis of a world that remains highly mystified and perhaps romanticized by many outside of these industries. Rivera’s strongest and most insightful contribution derives from illuminating the unspoken norms against which all applicants are judged. Norms such as the need to show sustained commitment to and leadership in a team sport or the ability to “blend humility with confidence” during conversations concerning serious subject matter (defined as “polish”) are, according to Rivera, distinct attributes of upper class life (p. 170). Taken together with the need to display other personal attributes such as “poise” and “presence,” showcasing a cultural match at EPS firms requires a substantial commitment of economic, social, and cultural resources on the part of the applicants and their families. As Rivera concludes, while none of these norms explicitly discriminate against applicants from low-income backgrounds, their net effect is to largely screen out people whose lives do not resemble those of the wealthy.

Another strength of the book is the scope and the thoroughness of Rivera’s study. This qualitative, comparative case study included 120 interviews with employers and 32 interviews with candidates from highly-selective business and law schools. Moreover, the ethnographic dimension included nine months of observations in the offices of one EPS firm (pseudonym “Holt Halliday”), as well as ethnographic observations of Holt Halliday’s on-campus recruiting events and networking receptions. While coordinating and executing recruitment events for Holt Halliday, Rivera interacted with job candidates, debriefed with evaluators about candidates after interviews, and observed group deliberations of candidates. These seemingly informal, yet important data gathering experiences strengthened the study. [End Page 321]

Rivera’s analysis regarding cultural fit offers a strong contribution to discussions about hiring discrimination. Rivera found that cultural fit tended to be the strongest and most common applicant screen...