On Poker, Mahjong, and Campus Recruiting

A suggestion for how to handle campus recruiting

If you are a talented computer programmer or engineer currently undergoing campus recruiting, you are probably considering entry-level positions at a lot of different companies. You are almost certainly also considering a lot of different career paths, as your first job out of college has a big influence on what you learn, whom you meet, and your access to future professional opportunities. So, with so much at stake, how should you proceed?

Before we discuss strategy, perhaps it might help to first recall two definitions from probability theory. Recall from your Stats 101 class the definition of a random variable, a variable whose values depend on random outcomes. Also recall the definition of expected value, the probability-weighted average of possible values of a given random variable. Don’t worry if you don’t remember all the details right away.

What’s important to note is that the key to winning games of chance, games whose outcomes are influenced by randomizing devices like dice, is by maximizing expected value. Take poker as an example. In order to make the most money in the long run, you must make decisions that are more likely to have positive payoffs and less likely to have negative payoffs. Simply put, you must squeeze as much money as you can out of your opponents when you think you are ahead and lose as little as possible when you think you are behind.

Mahjong is similar. For those of you who do not know the rules, mahjong is like gin rummy. On your turn, you draw one tile and discard one tile. You aim to make certain combinations of tiles, which have different point values. And, as in poker, you win by maximizing your expected value. That is to say, you keep the tiles with higher probabilities of making high value hands and discard the tiles with lower probabilities of making high value hands.

Even chess, a game with no hidden information, is like a game of chance. Why do you think grandmasters study their opponents’ games? They are looking for strengths and weaknesses, so that in competition they can make moves to enter into positions that they are likely to win.

As for campus recruiting, many soon-to-be graduates opt for a suboptimal strategy. They apply for as many entry-level positions as they can, attend each and every interview, and see what sticks. The problem is that they view campus recruiting as a numbers game, probabilistic in nature, and winnable if they cast a wide enough net. This haphazard strategy might work well if the goal is to land any job whatsoever. But you can do better than that.

If you were instead to view campus recruiting as a game of chance, then you have a clear prescription for success. Let expected value be $\mathbb{E} = \sum_{i=1}^N P_{i} * Q_{i}$ where $P_{i}$ is the probability opportunity $i$ becomes an offer and $Q_{i}$ is how good it would be if opportunity $i$ were to become an offer.1 Then, all you need to do is to focus on opportunities that are more likely to become offers and opportunities that you believe are good.2

In other words, focus on companies that want to hire you. Focus on figuring out what you want and how these companies might help you achieve what you want. Do not focus on companies where you do not fit culturally. And definitely do not focus on opportunities just because they seem prestigious.3 Focus on maximizing your expected value.


  1. Perhaps this definition is bit reductive, but I think it might still be useful for many people. ↩︎

  2. What qualifies as good is different for different people, and how to figure that out for yourself is probably worthy of a separate essay in itself. ↩︎

  3. Prestige stems from when other people, not necessarily you, think something is good. ↩︎

Midas Technologies
Midas Technologies

Midas Technologies is a leading electronic market making and quantitative trading team based in China and Singapore.