Only 20 years ago, some of America's biggest corporate recruiters -- Dow Chemical, General Electric, General Dynamics, the U.S. Navy -- were persona non grata on college campuses. Now graduating seniors are lining up at 6 a.m. in the snow for job interviews.

5:45 A.M. RAW DAWN IN BLACKSBURG, VA. A FINE, ICY snow needles the side entrance to Henderson Hall, and Clyde Simmerman, who has studied fiercely to be an aerospace engineer, can't outmaneuver the snow's stinging trajectory. It's 27 degrees, windy, and if Clyde is stamping his big, sneakered feet out here in the November cold, it's got to be a Wednesday -- the day the Virginia Tech job placement office lets seniors sign up for precious "open" interview slots with corporate recruiters. Wild-card berths. First come, first served.

One by shivering one, the students will fall in behind Clyde until the line stretches 50, then 100 feet -- three stories high once some pitying maintenance man lets them into the building stairwell. Clyde is first, and he is remarkably perky.

"You gotta give it your best shot. Haul yourself up, get out here."

He's been doing this since September. Every Wednesday, the alarm short-circuits his dreams and sends him out into the beastly half-dark. Oh, it's nasty, it eats up hours, this ritual. And even if he gets the interview, he'll probably get a "bullet" for his trouble.

Thank you for your interest. However . . . The bullet is the rejection letter, ominously lightweight in the envelope.

Boeing. Sunoco. Mobil. Mitsubishi. MCI. Milliken. Nabisco. Comsat . . . From his pole position, Clyde can read the list of open slots posted on the locked door. He got here first so he could get General Electric. They're solid, high-paying, and they're hiring. Defense division. Next to General Dynamics, which draws the most interest, everyone's after GE.

6 a.m. Thirty souls shudder behind Clyde Simmerman. Get here past 6, he says, and you'll be too far back in line to nail the Fortune 500 spots. "Last one in line gets Steak and Ale," says a wag near the door.

What do they want, these benumbed stalwarts? They want jobs, good jobs, with big, well-known companies. When do they want them? By June. Once they graduate, options like this line are no longer available. For their four years and $17,000 (closer to $28,000 for out-of-state students), they want starting salaries of $29,000 -- the going rate for chemical, mechanical and electrical engineers (CEs, MEs and EEs). Students at Virginia Tech are overwhelmingly BS candidates, majoring in those three areas, and they are the vital raw crude of American industry.

Once in the pipeline, they will focus on fiber optics, brew new plastics and bring other good polymer things to life. They'll oversee factory power systems and tame industrial waste. Some will market pesticides. Or build a better hair mousse. But they can't be that specific now. All they can tell you is that they really want jobs. They have loans, obligations. Here's one petroleum chemist singing, goofing in the somber line: Yo, Lee Iacocca, I'm here and I'm hot!

Having already taken a fair share of bullets, these seniors are dressed for the Wednesday skirmish: work boots and Reeboks, parkas and plastic ponchos. Their knapsacks are full of books and titration charts, their jeans stained by laboratory resins and felt-tip pens. They all have cold feet and not-so-great expectations.

"I don't think I'll have a job by June. Never did," says Brad Reed, a long-haired EE student with a modest grade-point average and a hard-to-place specialty in solar applications. "A lot of the Fortune 500 types come here. And the big corporations don't have to look at anyone with an average below a 3.2 or so. Kids with 3.5s {B pluses} are in fat city. They get dozens of priority {prescheduled} interviews. And the rest of us have to live in this line."

"Understand, it's all about having good paper," says Jim Burlant, another EE. "A killer PDS {Personal Data Statement}, good GPA {grade-point average}, summer internships, activities. They like to see co-op experience -- that's when you alternate semesters here with working for a company."

Clyde has a 2.7 GPA, he has good work experience, campus activities. It hasn't been enough. He has submitted -- "dropped" -- his PDS with more than 30 companies requesting interviews, and has taken as many bullets.

"All of us here probably have decent paper," says Jim, "but not great."

"Which is why we're here," says Brad. "They call this the UN-employment line."

7:45 a.m. The door to the placement office has opened, the line is moving. Clyde advances as the woman in charge makes a general announcement:

"ATTENTION. There are a few slots with General Electric interviewers. This is for GE defense work. You must be a U.S. citizen for a minimum of five years. And if employed, you must take a life-style polygraph every year."

7:51 a.m. "General Electric is closed, people. No more slots at GE." Clyde is smiling. "I got GE." There is still melted snow in his curly blond hair. He wipes the moisture off his wire-rim glasses and ambles to the back of the line, determined to try for a second slot with the David Taylor Naval Ship Research and Development Center in Carderock. Sometimes he goes through the line five or six times.

"It's better than standing in a real unemployment line," he says. IT SHOULDN'T BE THIS HARD. BETWEEN 500 AND 600 corporate, military, educational and government recruiting teams will visit Tech this school year. They will conduct nearly 17,000 interviews here to cull their '88 employment candidates. Seventeen thousand handshakes, nice-to-meet-you's. Tell me about yourself, seventeen thousand times. Why should we hire you?

Despite those numbers, there are never enough interview slots for hopefuls, never enough hot, fast-track jobs. Tech students put in about 80,000 paper drops a year requesting interviews, which works out to more than 20 requests per graduating senior. More than 60,000 times, their drops are answered with bullets. Should they survive the drops and some interviews, they will go on to compete with students from other schools. Large companies recruit nationwide at up to 100 institutions like Tech.

No, it shouldn't be this hard. But ingrained expectations and new economic realities are working a double whammy on guys like Clyde. Taught to "go for it" since grade school, they naturally want the best: the GEs, the IBMs and other big blue chips. But it's tough to go for it when oil and auto companies are running the other way, as they have been since '82. Many smaller employers withdrew from campuses completely, cutting the options even more. After five lean years, they're just starting to come back, according to a recent survey by the placement office at Michigan State University, which predicts a slight (3.8 percent) increase in hiring this year.

The upshot? It's getting better, but it's still a buyer's market for recruiters, who can poke at heaps of prime student re'sume's like fussy hausfraus looking for the perfect downy peach. Worse, they're doing more shopping by mail. Before they'll talk to a live body, they must be impressed by his paper. It's a shopping style known as prescreening, and it can leave Clyde and his compatriots out in the cold.

While some schools use a lottery, a computer matching or a bidding system to schedule interviews, many permit prescreening by employers, which allows them to skim top candidates from re'sume's sent in advance through the placement office. These re'sume's list GPAs, and the Michigan State survey shows that beyond a candidate's major and degree, grade-point average is the most important selection factor. GPA-heavy prescreening is used by 70 percent of the employers surveyed where it's permitted. It may not be the fairest method, but to some it seems the most realistic.

"In today's market, the student with a 2.1 may never get selected {for a priority interview}," says James Malone, Tech's director of placement services. "But preselection helps the student learn how the world works. He knows early on: I've got to put together good paper."

Good paper can stop a bullet. And getting good paper in the '80s marketplace does not mean merely earning a diploma. The paper problem looms as early as freshman year. For BS candidates, that's when students decide whether to co-op with a corporation. Co-oping adds a year to a four-year program, but good co-op paper -- job experience descriptions, employers' ratings and recommendations -- can go a long way to buttress a shaky GPA and tart up a ho-hum PDS.

Should their paper land them across the table from a recruiter, they ask not what the company can do for them. Mention "life-style polygraph" and there are no snickers, no chants of "Hell no, we won't show." Now, nearly 30 percent of employers use mandatory drug testing on college recruits and no one complains. Of necessity, these soon-to-be bachelors of science have learned the line of BS known as BusinessSpeak.

Facilitate. Impact. Interface. The latest corporate buzz verbs zing through re'sume's printed on just the right paper -- 50 percent cotton or linen fiber, in white, ivory, tan, ecru. With the help of placement offices and private counselors, undergrads have learned to package and market themselves for corporate scrutiny. They pledge professional societies and fraternities. Before they need worry about 5 o'clock shadow, they can pick a power tie. Listen to them as they wait in line, reducing world economics to spooky shorthand:

Detroit is choking on MEs, an overstock of bodies. Carbide may be shaky -- the Bhopal settlement -- watch your rump on that one. Check out the golden handshakes they're shoving at oilmen. Gramm-Rudman is stepping all over aerospace. Synthetic fuel research has taken the gas. THE PROSPECTORS ACROSS THE FOUR-LANE FROM THE CAMPUS, AT the Blacksburg Marriott, the recruiters from Dow Chemical are preparing to mine the brain trust. They, too, have been up since dawn reading student paper and memorizing paper of their own from the personnel department: The Texas plants need power-generation people; Louisiana wants hot MEs. Team Dow is at Tech to cull candidates for the 506 jobs Dow must fill from 11,000 applicants nationwide. They will only be seeing priority students. Out of 435 Tech re'sume's dropped, they have chosen 80 to interview. Dow schedules are always jammed, with few open spots for Clyde's compatriots.

Back when it made the napalm used to french-fry Vietnam, Dow Chemical was the campus recruiter '60s protesters most loved to hate. Wealthy Dow, headquartered in Midland, Mich., sixth-largest chemical company in the world. Conservative, hard-line Dow, largest producer of Agent Orange and one of seven manufacturers ordered to contribute to the Vietnam veterans' fund for Agent Orange victims. Arrogant Dow, which fought the EPA on banning the herbicide 2,4,5-T (a major ingredient of Agent Orange) and refused to make its dioxin-related research available.

That Dow now has them lining up on campus, orderly, in neat gray suits. That Dow has recently spent $31 million on public relations to soften its hard-line image -- including three TV spots on college recruiting. Dow lets you do Great Things, they burble. THEY WENT FOR DOW CHEMICAL WITH A BUCKET of gasoline out at San Jose State in '67, might have pit-barbecued Dow PR man Jack Jones and his recruiters if campus police hadn't collared the kid with the sloshing pail full of high-test.

Protesters pursued Dow, dogging the company at 46 of the 174 campuses it visited that year, at Kent State, at Berkeley, waving grisly glossies of alleged napalm victims.

Information, not apology, was Jones' role on campus. That, and moral support for shell-shocked Dow recruiters. The worst, he says, came in December of '67 at Los Angeles State College, where Dow and IBM recruiters were sharing space in a temporary classroom. Twenty years later, and recently retired, Jones can still see himself in that ticky-tacky fiberboard box:

First comes the noise -- a low roar, then howls and thumps. Suddenly, the whole building is rocking. Pop. Pop, pop: The thermostat covers fly off the walls.

"Burn, Jack baby, burn," the mob is howling, but somehow the campus police clear a lane and get the recruiters to the more substantial placement office building, where they lock the fugitives in an office and promise to call in 200 city police. Already an old pro at siege psychology, Jones goes into his routine. He tells company jokes to calm the Dow recruiter, shouting them over the infernal howl. One hour, two, and no police. The students now have a battering ram.

BLAM! The IBM guys shove a desk against the door. BLAM! BLAM! The metal door has begun to crack, and the IBM blue suits butt their shoulders against filing cabinets, more desks.

BLAM! "Murderers! Merchants of death!"

Big Blue can't get them to listen. Hey, they make computers, not jellied gasoline. Hey, now . . .

Oh, these blue suits are shook, and Jones, a gentle, pragmatic Oklahoman, walks up to one of them with the balm of levity on his mind.

"Say, I'll give you $500 for your IBM name tag."

The suit is ready to slug him: "GET LOST! I wouldn't sell it to you FOR A MILLION BUCKS!"

And outside: "Burn, Jack baby, burn!" "IT'S JUST SUPER TO SEE ALL YOU TECH FOLKS again."

Here's Dow recruiter Jim Townsend, with a wineglass in one hand and his point-and-shoot camera in the other, talking over the din and haze of sizzling prime rib. Three tables' worth of recruiters, co-opers, summer interns and scholarship students fill the private dining room at the Farmhouse restaurant, Dow's preferred clubhouse in nearby Christiansburg.

Over beef and grasshopper pie, recruiters chat and woo; frat pins and orthodontics gleam in the soft light. Tomorrow, they'll begin the serious business of senior interviews, but there are few June graduates here tonight. These are mainly underclassmen. With some help from the faculty, Dow gets the inside track early on and begins a genial surveillance. Tonight the mood is light; the only paper required is proof of age for a glass of French burgundy.

Just now, Townsend is toasting recruiter Larry Jackson, who will be leaving the Tech team to set up Dow's hot new packaging division.

"Larry's going to head up ZipPak."

"Wow," says a sweet-faced scholarship student. She's just a freshman. Dow singled her out in high school, and Dow will send her stipends as long as she remains a chem major.

"Better living through chemistry," chants a kid at Jackson's table. But as soon as he's spoken, the quipster reddens. "Oh jeez. That's DuPont. Oh, what a jerk. Excuse me."

Townsend stands and shoots with his little camera. He's a big, genial man with the air of a frat alum given to buying pitchers all around. He can talk polymers and quarterback sneaks, reflexively checks the Tech Hokies' sports scores on Sunday. He calls the niceties -- the steak 'n' chat -- "warm fuzzies." After 24 years, he still enjoys the ritual. And he always heads back to Midland with a couple of rolls of exposed film from dinners, luncheons, award presentations. It helps him remember faces, conversa- tions.

"Okay, folks," he says. "Let's order lots of desserts." CALL IT POST-RECESSION RAPPROCHEMENT, THIS cozying up between campus and industrial park. It's tough economic times that have forced corporations to soften their images while tightening hiring standards. And economics have toughened the tenderfoot undergrads. After all, in the late '60s, the job market was fat, the unemployment rate just 3.8 percent. Now personnel directors speak delicately of "down-sizing." Following the 1982 recession, many employers cut back on college recruiting. Caught in the kind of first-job competition that many baby boomers escaped, '80s students have had to sharpen their presentation of employable self.

The result is a campus climate that's industry-friendly. These days, jobs with chemical companies and defense contractors are high on many seniors' wish lists. Now students are storming placement offices to make nice with big business. And the prevailing ethic is earn, baby, earn. So it is that two decades after Dow recruiters were tear-gassed, mobbed and threatened with immolation, their biggest hazard on campus is overwork.

Whenever possible, each Dow recruiter does 13 interviews a day, the maximum number Tech allows. That's 6 1/2 hours of tough headhunter chess. At Dow, they say they send the best to get the best. They'll dispatch no broken-down Willie Lomans to duke it out with the DuPonts and Union Carbides, the Monsantos, Procter & Gambles and Bell Labs at the 100 campuses Dow visits. Their 300 college recruiters are themselves recruited from top performers, "line people" who actually work at the jobs they're hiring for. Their time is not factored into the $5,000 to $6,000 per hire Dow estimates it spends in recruiting. The yearly recruiting budget is $2.5 million -- pin money, considering the total investment.

"You're talking about an average $4 million commitment every time you hire someone, assuming they stay for 25 or 30 years," explains John Billingsley, Dow's director of personnel resources. "So for a recruiting year this {hiring 500 grads} comes to an estimated $2 billion in personnel costs. In effect, you're going out and leasing assets."

So you send the most valuable assets to seek and attract their own kind.

"I was one of them, not too long ago, and I always make that clear," says Tech alumna Lynn Lewis, a production supervisor for Dow at the home office in Midland. Normally, she oversees the cleansing and recycling of 20 million gallons of waste water dumped daily into the Tittabawassee River. Today she will be talking to a steady flow of CEs, MEs and EEs. Bivouacked at the Marriott, she has packed her slim brown briefcase with a stack of Dow literature, a Belva Plain novel, a pack of M&Ms and a sheaf of yellow evaluation sheets.

"The paper looks real good," she says. "They've sent us the best."

Two other Dow recruiters, Bob Cornelius from the plastic film plant in Hebron, Ohio, and David Morris from the Midland arm of the agricultural products division, will be coming directly from the airport. Larry Jackson, the ZipPak guy, has already headed to the chemistry department to interview PhD candidates. Jim Townsend, who is also the director of Dow's entire recruitment operation, waits in the motel lobby, his briefcase full of student paper as well. Up drives Paul Davis, an automotive account manager for Dow in Detroit, who is recruiting for marketing. His rental car smells of sugar and yeast. The several dozen doughnuts in the back seat are destined for the lounge at Henderson Hall. The placement office staff is partial to Kroger's cinnamon and jelly.

"Just a little thing I've fallen into doing," he says. "Those folks work darn hard."

The Dow Difference: Honey glazed and high energy. THE MIDDLE MEN "I CONSIDER MY STUDENTS PRODUCTS," SAYS William Conger, head of Tech's Chemical Engineering Department. "And I am here selling my products." Conger, a buoyant thermodynamics specialist with a penchant for turquoise jewelry, is sitting in his office with Townsend, who has stopped by for a chat and a little business.

Their relationship is key to Dow's recruiting effort. Two or three years before the Great Paper Drop besets students, Townsend meets hot underclassmen prospects with the help of department professors and campus professional organizations. For Dow, it's a way to identify and track prospects before they fall into the huge, if more democratic, placement office system. A way to head off the competition. For Tech, these faculty/industry confabs will bring in nearly a quarter-million dollars this year ($30,000 in direct aid, $200,000 in research grants) from Dow.

Townsend has come to the chemical engineering building to present an award, a check and a desk set, to a promising lab student, and he is still digging into his deep tweed pockets. There are two Dow envelopes on Conger's coffee table. One contains a $10,000 check for the department, the other a $5,000 check for the Polymer Materials and Interface Laboratory, a plastics research group at Tech.

"We get very little state funding, and we depend on this," says Conger, pointing to the envelopes. "Research is very expensive."

The Dow contributions are part of a $4 million yearly fund (plus an additional $990,000 research kitty) that Townsend administers nationwide. If the doughnut money buys good will in the Tech placement office, the other quarter million can be seed money for Great Dow Things. It's all part of the Rapprochement. Financially beset institutions are accepting record amounts of corporate money -- $670 million this year -- from corporations competing for the best research minds. University scientists are designing new coffeemakers for their corporate angels. Academic purists may rue this move from Walden Pond to the assembly line; nonetheless, corporate financing has nearly tripled since 1980.

The payoff? Recently, one of Townsend's investments made the front page of the Wall Street Journal:

"Why a New Sieve Is Exciting the Oil, Chemical Industries."

The clipping is taped to the office door of Mark Davis, a professor in Conger's department and a specialist in molecular sieves. With the help of Dow money, Davis invented a sieve that will be priceless in "cracking" crude oil (extracting usable products from raw petroleum). The patent for the sieve will be assigned to Dow. So will the profits.

"I have to hand it to Jim as a savvy recruiter on all levels," Davis says. He raises his coffee cup, which bears the red diamond logo: DOW. It's not a social and ethical faux pas to drink from the cup of big business. In fact, Davis applauds Dow's initiative.

"Since the bottom fell out of the recruiting market, and everything's gotten so cold, working the way he does is pretty smart business." MARKET DAYS ON THIS DANK, SNOWY MORNING, WARM FUZZIES have no place in the Old Dominion Ballroom, a cavernous, gym-like hall pressed into service to handle recruiter overflow. It's high headhunter season in mid-November, and by 8:30 a.m., the market stalls have opened for business. Philip Morris, J.P. Stevens, Texaco, Union Carbide, the Peace Corps, among others, have arrayed themselves at card tables set in rows on the hardwood floor. One dour-faced man has placed a ticking clock between himself and his interviewees. Dow is working five tables, and of all the corporate teams, only Dow recruiters sit cozily catty-corner, rather than across the tables. Another Dow Difference.

In the lounge outside, students wait and worry. There are no jeans in the lineup here; knapsacks are kicked out of sight. Unlike their classmates on the open-slot line, these interviewees are priority packaged. Snow beads up on well-waxed wingtips. Young women slip out of their trekking Reeboks and into sensible, low-heeled pumps. Everyone, male and female, wears the Interview Suit: blue or gray, white or blue shirt, red tie for men, serious haircuts, chignons, prim barrettes. They all clutch more paper -- transcripts, re'sume's, letters of recommendation -- but it, too, is packaged, in slim, 8-by-11 leather cases.

"Whoa, the Stepford Students," cracks a blue-jeaned coed studying in the lounge. Nobody laughs. They are trading tiny horrors here, of interviews gone sour and of fire-breathing recruiters.

"One guy told my roommate that his grades and his activities were mundane. Mundane! Now he's draggin' around, saying his life is mundane."

"So I ask this guy from General Dynamics who they lay off first, management or the guys on the floor. He laughs and says the floor, of course. I guess he figured I'd want to hear that, since I'd be management. But my dad's down on the floor of a plant. And his dad. So that just turned me off."

Recruiter archetypes emerge, like the Grim Inquisitors, who latch onto a sophomore C until you stammer yes, yes, okay, I SCREWED UP. The Regular Guys yak about football, their kids, their Subaru mileage. And eventually, they all ask the Question:

Tell me -- why should I hire you?

Sometimes it's the interviewer who must do the selling, competing with the other stalls for the standouts.

Watch Jim Townsend, leaning intently toward a handsome young man in a charcoal suit. Townsend has been working on CE Ron Smith for weeks now, even though he didn't drop with Dow. Unbeknownst to him, Ron got the nod from Conger's department. He has great paper, co-op experience. A quiet, straight-talking Virginian from tiny Gate City, Ron doesn't want to leave the mountains, and Dow has no plants in the area. Ron would need the full-court press. So he was invited to a Dow luncheon at the Blacksburg Sheraton a few weeks ago.

"They had two Dow people at each table," Ron explains after his interview. "And they talked to me. Then I ran into them later at a wine and cheese party with the Student Engineers Council. And the Dow guys invited me to dinner."

More beef at the Farmhouse. Then Townsend followed up with a call: warm fuzzies, and hard facts on perks, promotion, the works. Ron talked to people in his department and got good word on Dow. Dow seemed to be everywhere.

"They were taking people to lunch and dinner. They spend money, they're much closer with the faculty than any other company. They're here. Those Dow cups and pencils in the lounge, the right answers about layoff policies, job security."

Ron smiles. "Yeah, it worked on me. I'm ready to listen."

He is listening to other companies, too. Ron is leaving on a plant visit to BASF's facility in Newark, N.J. He's been told he'll tour facilities, have more interviews, take personality tests. But the only thing he's worried about is the trip itself.

"I've never been on a plane." "MONEY! THEY'RE GIVING OUT MONEY!"

Dow is Deanna Gurek's 13th priority interview, and she has come away grinning, with a check from Lynn Lewis, a $200 donation to the Tech chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers; Deanna is secretary. That office is part of what gives her good paper, along with a 3.5 average in her major and co-op experience with Philip Morris. Deanna also has a great big X in the box that says "female." According to the Michigan State survey, there will be a slightly greater demand for female and minority graduates. Having dropped with about 35 companies, Deanna says she has been rejected by only five or six, and only because they weren't hiring CEs this year. At the moment, Dow is vying with DuPont, Shell, Mobil, Hercules.

"I love it," Deanna says of the interview process. "It's easy for me. I've turned down interviews recently. At the beginning of the term, we had no idea of our marketability. So we dropped with all of the big companies."

Asked if her clutch of priority interviews wasn't an embarrassment of riches when others were waiting in the snow, she says, "I do feel bad sometimes. I'd stop taking up these interview spots if I heard back from companies faster. But they take weeks sometimes."

Defense is okay by her, but not government contracting "because they don't pay." Though her co-op experience with Philip Morris was good, she isn't leaning toward the cigarette company. "I don't think it's a growth area." And oil companies? "We're all scared of oil companies. That industry is looking uphill. I might consider a plastics division -- they're more stable.

"You track in a smart direction as early as possible," Deanna says. "Give them what they need to see. And try to ID your growth areas." "I'M DISILLUSIONED WITH THE WHOLE PROCESS," says Ron Falcone, an EE from Newport News. "You drop with every company. Xeroxes of your PDS are a nickel apiece, so why not paper the world? Turn the crank and out we come, the Virginia Tech product."

As he's talking, the clock hits the half hour. Chairs scrape in the ballroom, and new suits fill the folding chairs.

"I wouldn't want to work alongside some of my fellow students," he says. "They're so intense in here, you wonder what they'll be like in the big bad world. Even now, it's just bucks, bucks, bucks, the talk. And nobody cares what they do." Ron is the only student queried on the subject to eschew defense companies. "I won't work for a place that makes things to kill people. I don't care if it's peacetime, or whatever they're paying. I'm no hippie or anything, look at me. I've got the suit, the paper, I want the job. But I have some kind of conscience." THE FIRST CUT "I MUST BE GETTING SOFT," SAYS JIM TOWNSEND. "But I think I saw a bunch of good ones today."

He is sitting on the floor of his room at the Marriott, amid drifts of paper and popcorn crumbs. Lynn Lewis and Bob Cornelius are shuffling through their paper. "Lord," says Cornelius. "I came up with five Ones."

On the Dow rating scale of 1 to 3, the Ones are cream: great paper, probably solid co-op experience, willing to relocate, able to answer the tough questions. Together, Cornelius, Townsend and Lewis have come up with an unusual number of Ones.

"Are your Ones really top dogs?" Townsend asks.

"Yeah," says Cornelius, almost gloomily. "Let's get to work on 'em."

First, a top candidate -- someone Dow has been tracking since his freshman year. Now he's get- ting married, and his fiance'e doesn't want to move.

"We've got a four-year investment in this guy," says Townsend. "Let's be sure the fiance'e is invited to tour the site in California. A nice trip, job counseling if she needs it. "

Next, a promising minority student not yet a senior.

"Put him in the system anyway. Stay close. We give him some warm fuzzies, and he can be tracked through NSBE {National Society of Black Engineers, a minority professional organization}."

Another departmental tip-off has piqued Townsend's interest. This CE has been working with one of the hottest researchers in the field -- hitched her wagon to a polymer star.

"A One," says Townsend. "And a real sweet kid." Within an hour, they are all sorted, ranked, stapled, collated and rubber-stamped "Pre-Screened." About 25 will be evaluated again in Midland with the regional supervisor. The other half are branded ISO -- Initiate Sign Off. The bullet. Townsend pulls another rubber stamp out of his briefcase, one generally used to answer requests for financial aid from unsuitable institutions. The rubber letters read NWJ. "And that," he says, "means No Way Jose." THE HOPPER NEARLY ALL ROADS IN TOWN LEAD TO DOW CHEM- ical in Midland, just north of Saginaw. "Crazy Dow" was what the people here called Herbert H. Dow when he founded his company nearly 100 years ago. Now 7,000 of Midland's 37,000 residents draw Dow paychecks. Along with the rest of Dow's 27,500 U.S. employes, they are part of the vast "personnel resources" under the guidance of John Billingsley. He was a plant manager before Dow plucked him from sunny California for this job. He works in a small, functional office several feet from the small, functional office of Jim Townsend. Dow is a no-frills kind of a place. You bring your own warm fuzzies -- a philodendron, a Garfield calendar. Or a joke.

Here's a little true story John Billingsley likes to tell in answer to questions about the importance of grade-point averages: "A few years ago, at a meeting, our CEO polled the board. He said, 'Everybody with over a 3.0, raise your hand.' And only one hand went up."

Which goes to show that today's fat cats might not even get a priority interview with the company that's keeping them in six figures and greens fees. "I've read study after study that try to correlate GPA with success in industrial enterprise and no one has found any correlation," says Billingsley. "Okay, the last couple of years it's been a buyer's market. You could have your cake and eat it, too. I know some companies that use GPA as a cutoff, frequently at the 3.0 level, and I can't understand that. It would be a very dangerous thing to do."

Nonetheless, in another small, windowless room across the corridor, few GPAs below 3.0 are making the cut that will throw them into the Big Hopper, Dow's computer system tied to all the hiring locations.

It's check-in time for the Tech team. Jim Townsend has already had his session with regional recruiting manager Tim Diephouse, making further cuts. A University of Michigan wolverine snarls from a lithograph on the wall of Diephouse's office. He was recruited at Michigan seven years ago, before the crunch, and he found the process "neat."

Lynn Lewis has arrived from her waste-water duties, the prim briefcase knocking against no-nonsense slacks and sweater. She pops open a Diet Coke and Diephouse's desk becomes the cutting-room floor.

"I could ISO {reject} from here down," she tells him, indicating a stack of paper candidates below a 1.5 or 2 Dow rating. They're still top-heavy with Ones, but others are considered.

"This guy earned 75 percent of his college costs. He's a Two, but tough."

"That's neat. Don't ISO that one."

"This one worked his way through school at a TNT plant for Hercules."

"Super. I like him. But let's watch it, we're getting kind of deep here on Chem Es."

"These two are very close in GPA, experience. Both MEs. So now what?"

"Gut feeling, Lynn. Compare Sue and Marcia. Just gut feeling. Who would you want next to you in the plant?"

"It's still even up."

"Okay, put 'em both in the system and let 'em fight it out."

It goes on like this until half are ISO'd. Bullets will speed their way within 10 days. The survivors will get plant visits. Their paper, with notes about conversations in the flesh, will be electron-zapped to Dow power stations near Houston, to Bayou manufacturing floors. The Hopper shuffles them further, matching pegs to precision holes in research, sales, agricultural marketing.

Plant visits will begin after the New Year. Offers will be made thereafter, and six or seven lucky Tech grads may be saying yes, opting for the Dow Difference before the first crocus pokes through outside Henderson Hall. AS THE DOW LETTERS GO OUT, CLYDE SIMMERMAN spends Thanksgiving break grateful for the end of the fall interview season.

"Gives me time to thaw," he says, ever cheerful. Clyde has been amassing more paper as a result of the interviews he got from the open-slot line.

"So the rejection letters keep coming," he says. "Six, seven so far. My roommates have about six each. We've papered the wall with them."

The talks went well, but jobs are hard to get in aerospace. He did get one plant visit as a result of an interview with the Naval Air System. This took him to the Naval Aviation Depot in Norfolk.

"Oh, it was great," he says. "We had more interviews, looked around. I loved it there. I was even kind of hopeful. Then, at the end, they took us aside."

It was a different kind of bullet.

"Gramm-Rudman," Clyde says. "They just got hit with a hiring freeze."

And so Clyde will take his place in the Wednesday line when they start this month to sign up for spring recruiter visits. He will lay in warm socks and lots of nickels.

"I'll Xerox more PDSs. Yeah, drop more paper. And if I get more interviews, I'll think up more ways to answer that question."

So tell me about yourself. Why should we hire you? ::