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As companies start to rely more heavily on their internship pools to make full-time hires, they're looking for ways to better evaluate candidates and targeting younger students.

A quarter of the nearly 480 respondents to The Wall Street Journal's survey of college recruiters said more than 50% of their new-graduate hires had been interns at their companies; 14% said more than 75% were. Similarly, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported in its 2010 Internship & Co-op Survey that nearly 57% of students from the class of 2009 were converted from interns to full-time hires, up from 50% the previous year.

The trend toward intern-pool hiring has come on very strong in the past three to five years, according to Monica Wilson, acting co-director of career services at Dartmouth College. "Internship recruiting will largely replace entry-level recruiting in the next few years," she says.

Firms are targeting and tracking students as early as freshman year, and undergraduates are exposed to corporate presentations and meet-and-greets within weeks of arriving on campus. Accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, holds information sessions almost as soon as classes start and makes internship offers to rising juniors and seniors as early as the last week of September.

Carlos Moore, a graphic-design student, was commissioned by the University of Arizona to film and photograph Macy's Inc. Chief Executive Terry J. Lundgren during campus visits in 2009. Mr. Lundgren's assistant, at his chief's urging, later asked Mr. Moore to create a highlight DVD of the visits. That work led to a marketing internship with Macy's in New York last summer and a job offer after graduation in May. Mr. Moore now works as a Macy's art director, creating layouts for Macy's publications.

"He gave me a lot of opportunities," says Mr. Moore, adding that he felt a bit star-struck when Mr. Lundgren introduced himself and knew his name.

"Early identification is key toour strategy of …developing relationships and assessing candidates," said Holly Paul, a U.S. recruiting leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. The firm hired 1,454 rising juniors and seniors for summer 2010 internships and offered 90% of eligible interns a full-time position before they returned to campus.

Sometimes a CEO even has a direct hand in making new hires. Information sessions and company-sponsored events are no longer meant for students to merely get to know a career path. Instead, they are a key way companies assess students. Recruiters from South Carolina-based textile and chemical manufacturing conglomerate Milliken & Co. say they use the sessions to interview potential interns for specific intern roles.

Data management firm Net App Inc. looks if students in the sessions ask questions or suggest new ideas—both a big part of the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company's culture, says university relations manager Joy Osborne.

Mary Remondini, the manager of work-force diversity and employment at Milwaukee-based We Energies Corp., says she tracks interested students from every class—including freshmen—and regularly looks for ways to incorporate them into the 4,700-person company as interns and, eventually, full-timers.

Some employers make an extra effort to sway top candidates. Both Portland, Ore.-based Walsh Construction Co., which has 355 full-time employees, and General Electric Co. help interns pay for housing and transportation—in addition to their salary. Data-management firm Net App Inc. sends interns to whom it has offered full-time jobs monthly care packages during their senior year packed with items ranging from company swag to cookiesand gourmet jam.

Once on the job, companies look to see whether an intern can make it the cut as a full-time worker. At Chicago-based Boeing Co., Katrina Krebs, a rising junior at University of Washington, helped solve a noise-complaint problem with partitions on 777 planes. For two weeks, Ms. Krebs pulled aircraft plans and met with senior design engineers and mechanics to disassemble the partition before she and a manager brainstormed possible design solutions.

"We do everything we can to facilitate meaningful work assignments for interns," said Bud Fishback, who manages college intern programs for Boeing. The company offered 250 of the 909 interns from summer 2009 full-time jobs. Some 80% accepted, said Mr. Fishback.

The shift to intern-to-hire recruiting hasn't been lost on would-be college students, particularly as the recession has lingered. Career center administrators at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Texas A&M University and Duke University, among others, say they have seen a recent rise in prospective students and their parents inquiring about which firms recruit—and hire—interns. Katie Kennealy, associate director of the career center at Illinois, says she has seen a 15% increase in such inquiries in the past year.

"Most freshman don't know where anything is on campus, says David McMahon, associate director of experiential education at Texas A&M, "but they've figured out they need a good résumé, and they need to get to a career fair" early on.