Commercial banks are fighting harder to recruit college and university graduates.

The job market is hotter than it has been in recent years-good news for the seniors who are being courted by regional and money-center banks and a persistently aggressive investment banking sector.

The competition has forced banks to change their tactics for attracting candidates into their training programs, according to bank recruiters and career counselors at the four-year colleges. The changes range from making campus appearances earlier to sweetening salary offers.

Money-center institutions like Bankers Trust New York Co., Chase Manhattan Corp., Citicorp, and J.P. Morgan & Co. have long sponsored executive training programs. Graduates use them as launching pads to lucrative careers or top graduate schools, college career counselors said.

The big banks uniformly said they recruit at about 25 campuses, generally including the Ivy League schools, Duke University, Georgetown University, and Stanford University. Several predominantly African-American schools are on many lists, including Howard University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Florida A&M.

The majority of the graduating candidates are in the liberal arts, said bank recruiters.

"There are a greater number of opportunities in banking this year," said Jane Hopkins Carey, executive director of the MBNA Career Education Center at Georgetown in Washington. "The banks came here in droves, and the students responded in droves."

But commercial banks are struggling to counter the powerful draw of investment banks, which traditionally have offered higher salaries and a perception of more prestige. For example, Citicorp offers starting salaries of $35,000 to $40,000, amounts typical for a money-center, said Hoyle Jones, the banking company's vice president and director of university recruiting.

Starting salaries for new grads at a typical investment bank are at least $5,000 higher. And they are higher still when it comes to the MBA field, where investment banks have long been among the most aggressive recruiters.

"The investment banks have really locked in recruiting," said Sheila Curran, director of career planning services at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "They have done a much better job at marketing themselves."

The commercial banks are biting back.

One tactic has been to visit campuses earlier-moving the first weeding out interviews up to December from February.

"We want to be in there first," said Andrea Beldecos, vice president and director of global recruiting for J.P. Morgan & Co., which hired 280 graduates from U.S. colleges this year.

"There has been an increase in hiring (in Wall Street), and we are all going after the same candidates," she said.

Citicorp, which hired 140 college grads this year, has also moved its on-campus visits up to the fall. "The market is just fiendishly competitive," Mr. Jones said. "There are enough jobs to go around for the better students."

A second popular tactic is a signing bonus.

Chase Manhattan, which hired 10 to 40 graduates for each of 12 training "silos" this year, has started to offer a bonus to students when they accept an offer. The bank would not reveal bonus amounts, however.

"We are doing things this year that we ordinarily would only have done for MBA candidates in the past," said Raymond Flautt, Chase's vice president of university relations and recruiting.

Since the early 1990s, J.P. Morgan has offered an "unrestricted" relocation allowance to help graduates set up residence in New York, where most of the trainees begin work, said Ms. Beldecos. J.P. Morgan would not say how large the allowance is.

A third tactic is what college counselors call "early ID."

"Many of the banks are offering summer internships and part-time jobs to undergraduates," said Trudy Steinfeld, director of career services at New York University in New York. "It gives the banks a chance to test them early and make early offers to the candidates they really like."

One final strategy: offer positions comparable to the investment banks. Commercial banks have the greatest number of openings in analyst programs, which require a two- to three-year commitment and are similar in experience and pay to those at investment banks like Morgan Stanley & Co.

College counselors said those programs are particularly attractive.

"Most of these students are MBA-bound," said Lary Maskel, director of on-campus recruiting at Duke in Durham, N.C. "Analyst training is a logical pre-MBA experience."

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