BOSTON — MIKE FOLEY hustled early and beat the spring rush.
Most of his Northeastern University peers here are now wooing on-campus corporate recruiters. But six months ago, the sociology major landed a job with a sports-marketing firm in Chicago. When Mr. Foley graduates in June, he's looking at a $25,000-plus salary.
''I'm one of the lucky few,'' he says, remembering how hard it was for friends who graduated last year to find jobs.
But the ranks of the fortunate are growing: 1995 looks like the best job market for college graduates in years.
Hiring will be up as much as 6 percent, according to an annual survey by Michigan State University's Collegiate Employment Research Institute in East Lansing. That compares with a more than 30 percent decline in job opportunities for those who graduated between 1989 and '93.
Starting salaries also are expected to rise about 3 percent from last year, the study finds.
''Early indications are that more graduates will have job offers and several [times] more will have accepted employment at graduation than their predecessors of a year or two ago,'' says Patrick Scheetz, director of the institute.
Fueling the hiring spurt is an improved economy as well as employers' needs to replenish their work force after drastic layoffs and hiring freezes over the past five years. As a result, universities say they have seen a slight increase in on-campus recruiting, as the Fortune 500 companies are returning. Some schools attest that small and medium-sized firms are showing up, too.
Take E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. The Wilmington, Del.-based chemical company has been undergoing a major reorganization since July 1991. As a result, it hired only about 25 new college graduates last year and completely dropped out of the on-campus recruiting scene, says Sandra Graves, a staffing consultant. But this year, she says, Du Pont plans to hire between 150 and 200 new grads and is recruiting on 40 college campuses.
Among the hottest jobs are computer-related occupations. Almost 11 percent of the nearly 550 jobs posted last fall in just two months on Emory University's Job Track database targeted people with a computer-science background, says Tariq Shakoor, director of the Atlanta university's Career Center.
Other occupations in demand: engineering, science and math fields, sales and marketing, accounting and finance, environmental fields, and medical and health-care jobs.
For those interested in careers in the manufacturing sector, those employers anticipate upping their number of new hires by 6.9 percent, says Dawn Oberman at the National Association of Colleges and Employers in Bethlehem, Pa.
But college graduates shouldn't get too confident. They face heightened competition from seasoned workers who are victims of downsizing as well as past graduates who are still job hunting.
As a result, employers can afford to be choosey.
With today's companies continually reorganizing, new graduates must be flexible, adaptable, and able to work in teams and handle ambiguity. New hires must be life-long learners. Companies expect, employees to ''train, train, and retrain,'' Mr. Scheetz says.
Computer skills are a must. And internships or some type of relevant work experience are fast becoming a prerequisite. Fifty-eight percent of last year's new hires had some work-related experience, Scheetz says.
And contrary to a recent US Census Bureau/Department of Education study, grades do count. Many employers say they won't even consider an applicant with a grade point average below 3.0.
General Electric Company in Fairfield, Conn., hires about 1,000 new engineering, business, and liberal-arts graduates a year. Virtually all have related work experience, says spokesman Bruce Bunch.
And GE is looking for students with an ''international mentality'' -- those with foreign-language skills or who have lived overseas.
But companies are adding another notch on their measurement stick -- a positive attitude.
''The attitude of new grads was a key issue in this year's survey,'' Scheetz says. Many companies complained that students are not successfully making the transition from college to career. They're overly confident, often arrogant, expect more responsibility too soon, and their work ethic is below management's expectations.
''Graduates were walking out the door [after an interview], kind of like they had a poofiness in their chest, saying 'Look, I'm a college graduate,' '' Scheetz says.
Employers dislike this attitude that seems prevalent among this generation of graduates. ''We definitely have this phenomenon of 20-something generation students who have a little bit of a different perspective, with regard to what is important in their lives, than ... a 50-some-year-old,'' says Larry Simpson, director of Office and Career Planning at the University of Virginia in Charlottsville.
''At the same time,'' Mr. Simpson says, ''I do see students who are very enthusiastic and willing to work long, hard hours and have the drive and determination and ambition ... to knock down any door that's in their way.''
Career-services professionals say universities should help ease students' transition into the work world by training them how to act, how to dress, and what to say.
But the critical ingredient to getting a job is not the economy, says Richard Fein, director of placement for the school of management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. ''The critical ingredient ... is what the individual does to take advantage of opportunities.''