So we’re at the end of another year, and you know what that means: no, not holiday parties, not New Year’s celebrations, and not even making fun of AJ or consultants (though all of those sound more fun than being buried in snow – my current state).
I’m talking about reader Q&A, which makes its return today.
This time around, we’ll critique a few “stories” from readers, answer the never-ending networking questions that roll in, and I’ll even respond to the usual criticism, complaints, and hateful comments that arrive like clockwork – and give you a preview of what’s coming next year.
Your “story” is the most important part of any interview, but 99% of interviewees make the same mistakes over and over again.
In dozens of mock interviews and real interviews, I’ve never heard a spectacular “story” on the first try, though some of them have been decent-to-good.
So we’ll have some fun here and look at everything from “pretty good but needs work” stories to ones that just aren’t working.
Names and identifying details have been altered or removed.
Q: Can you comment on my story? I’m an MBA candidate going for investment banking internships. Here’s the basic outline:
- The Beginning: Started out in engineering, but wanted something more client-focused so switched to consulting and worked at a large firm for several years, and got to work in both the US and Asia.
- Finance “Spark”: Over time, I realized that the projects I was most interested in were always finance-related…
- Growing Interest: So I applied to [Top MBA Program] and got in, and have been learning about finance here ever since.
- Why You’re Here Today / The Future: I want to combine my client management skills with my finance background and international experience to contribute to US-Asia cross-border deals, eventually becoming an adviser to management teams one day.
A: This story isn’t bad, but you could make it much better with a few tweaks:
- Finance “Spark”: You need to make this more specific. Give names, numbers, and details. Did you work on due diligence for Microsoft’s $1.5 billion acquisition of a tech start-up? Did you analyze the numbers in a turnaround or restructuring assignment? Pick a single client or project and make that your spark.
- Growing Interest: Citing the MBA program is OK, but it would be better to include evidence of how you started learning about finance and IB even before that to prove that you didn’t just get interested overnight.
- Why You’re Here Today / The Future: This is mostly fine, but added specificity would help once again – can you point to an industry you’re most interested in? Can you tie this back to your finance “spark” and say that you want more of that experience, but in a role that’s closer to the deal itself?
Solid effort and I’ve heard much worse stories before, but you still have a ways to go.
Q: What do you think of my story? I’m interviewing for tech PE firms.
- The Beginning: I went to [Top School] and did an internship at [Large Bank] in their TMT group. Then, afterward I started working full-time in a generalist role at another bank, moved into a Leveraged Finance role, and now I’m back in a TMT role at another bank.
- PE “Spark”: In one deal I worked on, I got exposed to fundraising for a private company and realized that we could add a lot more value as an investor by working with them over the long-term, helping to build a management team, partnerships, and expand their business.
- Growing Interest: I started learning more about PE by speaking with friends in the industry, alumni, and going to conferences such as [Conference Name]; I also picked up LBO modeling on my own and have been working on more buyouts and PE-related deals at work.
- Why You’re Here Today / The Future: I want to combine my tech industry experience with the finance skills I’ve gained and become an investor in tech companies in the long-term; joining your firm is the best way to get there.
A: You’re giving too much information in the beginning, which makes it sound like you were just randomly hopping around jobs.
This is a common problem for anyone with at least 5-10 years of work experience, but you can fix it by streamlining what you say:
- The Beginning: Only say where you went to school and that you’ve “worked in banking,” with a focus on TMT and tech – leave out Leveraged Finance and the generalist role to make yourself seem more focused.
- Growing Interest: This is fairly good; you may not want to mention learning LBO modeling on your own if you’ve already been in banking and been in a LevFin group because it might imply you didn’t do much on the job.
- Why You’re Here Today / The Future: Tying it back to your “spark” and the specifics of that deal would improve this part. Highlighting a specific type of investment, company, or industry within tech that you’re interested in would also make it better.
A good effort, and with a few tweaks it could be great.
Q: What about my story? I’m going for investment banking internships as a university student. Here’s what I have so far:
- The Beginning: My family owned a business in the telecom sector and they took the company public when I was young, so I heard about business and IPOs from an early age.
- Finance “Spark”: I read a trading-related book, got interested in finance, and decided to go to the top school for finance in my country.
- Growing Interest: I joined the school investment club and recently completed a PWM internship, where I learned more about the markets and worked with clients.
- Why You’re Here Today / The Future: I want to work on deals in the telecom sector and combine my background in the industry with the finance and client management skills I’ve gained.
A: Wow, where to start… there are a couple problems here:
- There’s no logical progression from your interest in telecom growing up to the last part of your story – it seems too “random” the way it is right now, almost like a deus ex machina at the end of a film.
- This seems more like a trading “story” than a banking “story” because you mention the trading book, the investment club, and PWM internship.
- Oh, and you don’t mention where you’re going to school – might want to include that part…
You should change the first 3 parts of your story:
- The Beginning: I’m from [Place Name] originally and I’m attending [University Name] right now. Growing up, I had always been exposed to business and finance because my family ran a telecom company…
- Finance “Spark”: Their company went public when I was younger, which made me interested in the IPO process and the bankers that advise on those deals.
- Growing Interest: I went to [University Name] to develop my interest in finance, and joined the investment club there, focusing on the telecom sector and also valuing any recently public companies. I learned about valuation and financial modeling on my own, and recently completed a PWM internship where I got to work with clients and analyze their portfolios.
This sounds more convincing now that you’ve focused less on the trading side, more on the sector you’re interested in, and talked about skills that are relevant to banking.
Networking, Networking, and More Networking
A few years ago, a friend was visiting me and asked a simple question:
“How can your readers have so many questions about banking? Aren’t there only a set number of questions out there? And haven’t you already answered everything after running this site for years?”
As it turns out, the answer is no. The more questions that are answered, the more questions we receive…
Q: Some people have said that it’s “spam” to cold email people you don’t know, even if they’re alumni or you’re connected in some way. What do you think?
A: There is some truth to this. It’s always better to meet bankers in-person first, if possible.
Even if that means that you have to travel to crash other schools’ information sessions, the investment could easily be worth it – unless you enjoy emailing hundreds of people per week.
Q: I emailed people at [Firm X] / Sent a thank you note / Followed up with them, but they haven’t responded in OVER A WEEK. What’s going on?!! Help me!! Do they not like me?!!!
A: You need to chill out. Professionals in this industry are busy and recruiting at most firms tends to be highly disorganized.
It’s very rare to even get an email response from anyone, about anything, within a week.
Sure, follow-up if you haven’t heard back after a week, but don’t expect them to move quickly. You’re generally at the bottom of the priority list.
Q: Do you think it’s OK if I send a “make the ask” email to an analyst that I met for only 5 minutes at my school’s information session? I haven’t had a chance to set up an informational interview yet.
A: It would be better to speak with him on the phone for 5-10 minutes first or meet in-person again, but it’s not “wrong” to ask for an interview as long as you’ve met him in-person before.
Q: I’m a high schooler at a top prep school, and everyone else here has well-connected parents. How can I level the playing field and compete with them? They’re already guaranteed internships from early on!
A: Wow, this message sort of scares me.
Anyway, why not turn this to your advantage and ask these “wealthy parents” for informational interviews? Sure, their priority will always be their own children, but if you approach them early on and you’re already networking by the time you get to university, you’ll be in good shape.
Q: If a person keeps saying “no,” should I just give up? How do you decide when to quit and move on?
A: The first lesson you learn in sales is that specific objections are the first sign of serious interest from a prospect. The same applies in the job search.
Ask why they are not open to speaking or to offering you an interview – if they just keep saying “no” without citing specific reasons (don’t have the money, don’t need extra help right now, etc.) and don’t even seem open to referring you to other people, move on and walk away.
Q: What are the main differences when networking from IB to PE compared to getting into IB in the first place?
A: The main differences are specificity and headhunters. You need to be much more specific when moving to the buy-side – if you approach a headhunter and say, “I want to move into PE!” he/she will stare at you blankly and go back to pitching other candidates.
You need to go in and say, “I am interested in tech-focused PE funds with between $500M and $1B AUM based in California.”
Headhunters are actually useful now that you have full-time work experience; that said, you should never rely on them because they can only do so much for you, and you’re rarely at the top of their priority list.
Q: Your site has made things too competitive! Now, “everyone” uses it, everyone has the same resume template, and networking no longer “works.” It’s all your fault!
A: I think you’re exaggerating. Yes, maybe the investment banking resume template is widely used now, but if you’re using a resume template to set yourself apart, well, you have some bigger issues.
Here’s a story for you: within the past month I met with 2 readers from non-target schools who were visiting New York, both from completely different parts of the country, and they both told me the same thing: students at information sessions still ask laughably horrendous questions, and most people are still not executing their networking strategies effectively (if you set up an informational interview and then “forget” to show up, you deserve to fail).
Interviews have definitely gotten more competitive but that’s also because there are plenty of resources now, beyond just this site, that weren’t available 10 years ago.
Responding to the Critics
And now to my favorite part of any Q&A feature: responding to the critics, ranging from hateful comments to death threats to snarky responses and passive-aggressive emails.
Q: This site is terrible now that you have so many guest authors! Everything is crap! Why would I want to ever visit again? Everything that was awesome about this site has died!
A: I think you’re being a little over-dramatic. And yes, I get where you’re coming from and I’ve heard it before: you may not like the other writers.
But I’ll respond to this with 3 points:
- A lot of my own content isn’t that good. Maybe you’ve forgotten articles like this one on Canada that spawned tons of controversy due to inaccuracies, or others throughout the years that generated a poor response and/or vengeful comments.
- Some of the best and most popular articles over the past year were from other writers. Take this one from Thomas on corporate finance, this one on PE strategies, or this one on business school admissions for a few examples. And before you ask, no, I didn’t “secretly write” any of these – they all had very minimal edits from me.
- I don’t know everything. Even with interviews, sometimes it’s not possible to get certain types of information (that corporate finance article is a good example of something that would be tough to write via a reader interview).
All that said, yes, I will be publishing fewer guest posts next year because it is a huge amount of work to coordinate, and I don’t think publishing more frequently has necessarily made the site better.
Q: I like the new Breaking Into Wall Street site! But I saw some problems on my account / can’t access certain pages / can’t log in...
A: We spent a lot of time redesigning the site to make it more user-friendly by offering downloads, notes, and comments all in one spot, improving the overall layout and navigation, and highlighting testimonials and schools/firms, and so far most feedback has been positive.
But yes, there are still some issues and “Version 1.0” of anything is never perfect, so please contact us if you’ve had any problems.
Q: You have WAY too much non-banking material here now.
I came here to read about the ins and outs of investment banking, not to learn about all these other areas in finance or get “life coaching” from you.
A: Really? That’s interesting, because I did a survey of 10,000 newsletter readers last year and over 50% said they were more interested in learning about other areas (HFs, PE, S&T, AM, etc.) instead of pure investment banking.
Coverage of IB will continue (more industry groups, deal discussions, etc.) but I don’t want to beat a dead horse and there are already literally hundreds of articles here just on investment banking.
At a certain point, you have to branch out into other areas to continue growing.
Plans for Next Year and Beyond – and Category “Random”
A picture is worth 1,000 words, but a picture PLUS words are worth even more…
Q: So, I really want to learn about this one topic… have you thought about adding it to the site before? Or doing an interview about it?
A: Without even knowing what your idea is, yes, I probably know about it. A few weeks ago, I sat down and went through every single comment and email on the site and used them to generate a list of 421 ideas, by topic and sub-topic.
So they’re all coming. The only question is when - because that’s dependent on who volunteers and who we can find to contribute.
The most fun part of this 50-hour long process was poring over a world map to figure out the remaining regions we have to cover…
Q: What about new courses?! I want new modeling courses!
A: Maybe, but not in the short-term. Right now (next few months) we’re focused on making the existing courses better by… introducing 2 new features that tons of members have asked for over time. I’m not saying what they are until they’re finished, so use your imagination.
I agree that there’s some demand for other areas, but there also has to be enough interest to make it worthwhile to develop the course – I couldn’t justify spending 1,000 man-hours to develop a course that only 50 people sign up for.
Q: Other plans for next year? Surprises? Cost of Capital Season 2? Will you give away free models?
A: Only if they’re Excel models.
But yes, there are a bunch of new projects coming up next year – including one that I haven’t talked about at all so far (and it’s different from the 2 new BIWS features above). Don’t want to ruin the surprise, though…
Q: How are you so productive? Any tips?
A: I’m more productive than the average person, but plenty of people out there are better than me. My #1 tip:
Q: You’ve written about how important communication skills and writing are before. How do I improve? Any tips?
A: Yes, here’s exactly what you need to do:
Q: You’ve been doing this for years, but you’re still working 70-80 hours per week. What motivates you? Money? Fame? Do you make your own investments?
A: None of the above. I hide in a cave most of the time and purposely keep a low profile, and I barely spend money on anything.
Q: OK, OK, but what about sharing your own story of how you started this site?
Didn’t you send out an email a long time ago asking if we wanted to read it?
A: Yes, I did. And I actually wrote Part 1 of the story of how I started this site, which clocked in at around 8,000 words.
I’m on the fence about publishing it, though, because it’s long and somewhat off topic.
But maybe if there’s enough interest, I’ll change my mind (and write Parts 2 and 3 to complete the “trilogy”)…