by Brian DeChesare Comments (66)

3 More Mistakes to Avoid When Answering the Most Important Interview Question

So you’re walking through your resume in an investment banking interview

You sound nothing like Pulp Fiction, you’re not reciting an essay, and you’re Mr. Spock – not The Joker.

But you’re still not landing investment banking offers.

What else could you be doing wrong?

Telling a Space Odyssey, Not a Story

2001: A Space Odyssey was a landmark film with groundbreaking special effects and an ambitious meditation on the nature of mankind that has never been matched, according to some critics.

And it’s long.

The film starts with apes discovering an extra-terrestrial monolith and continues through the space age, detailing mankind’s adventures into the great beyond.  It won critical praise over the years and is now regarded as one of the top movies of all-time.

In investment banking, by contrast, telling a lengthy story doesn’t result in praise – it results in rejection.

I’ve interviewed many people who speak for 10 minutes or more, going through every single detail of what they’ve done in each internship, activity and club.

Whoops.

Imagine an investment banker watching 2001: A Space Odyssey.  He would probably get bored within 5 minutes and walk out, wondering “What happened to the dialogue?  And where’s my bonus?”

And you get a similar reaction if your story is too long.

Keep it brief, don’t go into minutiae and tell a story – not an odyssey.

Replaying a Commercial, Not Telling a Story

If your story is only 30 seconds to 1 minute long, you don’t have a story at all – you have a commercial.

A 30-second clip might sell Coke, Bud Light, or FedEx to consumers.  And it might generate “stimulating” water cooler discussion the next day at work.

But it won’t get you into banking.

I see this mistake mostly among those who haven’t had much work experience.  If that’s the case, you need to spend more time discussing your interest in finance and addressing the “Why banking?” question before it comes up.

Selling Coke for $1.99 isn’t too hard – but you “cost” more like $200,000 (training, bonuses, office space…).  And with high-priced products the more you tell, the more you sell.

So don’t give replay a commercial – tell a story.

Not Being Sure Whether You’re Charlie or Donald Kaufman

I like some fairly unorthodox movies. But when I recommended Adaptation to my parents, they reacted violently.

“I didn’t understand anything… who was real?  Who was fake? What was the point of this movie?”

I get the same feeling after listening to some answers to the “Walk me through your resume” question.

Why did you want to do this again?  Are you sure?  Wait, are you really sure you want to do investment banking?

Having a “quarter-life crisis” and can’t decide whether you want to do consulting, banking, teach English in China or join the circus?

That’s nice, but don’t tell me any of this.

At the end of your story you must convince me that you are here for 1 reason and 1 reason only: because you want to be in investment banking (or sales & trading, or private equity, or whatever you’re interviewing for).

So if you’re not sure whether you’re a banker or consultant, you’d better pretend that you know.

How to Correct These Mistakes

Luckily, these flaws are easier to correct than the other interview mistakes we went over.

Length

So if telling too lengthy a story is a mistake and being too brief is also a mistake, what’s the proper length?

Aim for 3 minutes.  If you’re writing your story before telling it in an interview, try for 500-600 words.

I don’t recommend “memorizing” what you say (it sounds mechanical), but you can come up with the basic outline and then practice based on what you’ve written.

Remember, bankers are impatient – if you go on longer than this, there’s a good chance they’ll cut you off.  And the more senior the banker interviewing you, the more likely that they’ll cut mercilessly.

Know Thyself… or Lie

This is one of the few cases where I sort of condone lying.

Even if you’re uncertain about what you want to do, you must seem confident in an interview.  You should conclude your “story” with a few powerful sentences on why you’re interviewing there – why banking is for you.

You need to link together your past experiences as well, but this part is equally important because they remember most what you said first and last.

Ok, So How Do You Tell a Story?

So far I’ve told you what to avoid when telling your story.  So what should you do?

Limit it – or lengthen it – to 3 minutes, go in chronological order, weave in how you became interested in finance and how your previous experience has led you here.  And at the end, remind them again why you’re set on banking.

Tell a story – not an essay, odyssey or commercial, make it brief, and be both logical and chronological.

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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  1. Hey Brian and M&I, My question I tweeted you regarding LBO and M&A question prep for interviewing is regarding which one should we spend more time knowing in deeper detail to feel more confident about in an interview, but also try and differentiate oneself? While both are very important to know and be familiar with, the club I lead is going to be walking through either an LBO analysis or the sell-side M&A process throughout 2016, step by step. Hence, I was wondering if you’re seeing an increase in banks wanting applicants to be more familiar with one process than the other? I know someone who landed a SA role with a top boutique for next summer and they said because they had more knowledge on LBO, they spent more time interviewing them and ultimately extended the SA offer. Any feedback or further thoughts to consider would be appreciated – thanks.

    1. I think you are over-analyzing / over-thinking this. Both analyses are simple and shouldn’t even take that long to go through, so why not cover both? Just doing one would be like focusing on only one section of the SAT and skipping the rest, not recommended if you want to get a good score. Most interns have very poor self-awareness due to their young age and are not sure what worked well and what did not work well, so I would take that account with a grain of salt.

  2. Hi – Thanks for the awesome articles. I’ve heard of friends interviewing at the associate level being asked “what do you think about the mortgage crisis?” Any good tips on how to answer this?

  3. Hi,

    I had a 2.7 GPA going into my senior year in college and I lied on my GPA by putting down 3.2. I know it’s unethical but I knew I couldn’t get any interviews with a 2.7. I ended up getting a second round with a MM firm. What do you recommend I do? Will they definitely ask for transcripts?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Yes they may ask for a transcript.

  4. Hi, I just got a superday with a firm and they told me to keep them updated on any other offers coming in my way. What does this say about their intentions? any underlying meanings?

    1. It could mean they’re interested and want to get you first, but I wouldn’t assume too much… they could also just say that as a standard practice.

  5. Hello. I just got past the 2nd round of interviews for a firm and the 2nd round was a fairly extensive phone interview that was about 75% fit and 25% technical. I was wondering what they will even ask me during the superday that is in person. what kind of questions will be asked? will it be about the same as my 2nd round interview? The position is for a convertible securities group which is supposed to be fairly technical. thanks

    1. It is usually the opposite of a first round interview… so it might be more technical this time. But sometimes senior people will still focus heavily on fit questions, especially MDs, since they don’t like to get into detailed technicals quite as much.

  6. Hi, during the interview when they ask about past/current salary and expected salary, I know I should tell the truth with regards to past/current salary but what is the best way to tackle the expected salary question? Thanks.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Great question. If they ask you regarding your salary and expected numbers, I may tell them that I’ll disclose the information when we’re in final stages because I want to see if there’s a good fit between us first. If you’re in final stages with the firm, yes I’d disclose your current salary. Re. expected salary, I’d say I haven’t really thought through this one yet because I feel that it is important we achieve a fit first. I’d try to delay the response till final stages (or when you get the offer, in which case you wouldn’t have to answer the expected salary question)

  7. Do you think its a better idea to create a new account and apply using that if you have been rejected last year?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Yes, that may help a bit.

  8. Hi, I got an interview tomorrow at Clairfield International for a M&A internship. The memo simply said that one has to be familiar with financial statements (balance sheet, income statement and cash flow) and that I will meet the president of the company. I am not sure if he will be the one interviewing me. What are they likely to ask me? Do you think they will ask me any technical questions about financial statements or ratios?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Make sure you know why you’re interviewing and why you want the role in that bank. Know your pitch well.
      Yes there might be some technical questions on financial statements etc

    2. Nick, how did your interview with Clearfield International go, I have a phone interview with them soon and would like to be prepare, What kind of questions did they ask on the phone interview or the in person interview?

  9. If your intentions of doing banking is to eventually jump over to buyside or another finance role, then do you still tell them you want to do banking as a career at the analyst level?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Yes just tell them you want to be a dealmaker.

  10. Hi M&I

    I am currently studying in Lithuania my master degree (graduate in 01-2013), and I accepted a IBD Citi offer as a summer analyst however now I got a first round interview with JPM IBD autumn internship next week,I was wondering if I should disclose or not my summer internship since they are located in the same country. Thank you in advance!

    1. M&I - Nicole

      The dates don’t coincide right? You said one was a summer role and the other was an autumn role? If the dates don’t coincide w each other, you can disclose your summer internship. Otherwise I’m not quite sure

      1. Dates do not coincide they would be 1 week apart.
        I was informed today it would be 4 phone interviews back to back, I guess it would be 1 round ? or is it usual for jpm to do 4 phone interviews then invite to assessment centre ?

        1. M&I - Nicole

          Not quite sure. I’d focus on nailing the interviews first. Not surprised if not necessary to take tests at assessment center

  11. Hi M&I

    I am interviewing with an Investment Bank. After the interview they announced the result. Then they asked me to send DCF valuation of any firm and an Industry profile. I sent these before deadline. After that, I received a mail saying ” We will revert back to you soon’. It has been 5 days since I didn’t hear anything. When I called yesterday, he said “Can I call you back” but he didn’t. Please help me figure out, whether I am in or out.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Be patient. If they don’t get back to you in the next few days, follow up early next week.

  12. Hey M&I,

    I was wondering how to prepare for case study questions like “If company’s EBITDA was going down for 3 years, and wants to build a new factory, would it be better to finance it with debt or equity?” I am non-target student and I noticed that our school doesn’t provide any finance classes so I decided to some self-studying but I couldn’t find anything about case studies. Thank you in advance!

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Having an understanding of finance and accounting would help. Try http://breakingintowallstreet.com/biws/

      1. I do have the program and I’m studying financial modeling and and accounting. Do you think it will be helpful to purchase corporate finance books and just study those?

        1. M&I - Nicole

          I think you should just pick one or two sources and study those well so you stay focused and don’t get confused.

          I don’t know what your study style is so I can’t comment if corporate finance books will be useful to you or not. If you do get one, try http://www.amazon.com/Damodaran-Valuation-Security-Investment-Corporate/dp/0471304654
          http://pages.stern.nyu.edu/~adamodar/New_Home_Page/dam2ed.htm – also a good source

  13. Steve Evans

    I had a VP cut me off after I was into about 2 mins. Is 3 minutes too long nowadays?

    1. Shorter is better. I usually say 1-2 minutes now.

  14. Dear M&I,
    I would like to congratulate you on your website. It’s being greatly helpful over the last past week. I just had a couple of quick questions and was wondering if maybe you could answer them.

    I got a first-round interview with Goldman Sachs. They sent me an email and said it would be one 30-minutes competency-based telephone interview. Should I expect any technical questions?

    When talking about my resume, should I mention that I applied to the Spring Insight Program but got rejected?

    Thank you very much for your time.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Not much I don’t think so. The phone interview is usually conducted by HR but I may be wrong.
      No.

  15. Dear M&I,

    In regards to networking, when contacting family friends i.e. my best friend’s father who is a MD (whom I’ve spoken to numerous times growing up), is it okay if i directly ask him if there are any opportunities for me to intern at his office or should I still first ask for an informational interview and then mention it towards the tail-end of the interview?

    Thanks!

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Just ask him directly. He probably knows why you are in contact w him anyway

  16. Dear M&I,

    I’m a finance/law undergrad from Australia. I just wanted to thank you guys for the tremendous work that you have put into this website. I discovered this site today and have found it extremely helpful. Your Rocky and Jack Bauer articles especially were a pleasure to read.

    Keep up the good work

  17. Firoz Rahaman

    I have a bachelors in computer engineering from a Top 20 school in the US.Have a masters degree in Electrical Engineering with electives like Quantum Mechanics under my belt.
    I also have finished a training in Investment Banking in financial modeling encompassing LBO,Valuations etc.
    I also have worked in the Hi-Tech Industry & have been entrepreuner.
    I am aiming for Boutique Banks, as I was told that I would fit there profile more than Bulge Bracket Banks.
    I am currently working in the financial district and want to know what would be the best stratgey to get started for targeting IBanks here.
    Thanks
    Firoz

    1. Yes boutiques are better. See everything under Networking here: http://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/recruiting

  18. I thought this would be the best article to post this question under. I just had an interview at a boutique in Denver, and the interview went beautifully (many thanks for that by the way). The interviewers names’ were Andy and Dan, but when I went to send follow-up emails, I addressed them as Andrew and Dan respectively.

    Andy’s business cards and his profile on their website calls him Andrew, but he says Andy. Is this an issue? Should I send another follow up to him addressing him as Andy?

    Thanks,
    Lowell

    1. I would not worry about this as it will just draw attention to the mix-up, which you don’t want to do.

      1. Thanks!

  19. When being asked, why did you choose finance or private equity in an interview, what is the best answer to give?

  20. Hi, so on my resume, I mention that I am an options trader (I mention my profit % to show that I’m profitable). This is located under Activities. Also, under Awards for my Education, I state that I won my university’s stock challenge.

    I know I’m going to be asked: why not trading? What do you think is the best answer to this question?

    Thanks again, I love the site.

    1. Cut back on trading on your resume or say that you want a more structured learning environment where you get to work on long-term projects rather than just trading constantly… it might be profitable but you feel the long-term potential and learning opportunities are better in banking

  21. Hi M&I

    I have offers from KKR and GS Principal Investment Area. What’s your take on which offer I should go for, in terms of hours/work-life balance, prestige, work experience, culture, pay, etc. The offers are at Associate level.

    1. Um, KKR probably has a brighter future given recent reform http://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/2010-financial-reform/

      1. Thanks M&I!

        I should have mentioned that the offers are in Hong Kong, and that the GS salary is ~20k USD higher than KKR. Does that make any difference to your view?

        1. $20K is not a big difference even at the entry-level in finance, and is almost insignificant over 20-30 years.

  22. when talking about the weakness, could I honestly respond that I am making my English as good as native speakers’?

    Because they can sense that during the interview even I’m prepared.

    1. I would not say that because that’s a legitimate weakness that could impact your performance on the job… say something more neutral.

  23. Hi M&I, I have a cocktail dinner for recruitment prior to my final round interview tommorow at a BB. The memo says business attire, do you think I should wear a tie and cufflink or am I overdoing it?

    Thanks

    1. I would just do a suit and tie, no cufflink

  24. Hi, i’m wondering to have a summer internship in a big M&A firm in london.

    problems: i’m buness graduate, attending a master in finance
    no work experience in finance
    no internship before
    good but not excellent italian university

    Advices on how to impress and to manage this lacks in c.v and interview?

    Thank for your time

    1. Try to talk about school projects / student activities and make them look relevant to finance… see a few of the recent articles on how to do this on your CV.

  25. So if I’m applying to boutiques and regional banks, do you think applying through websites with a cover letter and resume will be enough? Or is cold-calling and knocking on doors a must?

    1. You definitely need to get out there and network as well – it’s easier to apply online for smaller places but it’s rarely enough.

  26. Do you know where middle market and boutique investment banks tend to recruit? Do they focus on the same schools as the BB banks? I’m thinking places like KeyBank, DA Davidson, etc.

    1. They focus more on state schools and other “good” but not Ivy League schools.

  27. Thanks for your suggestion!

  28. What if you were really really always interested in finance, but somehow didn’t do any internships in finance because you got screwed by some external forces who made you do other internships not in finance?

    I always get disbelieving looks and questions like, “Why do you want to work in finance when you have no finance experience?”

    1. Yeah I would not try to make up excuses or anything. I would probably say something like, “I’ve always been interested in the markets and investing, and realized over the years that I wanted to work there…” and talk about how each internship made you realize that more and more.

  29. Great post….and absolutely true…

  30. What about American Psycho?

    1. Don’t list any of those as “favorite” movies…

  31. …Does saying I enjoyed Wall Street and Boiler Room count?

    1. Yeah but that is more a mistake in the rest of the interview, not the first question. Don’t say that.

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