The 3 Most Important Questions You Need to Ace Your Interviews and the 1 You’re Probably Getting Wrong

58 Comments | Investment Banking - Interviews

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Pop quiz: which of the following 3 questions is most important in acing your interviews?

A. What’s the difference between Chapter 7 and Chapter 11 bankruptcy in a restructuring?

B. How do you decide to finance a company with debt vs. equity?

C. How do you take into account the competitive advantage of a firm in a valuation?

Got it? 30 seconds more to think if you’re still struggling…

Ok, time’s up.

The answer: Unless you made up your own response and said, “D. None of the above,” you were wrong.

That’s not to say that the questions above are unimportant. It’s just that none of them will make or break your chances of getting an offer.

Any interview comes down to 3 key questions about yourself: Are you smart, can you do the work, and do I like you? (no, not me – the interviewer)

And chances are, you’re getting 1 of these questions wrong – but it’s not the 1 you think you’re getting wrong.

But No One Has Ever Asked Me If I’m Smart Before!

Are you sure?

If you’ve ever been asked, “Why we should we hire you?” you’ve heard these questions – only they’ve been 1 big question rather than 3 smaller ones.

But even if you’ve made it through interviews without getting that specific question, the 3 points above come across in everything you say.

Are You Smart?

This one comes across in where you went to school and what your grades were (not as applicable for senior-level hires).

But outside that, your “intelligence” comes across in how well-informed you are on current events and how articulate you are when explaining yourself.

There’s not much you can do to change your interviewer’s perception of your academics, but you can always polish your presentation skills.

You need to know something about current events, the stock market, and recent deals – there’s no need to read the Deal Journal for 2 hours every day (though it is quite good), but if you can’t explain the subprime crisis or 1-2 recent deals you’ve heard about, you’re in trouble.

But almost everyone knows all this – and the dirty little secret that few tell you is that investment banking is not rocket science. You need to have some proficiency with Excel, but most of what you do is grade school-level math.

Can You Do the Work?

Here’s where it gets trickier, and where those who haven’t had banking experience sometimes struggle. You need to show evidence of being able to “burn the midnight oil” over extended periods, as well as all the other “banker-like” qualities (attention to detail, interest in business, analytical skills, etc.).

You need to think about everything on your resume/CV and how it ties back to these core requirements. And when you get a question on what you’ve done previously, you have to do a “soft-sell” of how your experience relates to what’s required in finance.

Let’s say you get asked about why you should be hired over everyone else there, even though you’ve had no finance experience and have spent most of your time on music-related activities.

You would point out that you had to pull long hours over months to prepare for competitions and that you had to be really attentive to detail because you were presenting to hundreds or thousands of people.

I’ve seen some interviewees stumble on this point, but most candidates “get” that you need to spin your experience into sounding relevant.

The final question is what gives many well-qualified interviewees the most amount of trouble.

Do I Like You?

If you already have solid experience, this is the question you’re probably getting wrong.

It goes back to what we saw before with Superday Zen and how less is often more when preparing for interviews.

Anyone who has interviewed people for an entire day is usually exhausted by the end – and the last thing he/she wants to hear is a boring story about how you’re a “finance guru” and this is your lifelong dream.

Here are the most common mistakes I’ve seen:

  • Going through your “story” just focusing on your work experience without saying anything unique about your background.
  • Trying to make yourself sound like a finance guru even if you’re from a completely different background.
  • Not having a good answer to what you do outside of school/work.

Not Just Interviews, Resumes As Well

This doesn’t just come up in interviews, of course. Anyone reviewing your resume/CV is also trying to answer those 3 questions: Are you smart, can you do the work, and do I like you?

That’s why I recommend the 3-part Education/Work Experience/Skills, Activities & Interests structure that you see on my sample resumes. Each section addresses one of those questions.

Oh, and (Business) School As Well

A friend who worked at Morgan Stanley a few years back was telling me about his plans to go to business school after working at a hedge fund for a few years – but then explained the problem he had:

“The problem is that everyone is applying to b-school from investment banking / finance backgrounds – sure I have a brand-name, but I don’t know how to make myself stand out.”

And that’s exactly what admissions committees may think, too – especially with a rising number of applicants in this recession, the “likability” factor is more critical than ever.

Just take a look at Alex Chu’s latest article on MBA Apply on diversity in business school applicants:

“If you come across as a traditional PE dude in terms of profile *and* orientation (everything about you screams “I’m a finance guy through and through” no matter what you say in your applications), it can become more random simply because there’s other people who have such similar profiles as you will. And they are NOT going to take all of you in, especially since there’s a lot more applicants with PE background now than there was 5-10 years ago (simply because the industry has grown — more headcount overall means more potential applicants).”

He’s discussing some broader themes there on diversity, but on a micro-level the same point applies: if you come across as “standard” you are at a disadvantage, even if you’ve worked at Goldman Sachs and KKR.

How to Make Them Like You

Ok, so how do you find what’s interesting about yourself and present it effectively? It’s different for everyone, but here are a few specific suggestions:

1. Make sure you incorporate your real background into your “story” – not what you think they want to hear.

If you worked for the CIA and your local congressman, talk about how your interest in politics and free trade issues or your exposure to conflicts in the developing world has made you more interested in finance; if you were in a non-profit group that merged with another one, talk about how that piqued your interest in M&A.

Don’t pretend that you wanted to be Gordon Gekko since the dawn of time.

2. Include at least 1 point that’s not related to work/school in your “story” – that missionary trip to Turkey, your miniature race car collection, or how you became a Shaolin monk one summer at the temple.

Too many people miss this one and take themselves way too seriously – which is exactly what they don’t want to hear.

Especially after 8 hours of non-stop interviews.

You don’t want to make your kung fu training the highlight of your “story,” but touching on it briefly can be a huge help.

3. Make some new friends… no, seriously.

It goes back to what we said in Superday Zen – if you’ve been practicing interviews with your friends or anyone in the industry, chances are that you’ve focused too much on technical questions.

But those can be learned independently – having coaching helps, but I would argue that 1-on-1 training helps far more with the qualitative parts.

Ask them to assess whether or not you sound formulaic and whether or not you could pass the “airport test.”

And if you can’t, learn the basic skills needed to make others interested in you – focus your questions on them and make yourself approachable, to start with. For more, read up on some Dale Carnegie.

If they invite you to have a beer with them afterward – or get stuck with them at an airport for 8 hours – you’re good.

About the Author

is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys learning obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, and traveling so much that he's forced to add additional pages to his passport on a regular basis.

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58 Comments to “The 3 Most Important Questions You Need to Ace Your Interviews and the 1 You’re Probably Getting Wrong”

Comments

  1. Brian says

    This is pretty random but I self published a fantasy novel (big waste of time) when I was around 11 years old. Do you think it’s worth bringing up in an interview even though it’s irrelevant and happened a long time ago just for the quirky factor?

  2. Lucy says

    Hi I have a question about the interests section:

    One of my hobbies is cosmetology, and I was wondering if I should mention that in either the resume or the interview? Some people told me that I may come off too high-maintenance or a “girly-girl” that’s too weak for i-banking. What do you think?

      • Flash says

        I was about to ask the same questions… I like video games; in particular, I only play FPS (First-Person Shooter) games, such as Halo, Call of Duty or Eliminate Pro. Actually, I like the challenge of those games, where you interact with the world’s best players online. It’s all about the challenge and be the best in the world’s leaderboard. It’s not about violence or whatever (I’m not American Psycho, though my gamer username is frenchpsycho lol…). But I consider FPS like a sport, with its own rules, and its own federation, namely MLG (Major League Gaming), and its competitions (but I’m not such a hard-core gamers – or nerdy – to get involved so far; I only play for fun with my friends). And anyone knows that all sports, such as football, rugby or basketball are simulations of war, with two armies, each one trying to conquer the land of the other…

        So I was wondering whether it was worth bringing it up in an interview – in the case I was asked about my hobbies of course. I think it’s original and it would demonstrate a competitive spirit as well as a cool attitude.

        Could you please tell me if it works?

        • says

          There is a big difference between appearance and reality. Reality = you might be right and video games may help to build teamwork. Appearance = video games are extremely nerdy and sports are much better because they require athleticism and social skills. People judge you based on appearance.

          So no, please do not say video games in an interview unless you have nothing else.

          • Thurak says

            Well I had an interview last night and I was pretty much forced to talk about gaming for about 30 seconds or so, he asked what brand of laptop I had… Alienware, I considered lieing but decided to tell the truth, so instantly he knew I was a gamer and asked what games I play, at least I could keep it somewhat classy by saying space and flight simulators, as opposed to saying call of duty..

  3. Senior says

    We can bank-ify resume to improve the chance of getting first-round, and after that it’s all about how you perform in interviews. But the interview itself revolves around candidates’ experience and background etc, so one with different finance experience and excellent background would have a lot more to talk about than one with less even if his resume is bank-ified. Obviously the second one would be at a disadvantage. So, how can everyone be on equal footing?

    • SteveVaiTheFinanceGuy says

      @Senior: Who said anything about equal footing?

      The point of this article and the others on the M&I site is to help those who are on very unequal footing gain some ground on the born-and-bred finance guys who’ve always been destined to be bankers.

      Those who have no relevant experience and come from a vastly different background will be at an initial disadvantage, but if they can answer these three questions with an affirmative, then they at least have a fighting chance of being asked in for another interview.

  4. Steve says

    I read below about video games not being a good way to bring up a conversation. But I have played a video game that integrates a market system. In this, you can buy and sell through the market system just like stocks (bulk orders as well). Since I was 15, I kept track of the trends as well as the fundamental analysis (events in-game) that affect the prices. As I came to college, I started to see the Economics-side to it and I feel that it’s really correlated.

    Recently, I won competition for trading futures (simulator in real-time markets), and my past experiences really helped me succeed.

    Is it still a good topic to bring up ?

    • says

      Personally I would not mention it unless real dollars were at stake. Video games are still perceived as nerdy no matter how much they resemble trading.

  5. Peter says

    Great article!

    I have a question about target schools. Would UCLA be counted as a target or a semi-target? (cuz I heard that UC San Diego is definitely not a target, and UCLA is not a whole lot better in terms of prestige). Thanks in advance.

  6. Jonski says

    Would you recommend bringing up poker as a hobby in my interview?

    There are many similarities between poker and trading, and both require a proficient level of numerical knowledge, but I am worried that it may also be perceived as nerdy and anti-social.

    Thoughts?

  7. Blade says

    If you had managed a five figure amount of personal investments on the stock market for the past 4 years and earned a decent return (15+% p.a.) would you bring it up for IBD or is it not relevant/too boring?

  8. VABHAV says

    Sir I have an experience of one and half years in stock market as a relationship manager cum dealer.Will it help me becoming investment banker.

  9. Aileen says

    I graduated from High School one year early because I wanted to start college and work early so I can support my parents early. Will this be distinguishable? But is it “interesting” to bring up?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Yes you can bring it up if you want. If you can pitch a good story and impress your interviewers go for it.

  10. Aileen says

    I graduated from a target school 5 years ago, worked in accounting/auditing field (not big 4), and now planning to go MBA and switch to IB. I’m sure they’ll ask me why now and why not before. I can’t think of a good reason except to say that I wanted before but didn’t try hard and give up. Now I want to do it again. Any suggestions?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Just tell them that you really wanted to work in the accounting firm before because of xyz reasons. However, after your gig in accounting you have learned xyz but you realize you wanted to do more but unsure of what. Then you applied to bschool. through bschool, you got more exposure to IBs in info sessions/through classmates etc, and you finally realize that you want to work for an IB because of deal exposure, environment etc etc. Try to make your intended “transition” as logical and as smooth as possible

      http://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/why-investment-banking/

  11. flower says

    Is the london school of business management a target school and is it recognised by banks when applying for an analyst position?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Don’t know if its a target school. I haven’t heard of it so perhaps not though I’m sure LSBM has some alumni in the banking sector

      • flower says

        I read abt LSBM on the internet but I’m still uncertain if I should go to the college because I’m scared that it won’t be recognised in some banks.could u give me possible websites where I can get extra information of banks that do recruit students from the LSBM college.do you think top banks worldwide recognise the LSBM qualification?

        • M&I - Nicole says

          I think you should contact the career center at LSBM and ask. I did a search for you online ; it doesn’t seem like there are websites where you can get extra info of banks that recruit students from the LSBM college. I don’t think so.

      • flower says

        I read about LSBM on the internet but I’m still uncertain if I should go to the college because I’m scared that it won’t be recognised in some banks. could u give me possible websites where I can get extra information of banks that do recruit students from the LSBM college. do you think top banks worldwide recognise the LSBM qualification?

  12. Eric says

    I’m really into european trance/electronic music -would it be weird to list this on my resume’s Interests section?

  13. Carl says

    What if you recovered from a drug addiction due to an unrecognized mental condition called obssessive compulsive disorder? you were treated and now are fine.

  14. Rose says

    I am really hooked to your website, being in finance was never so interesting before….
    I love reading all your posts they are really informative.Please continue the good work….

  15. Henry says

    I have finished my freshman year of college. I was planning to major in History and Literature. I was going to do the HBS 2+2 program and work in the newspaper industry. After B-school, I wanted to get a job in PE and then eventually become a hedge fund manager. The reason I want to do newspapers is because although IB is my true passion, I know that I will work there after B-School, so I want to take the oppurtunity to do something that I will like but not want to do for the rest of my life(newspapers). Should I tell them this (that I wanted to join them from the start), or should I make a “story”?
    My brother also wants to do this, except that after the two years in newspapers he wants to pursue a JD/MBA, and become a corporate lawyer for a few years and then break into PE and eventually become a hedge fund manager. Should he tell them this (that he wanted to join them from the start), or should he make a “story”?

  16. Will says

    Hi,

    I have recently undertaken a telephone interview for Global Research HSBC in London and was wondering what you would suggest being the best or ‘most fitted’ answer to the following questions:

    1. Greatest Strength
    2. What do you think the world will be like in 50 years time? (supposedly relating to finance?

    Thoughts?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      1 – What IS Your greatest strength? Perhaps you should answer that one
      2. Yes something related to the world economy/finance would be useful

  17. BS says

    What would you say are some good “questions to ask” at the end of an interview? I read on one of your articles that this does not really matter, but if the interviewer asks me “do you have any questions for me”, i don’t want to say “no, you’ve answered everything i wanted to know.”

    thx

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Yes, it matters. There are so many questions you can ask i.e. “How is your firm’s strategy different from other banks? What are some of the major challenges your group is facing? How did you get involved in this line of work? What keeps you excited about doing a transaction/a deal? etc etc etc”

  18. Benjamin says

    Hi,

    I was just wondering; would a standard answer including attributes bankers are looking for (eg. attention to detail, ability to burn the midnight oil, intelligence etc) along with examples be better?

    Or would bankers want more of an answer which skips the above, but shows that you have drive be more well received.
    (eg. strive to excel, setting high standards and achieving them; this mindset would allow me to contribute to this firm..)

    Any opinions would be appreciated. Cheers.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Yes you always need examples to back up your “attributes” – it is a story. You can keep it short and brief, though it is best to give one or two examples to illustrate your points.

  19. Samilla says

    Hi,

    I volunteered in Cambodia for 2 months during my gap yr. Should I bring that up under the interest column on my resume?

    I was also the concertmaster of my high school symphony orchestra; enjoy ice figure-skating and skiing; baking and trying new food

    do you think any of points above should be fitted under the interest column?

    originally I put sth like”playing the violin, baking, skiing, blahhhh” but after I read your article, I think I should rly highlight one or two points with one sentence rather than piling all my interests.

    Any idea?
    Thanks!!!:)

  20. Alice says

    Hi Brian,

    I just recently got a chance to interview at a BB in Hong Kong soon.

    I graduated from a non-target school in HK three years ago, worked as an equity research associate in both a Chinese investment bank in Hong Kong for one year(worked on two to three IPO projects) and a half and later a boutique for just five months before they decided to cut off half of the equity research team (unfortunately i was one of them). Since then I’ve been working in the corporate finance department of a Chinese state-owned-enterprise (in healthcare sector) for one year now but problem is except for some industry and firm specific knowledge, I haven’t had even one single decent deal experience to put on my resume, and the learning experience is not good. But I did meet and attend conference with BB bankers on work front and when they were trying to pitch us deals.

    How should I spin my story to fit in investment banking?

    Thanks a lot Brian!

  21. DS says

    Hi! I love traveling (been to Russia, China, Turkey, Caucasus and some other post Soviet Union countries) and Russian literature. However, I’m originally from one of the post Soviet Union countries, and I’m fluent in Russian.
    I am also very good at cooking.
    Can I list any of these as interests on my resume/mention during an interview or is it not interesting enough?

    Your opinion is very important to me! Thank you in advance!

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