by Brian DeChesare Comments (737)

Age and Investment Banking: How Old Is Too Old to Break In?

hand of a old man holding a cane

UPDATE: Please see the “Part 2” follow-up article to this one, on 6 ways to beat the odds and break into the industry as an older candidate. That article expands on what’s here and gives you tips and advice for what to do as an older candidate.

There’s no issue more sensitive than age.

Ok, maybe the CFA, GPA rounding, and Brazil come close.

But I’ve gotten many panicked “How old is too old to break in?” questions over the years.

Rather than skirting around this issue yet again, let’s jump in and see:

  • Why the problem is not your age at all
  • Why some experiences make you “older” than others
  • Why banks like less experienced and capable recruits
  • What to do if you are “too old”

Misnomers

The question “How old is too old to break into finance?” is a misguided one: in the US it’s not even legal to ask for your age when applying for jobs.

Internationally, this is not true and in some countries they will ask for your age, photos, and other information that would result in lawsuits in the US.

Still, most large banks are US-based and have standardized recruiting processes – so even if you apply in another region they’re not likely to ask explicitly how old you are.

Which means that most of the time, banks cannot measure your age precisely.

Or Can They?

Instead, they assess your “age” by looking at how much full-time work experience you’ve had after graduating from university.

Chances are that 10 years of full-time work experience makes you at least 30 – unless you were a child prodigy and graduated university at age 15, but then you wouldn’t be doing finance anyway.

And when banks see those 10 years of experience they mentally switch into “Too old / experienced to be an analyst” mode.

This has some interesting implications:

  • If you’ve done military service, worked full-time, or done something else full-time for a few years in between high school and college, this won’t necessarily “count against you.”

So even if you’re slightly older than a 22-year old college graduate, banks won’t say “You’re 3 years too old for this job! Go away!”

If you’re a recent graduate, you’ll be placed in the same category as everyone else – unless you have a really unusual situation (you started a business when you were 18, ran it for 10 years, then sold it and started college at age 28).

Yes, finance is the only industry where experience can actually count against you.

This applies to both Analysts and Associates – it’s tough to do something else for a few years after business school and then move into banking.

  • Full-time experience after university makes you “older” than full-time experience during or before university.

So if you’re tempted to take a year off and become a ski bum or do volunteer work or anything else “full-time,” then taking a leave of absence from school and returning once you’re done is a better idea.

This isn’t logical in the slightest, but nothing in finance is.

Guidelines

In the FAQ I gave 30 as the upper limit for Analyst-level hires and 40 as the limit for Associate-level hires.

Those were both under the assumption that you graduate around age 22-25.

And those guidelines are mostly correct, but it’s not because of your age itself – it’s because of how much experience you’ll have by then.

  • Analyst-Level: Banks rarely hire anyone at the Analyst level with more than 2-3 years of full-time experience.
  • Associate-Level: If you’ve done an MBA banks usually want 3-5 years of experience but not more than 10.

For Associates, it’s less about the years worked and more about the level you’ve attained.

Someone at the mid-level could potentially come in as an Associate, but a top executive will not take a pay cut and start correcting spelling mistakes in pitch books 100 hours a week.

Keep in mind that these are guidelines rather than absolute laws.

I’ve seen relatively senior people join banks as Associates, despite having more than 10 years of experience – if you find the right group and tell the right story it’s doable.

…But Realistically

On the other hand, no, you will not be hired as an investment banking analyst if you are 50 and have 25 years of work experience.

You won’t even get hired as an Associate with that kind of background.

Yes, you can break in coming from very random backgrounds, but there’s a limit when it comes to years of work experience rather than the experience itself.

Why Do They Do It This Way?

If you’re in this category you might now be asking, “Why? Shouldn’t they want people with more experience who are better leaders and problem solvers?”

And I agree with you – it’s silly to be this rigid.

But banks don’t see it that way – they have 2 main concerns with more experienced candidates:

  1. You can’t prioritize work above all else and be on-call 24/7.
  2. You won’t do whatever senior bankers ask you to without questioning orders.

Concern#1 applies mostly to Associates.

Banks assume that if you’re older you might have a family and actual responsibilities outside work, reducing your willingness to stay at the office until midnight all the time.

Concern #2 applies to everyone – banks know that only less experienced hires are likely to follow instructions all the time without pushing back.

This is why it’s difficult to break in if you’ve started a company or done something off the beaten path that required a lot of independent thought – you might not be able to follow orders.

No, not everyone in the industry thinks like this.

But it is a numbers game, and bankers want to maximize their chances of finding workhorse Analysts and Associates – so they target people in very specific categories.

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So What Do You Do If You’re “Too Old”?

It might be difficult to break into investment banking if you have too much experience, but there are other options:

And if you’re frustrated with the rigidity, find a less structured industry.

As bankers might say, “It is what it is.”

UPDATE: Please see the “Part 2” follow-up article to this one, on 6 ways to beat the odds and break into the industry as an older candidate. That article expands on what’s here and gives you tips and advice for what to do as an older candidate.

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. Hi Brian,
    I’m a 27 year-old with a pHD in chemistry currently working in research in industry. I’m interested in being a VC and would like to go through the IB route. Here’s my plan so far:
    -1.5y more in research (2.5 years total). I’ll study in my free time and finish at least the first level of CFA before I finish.
    -1y MBA in a top school with a focus on finance
    -internship in IB
    -2-3 years of IB (I’ll be 30 when I start)
    -start as an associate in a VC firm

    Does that make sense? Is it possible? Will I be too old? Should I cut the research short to 1.5y total? What do you suggest?

    Thanks

    1. It’s possible, but if you have a PhD, you may be able to get into an early-stage life sciences VC firm without IB or an MBA first. So you might be spending a lot of time, effort, and money for little gain if that’s your goal.

  2. the1whoknocks

    Hi, Brian!
    I’m 30 yo and have 6,5 years of capital markets experience in local boutique Investment banks in Brazil (structured finance / debt, front office role, participated on many big deals).
    My goal is to break into a Leveraged Finance (some overlap of knowledge with my prior experiences) team at an Investment Bank or boutique in NY or London.

    I’m planning to apply for an MBA next year (Schools in US and Europe). I can probably be accepted by a Top 5-20 School.

    Do you think it’s a good plan? Will I have good chances to break in Post-MBA?

    Does it worth to get an MBA in Europe, even with less MBA recruiting for IB roles?

    Thank you very much!

    1. If you can get into a top school, yes, it is a good plan. There is relatively little MBA recruiting in Europe, so you’re better off going to the U.S. if you want to do that.

  3. Adam Orlowski

    Hi Brian,

    I will be graduating from WP Carey Business School with 3.8- 4.0 GPA at the end of next year, Mutual Fund Club Member, and trying to network into a good internship next summer before I graduate in the Fall. I also have volunteer experience. Here is the kicker though – I didn’t start school till later. I will be 33 when I graduate. I absolutely love learning about investment banking and spend the majority of my FREE time learning more about the markets and tracking them. While the money is good, the real reason is I truly believe in the phrase “if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life”. So if I am too old what would you recommend?

    1. As stated in the article, whether or not you’re “too old” depends on your prior work experience. If you can spin it into sounding like it wasn’t real work experience, you might be able to pull it off. And if not: https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/too-old-for-finance/

  4. NewIBGuy

    Thanks M&I for the great article,
    Do you have any idea if age issue is relevant only to US citizens or anyone?
    Thanks again!

    1. ??? Banks are global enterprises. The age issue is relevant for anyone who wants a client-facing, front-office role advising on M&A and financing deals at an investment bank anywhere in the world.

      1. NewIBGuy

        I’m sorry, should have been clear.
        In US, it is illegal to discriminate a candidate based on his/her age. Is it applicable only to US citizens in US? Will a foreigner be discriminated because of his/her age in US?

        1. Banks will always discriminate based on age because you cannot do the job of an Investment Banking Analyst as a 65-year old; you just won’t have the energy and ability to pull all-nighters. They’ll just frame it differently and say that you have too much experience for an entry-level role or that you’re over-qualified.

  5. Jennifer Kane

    Going to graduate from an Ivy League school in May 2018. Was an athlete all 4 years D1. Really would love to somehow get into a large financial institution and get hired in a rotating type situation. Have a great resume.
    Freaking out because I don’t know anyone on Wall Street.

    1. As of 2017, you need a sequence of internships to have a good shot of working at a large bank out of university (https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/investment-banking-university-student-high-school-student/). So, if you don’t have that, your best option might be to go for something outside of IB (wealth management, etc.) or something at a Big 4 firm and then move over later.

  6. Hi Brian,
    I’m currently a rising junior from a (prestigious) non-target liberal arts school that’s definitely not known for finance (it’s very “social justice” oriented), with a 3.7 GPA, majoring in Economics.
    I’m considering taking a gap-year for personal (health-related) issues, but I’m contemplating the potential benefits/drawbacks of doing so (in terms of full time recruiting for junior summer, etc.). If I took this “gap year” between sophomore/junior year, my goal would be to prep for IB and take accounting, learn how to model, etc. on my own. I had a finance related internship summer after freshman year (interned w/small RIA), but this summer I got a non-finance related role at a F500 insurance company (researching potential clients for Sales team).
    If my ultimate goal is IB, have I screwed myself with my current internship role? Is taking a gap year and obtaining an internship in IB/HF/Startup a good idea if I wanted to show banks that I am serious about Finance, and is it realistic? (I wouldn’t financially be able to accept an unpaid role)
    Would taking a personal gap year affect my eligibility on how I would look to banks for SA recruiting for summer before senior year (since I technically would be in school for five years, but attended for four)?

    I would really appreciate your thoughts — thanks for your help.

    1. Your biggest problem is that internship recruiting now (as of 2017) starts a year in advance of junior-year internships, at least at many banks and schools. So, taking a gap year at this point is probably your only shot at winning a summer internship – get an internship at a boutique IB/PE firm, change your graduation date, and then get to work networking so that you’re prepared to apply for internships 1 year before the internships begin.

      1. Hi Brian,
        I appreciated for your response earlier.
        If I decided to continue studying the fall semester and take a gap Spring ’18 semester for personal reasons (w/an internship ideally) and delayed graduation for a semester, will I still be able to virtually “reset” my SA recruiting chances w/Junior standing provided that I didn’t apply to the SA roles this summer (and aimed at boutiques?)
        I’m concerned if BB/Elite Boutiques would reject my application automatically if they see that I had applied for two consecutive years with different graduation dates.
        I really appreciate your thoughts — thanks for your help.

        1. Recruiting is based on your current graduation date. Given the volume of applications to banks, they don’t track individuals unless you make it very far into the process and everyone remembers you.

  7. Hi Brian. I am law student (21) and I have made two bachelor courses in Finance and Economics in Germany. I am planning to apply for the Master in Finance in the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management and I would like to know your opinion if it is really worthy to make MoF or an MBA to break into investment banking and how is te environment in Frankfurt to get a job and if this Master is well-recognized over the world.
    Thanks

    1. Well, it’s in the top 30 worldwide according to FT (http://rankings.ft.com/businessschoolrankings/masters-in-finance-pre-experience-2017). Maybe not the best option in Europe, but I think you could easily win a front-office finance role from that program. For IB in Germany, please see: https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/investment-banking-germany/

      1. OK.Thanks!!

  8. Philippe

    Hi Brian,

    I will have 40y old soon and have more than 10 years experience in financial markets (middle office in Europe). And have a master degree.
    Do you think it’s possible to switch into PE since i already have experience in financial market ? Also, i wanted to get an MBA at a top business school if that help.
    Thanks for your response

    1. No, probably not. Think about other options such as working at a PE portfolio company, corporate development, corporate finance, etc.

      1. Philippe

        Thanks for your response Brian.
        The use of the term corporate finance varies between Europe and U.S. Does that include M&A (i would like to work in M&A actually).

        And last question, is it still possible to try an MBA or not worth it ?
        Thx

        1. No, corporate finance is different and refers more to budgeting and planning. Corporate development is for M&A. I would not recommend an MBA at this stage because banks usually want candidates with less work experience.

          1. Philippe

            Thanks Brian, really appreciate your help.
            And love your website.

            Plz keep up the good work !
            ;-)

  9. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for publishing the article – it was very informative. I was wondering it if you could let me know your thoughts on my current situation would really appreciate any advice you could give:

    I graduated in 2014 from a target UK undergraduate uni and tried to get into IB back then but did not get any offers (had quite a few interviews/assessment centres with bulge bracket banks for summer internships). So with no IB offers i ended up taking a job with one of the big 4 firms in tax. I have been working there for almost three years now and am close to complete the ACA (UK equivalent to CPA). I am thinking of giving IB recruitment another try and have applied and got an offer for a masters at a UK target uni with the intention to apply for IB summer internships/full time roles while doing the masters. I am just wondering if you think this is a good approach and would my 3 years spent in big 4 tax disadvantage me? Many thanks.

    1. It will be tougher to win a role as an Analyst with 3 years of work experience already, but yes, it is possible. Please see:

      https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/investment-banking-masters-programs/

      1. Thanks Brian. So in this case would you recoomend going down the masters route or going to business school to do MBA instead?

        1. I would go for a Master’s degree. 3 years is borderline in terms of work experience, but it’s still almost always better to enter as an Analyst if you can do so (especially in Europe, where there’s less MBA-level recruiting).

          1. I see. Thanks very much for your advice Brian it was very helpful. Looking forward to more contents on the site in the future! :)

  10. Hi Brian – I graduated from UC Berkeley back in 2011 (GPA 3.5 in biology) and did a lot of random stuff after. I volunteered a year abroad, traveled, and my only work experience is as a medical technician for 2 years. Basically I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

    I am a bit unsure how I can get into IB at this point. Starting Jan 2017, I am back in school and taking undergrad classes in math/stats/econ. My main goal is to try and get an analyst internship over the summer (I realize it is quite late already). Worst case, I might take classes for another semester, and later apply for masters programs. What do you think of this plan? Thanks for any advice

    1. It will be very tough to get into a formal IB role at this stage if you graduated 6 years ago. My advice would be to go for Big 4 roles, valuation roles, or corporate finance roles, and then think about an MBA or MSF and move into banking from there.

  11. March 13, 2017
    Thanks for the article.
    I attended the military after high school, and attended a solid but non-target state school. I have been at a top restructuring/advisory firm for the last two years (promoted with excellent reviews), but would like to make the jump to to a Restructuring/Special Situations banking group. I am about to turn 30, so the natural fear of being too old has crept in. Thoughts?

  12. to point #2:
    If one is used to working in an ambiguous environment with only a order of “just get it done by day xyz,” and thrives in that environment, then IB is not for him/her?

    1. ??? Not sure I understand. The point is that if you’re older/more experienced, bankers will assume that you won’t follow orders as blindly as a fresh graduate would.

  13. Left being an FA because it was entirely sales, no analysis*

  14. Series 56*

  15. Spent 1 year as a prop trader after earning my bba in finace (series 57), 7 months as financial advisor (series 7, series 66, insurance license), then decided to go back to school for MBA. Finished mba in august while working in aerospace project finance 3 1/2 years. I left trading even though i loved because I am passionate about building relationships and working with people, left being an FA because it was entirely sales and no relationship building. I want to pursue IB because I love finance and have all my life, greatly enjoy analysis and can sit for days on end doing analysis, work with people and build relationships, and very interested in structuring transactions. Im approximately 30. MBA was a 1 year while in Aerospace at a non-target. Thoughts?

    1. I think it will be tough to get in if you already finished the MBA because banks mostly recruit from MBA students at top schools who are still in school. Maybe focus on smaller firms and see if you can gain traction there.

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