You often see people with perfect grades at Harvard or Oxbridge, family connections, and brand name internships break into investment banking.
And then sometimes there are career changers who prepare long in advance, attend top MBA programs, network like crazy, and win offers from top banks.
…And then you have people who don’t follow any of the standard advice, who don’t prepare in advance at all, and who have all the odds stacked against them…
And they manage to break in anyway.
That’s the story you’re going to hear today. Here’s everything this reader overcame on his way into investment banking:
- He was older than most other entry-level bankers.
- He attended an MBA program without having had the standard 3-5 years of full-time work experience beforehand. In fact, he had 0 years of full-time work experience.
- He only realized he wanted to do banking after on-campus recruiting had finished up – about 6-12 months after everyone else in his class had decided.
- And he applied to 72+ firms and never heard back from most of them…
This is as close to a “Rocky” story as you’re going to get – so let’s get started:
Entirely the Wrong Background?
Q: I’m really curious how you got into an MBA program at all without any full-time work experience, but let’s skip over that for now… what did you do before the program?
A: Sure. I’m from “an emerging market” originally (not one of the big ones – something smaller), and I went to a fairly good (though not top 10) university for undergrad in the US.
I was a few years older than most other students because I had taken some time off before university.
Right as I was finishing up, I realized I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so applying to MBA programs seemed like a good idea.
They didn’t officially have a work experience prerequisite, and I thought I had a good shot since I had a good GPA and could score well on the GMAT.
Q: …And then you got into a Top 15 program. How did that happen? I’m not trying to be rude, but don’t you need full-time work experience or something first?
A: I ask myself that question every day. It was really a “reach” school – I had applied to lower-ranking business schools and got rejected from all of them.
The only thing I can guess is that I came from a different background from most other people and really played up the “emerging markets” angle.
In my application I said that I wanted to go back to my home country and help develop the financial industry there.
That’s not exactly an original story, of course, but it stood out because there were so few people from my country.
I would not recommend following this path – you are at a big disadvantage with recruiting if you haven’t worked full-time before.
Plus, you can’t play the “I’ll just go back to business school!” card if you want to re-brand yourself in the future.
Act 2: Business School
Q: Yeah, all good points. So you arrive at business school… how do you approach recruiting?
A: Well, the first mistake I made was not realizing that you need to have your career goals set in the first 3 weeks, if not earlier – because recruiting starts right away.
And I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, so I started recruiting for a bunch of different fields – everything from corporate finance to VC/PE to eventually, banking.
But I only “realized” I wanted to do banking in February, long after on-campus recruiting for summer internships had finished up.
Q: I’m amazed that you actually kept trying at that point – most people would have given up.
A: Yeah, but what else would you do if you have no other options?
I researched a bunch of banks, went through your interview prep guide, and got to work contacting all the boutique banks I could possibly find via cold calling, cold emailing, and even applying through the school website.
To make things even more fun, I also didn’t have a real resume and had never worked full-time, so I had almost no finance background.
The only thing remotely finance-related on my resume was one short internship that I had completed at a hedge fund during undergrad.
Q: That’s thin experience for the MBA level, but did any of your networking efforts work?
I applied to 72 banks between February and April, and got 0 callbacks and 0 responses.
Q: I am surprised that you got absolutely no responses… what else were you trying besides all this cold calling and cold emailing?
A: I went to firm presentations on strategy and rotational programs, but pretty much everyone looked at me and said, “You don’t have full-time work experience.”
I did a bunch of LinkedIn stalking and lots of informational interviews from MBA alumni – and I pored through lists of banks from Capital IQ.
There are actually hundreds, if not thousands, of boutiques out there… and I did dozens of phone and in-person informational interviews with alumni.
But the key problem was my “story,” as well as my lack of work experience and the right classes.
No one really believed that I wanted to do banking, given that I went straight into the MBA program after undergrad and started recruiting very late in the process.
The Turning Point?
Q: I think most people would have given up at this stage. What did you do?
A: It was already April, so I decided that my only shot would be to go back home and start calling banks there.
That strategy had failed miserably in the US, UK, and Asia, but I figured that since I was from the region originally I might have an advantage.
Q: And did you?
A: No! At least, not at first. I cold called lots of boutique banks there, but still had no luck.
But then one day, I randomly decided to try calling a well-known boutique – not a tiny 5-10 person firm, but rather a bank you have heard of if you’re reading this right now.
For some reason they actually listed their local phone number on the website.
So I called, asked to speak to HR, and then they asked who was calling, and I said that I had to speak to them about coming in for an interview and asked to be put through to HR.
Q: Nicely done, though I probably would have asked for a banker rather than HR.
A: Yeah, I really had no idea what I was doing with cold calling in the beginning but at least I finally got through to someone.
Keep in mind that by this point, I had less than 2 months to find something for the summer – so the pressure was on.
In fact, I think some of this desperation came across in interviews and made my chances worse. Bankers can definitely sense it when you’re desperate to get any type of offer.
Q: Yeah, confidence is key and any hint of desperation sinks your chances at most things in life. “He who cares less wins.”
So why do you think cold calling didn’t work so well the first time around? And what changed with this particular bank?
A: Well, first off, most banks do not publish their numbers on their websites, so I was just emailing them most of the time, and emails tend to go into a bottomless abyss.
Then, the banks that I could actually get in contact with said that they weren’t hiring interns or they just asked for my number and said they would call me back.
Finally, the whole notion of “cold calling” and contacting people randomly isn’t as well-developed in emerging markets.
But the flip-side is that if you’re hungry and really want it, there’s way less competition because fewer people are using these tactics.
The bank I eventually got in contact with was impressed by the MBA program I was attending, and they were looking for someone who knew the home market as well as the international one.
In my country the bulge bracket banks do have a presence, but the local firms still do a lot of business and work on many of the larger deals.
Q: Right… so it was partially just finding a bank that actually listed contact information, and then impressing them with your background. What was HR’s initial reaction?
A: When I spoke with their HR rep, I said that I was from the country, was attending a good MBA program, and that I was really interested in banking and would love to come in for a summer internship there.
She said, “That’s nice, but we don’t do summer internships and even if we did, we’re not hiring because it’s the middle of the year right now.”
I said, “Ok, sure, but I’d love to come in even on an informal or project-only basis. You won’t need to train me much and I can start helping out right away.”
She said, “Ok, whatever, just send in your resume and cover letter and we’ll take a look.”
It wasn’t the best response, but at least it was a response rather than another straight-up rejection.
All Is Lost?
Q: And then?
A: And then a week passed and I didn’t hear back… so I called them up again and found out that my HR contact had just left for vacation for the next week and a half.
Now the pressure was really on because I couldn’t stay in the country for that long: I had to get back to school to finish off the semester, and my only contact at the bank had just left.
Q: So what did you do next? I’m assuming that asking for more HR people wasn’t the plan?
A: When I found out, I asked to speak to anyone there who was in charge of recruiting. I pleaded my case pretty heavily and eventually the receptionist put me through to someone more senior (the COO specifically).
I mentioned how I already spoke to my contact in HR, but he was skeptical because this HR person had never mentioned my name to him.
So I told him my story again, which by this point was much better: I said that one of my family members had been involved in buying a business, which sparked my interest in M&A and how the process worked… and then I was attending this MBA program to learn more and eventually work in the field, with a long-term goal of returning to the country.
He said, “That’s nice, but we don’t do summer internships.”
Once again, I offered to work on a part-time basis, informally, or even unpaid and I sent him my resume and cover letter.
Q: So how much time was left at this point? Didn’t you have to return to the US soon?
A: Yeah, exactly. I only had 3 days left so I called back right away the next day and mentioned explicitly that I would be leaving the country in 3 days and would love the opportunity to interview before I left.
I think they were so intrigued over my persistence that they actually emailed me back later that day and invited me in for an interview.
Q: Wow. I love how you gave them a time limit – even though you were the one looking for a job, you positioned it as a deadline that they had to respond to. So what happened in the interview?
A: I actually went through 2 interviews with the 2 Managing Directors there.
I had been freaking out about technical questions and trying to learn everything possible, but I came in and spoke with them for an hour and the interview consisted of all “fit” and simple yes/ no questions:
- Have you taken accounting and finance classes?
- Do you know how to model?
- Have you done much research on the industry?
- What are your long-term goals?
And obviously I said “Yes” to everything because this really was my only option.
Q: But wait, did you actually know all that stuff? And had you really taken all the relevant classes?
A: It was a bit of a stretch. I knew a lot more than when I had first started recruiting and had picked up some of the technical points along the way during interview prep.
But I certainly didn’t know as much as people who had completed modeling courses or those who had worked in banking or PE before.
But I thought: “If they’re not going to test me on any of this, would do I have to lose by spinning the truth?”
Q: And did it work?
A: After the interviews, I arrived back in the US a few days later and received the offer.
I was in shock at the outcome because I had started later than everyone, had been rejected or ignored 72 times, and didn’t have any full-time work experience.
But sometimes none of that matters!
Looking Back On It…
Q: That’s a great story. But I want to delve into some of the other reasons why this process worked out for you – any tips to share?
A: First, as I mentioned before, cold contact is uncommon in many emerging markets. I was polite and persistent on the phone, and sent lots of thank-you emails during the process.
I don’t have a strong finance background, but I interview very well and I instantly got along with the 2 interviewers I spoke with.
I also did lots of homework on this firm, who the senior management there was, and even the past deals they had worked on.
I walked in and said, “I noticed you advised on this transaction recently,” discussed it in detail, and pointed to other big deals they had worked on.
Unlike a lot of people in interviews, I didn’t wait for them to ask, “So how much do you know about our bank?” – I just threw it out there and mentioned explicitly what I had already learned on my own.
The interviewers didn’t have a shared background with me beyond being from the same country.
Q: I see. Another point that a lot of readers struggle with is getting around gatekeepers – it seems like you had no trouble doing that, though!
A: Well, first off, I don’t necessarily think that HR is a “gatekeeper” – they can be, but it can actually be helpful to speak with them.
In this case I had no idea who I was trying to reach, so I was looking for anyone related to the hiring process.
In terms of speaking with secretaries and assistants, you need to be super-polite and friendly, always thank them for everything, and genuinely enjoy speaking with them.
Too many people treat them like crap or view them as an “obstacle,” neither of which is a good idea.
Q: So what will this internship actually be like?
A: I’ll tell you when I’m done with it!
They said, “As long as you know how to model, write up research, and create PowerPoint slides, you’ll be fine.”
I’m expecting a mix of “real work” and then all the random grunt work that junior bankers do anyway.
Q: Are you actually planning to return to your home country to work in finance? Or was that just your interview “story”?
A: I am actually interested in doing that, though I don’t know whether or not I’ll be there forever.
Ideally I would like to work somewhere like New York or London, maybe at the same bank, and move around a bit.
But a lot of that depends on how recruiting for full-time positions goes. I’ll be more competitive with this internship, but it’s still an uphill battle given my background.
Q: Yeah, agreed. Thanks for sharing your story – very inspirational!
A: Sure thing, I enjoyed the chat.