No Matter How Badly You Fail Your Investment Banking Interviews, You Can’t Do Worse Than This

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Forget about conquering your interviews and fixing all your mistakes.

Sometimes it’s fun to sit back and laugh at how badly you failed.

Or at least to engage in some schadenfreude.

Story #1: Holla Back, Office

This one took place when I was interviewing for every single position under the sun: banking, sales & trading, hedge funds, consulting, and reality TV hosting.

I had something lined up with a well-known hedge fund, and went in for my interview.

I had been flying to random cities and going through a dozen interviews per week, so I wasn’t paying much attention to the details of this interview or what the position even was.

The conversation went like this:

Interviewer: Walk me through your resume.
Me: [Do the 2-minute walk-through, then explain how I'm moving away from the engineering side and into business.]
Interviewer: Oh, ok, well just to let you know, you’ll definitely learn about business here but I’m not sure this is exactly what you’re looking for.
Me: Really? I thought this was a hedge fund.
Interviewer: Yes, but you’d be doing “support work” for the traders rather than actually trading.
Me: What do you mean by “support work”?
Interviewer: Writing scripts, programming new trading tools, fixing compatibility issues…
Me: Ok, I’m not really looking for that.
Interviewer: No problem – we can finish up now if you want.
Me: Sure thing, nice meeting you.

And just like that I left 5 minutes into the interview.

Whenever I tell this story to friends they say, “OMG that was so baller of you to just walk out of an interview like that” – but it felt pretty natural at the time.

Lessons Learned: If something sucks worse than The Matrix: Revolutions, cut your losses and get out.

And if you’ve already put in 500 hours of study into something, don’t feel obligated to continue just because you’ve already spent a lot of time on it… think 80/20.

Oh, and make sure you read the job description before walking into an interview…

Story #2: Chronic Back Pain

I wish this were one of my stories, but I’m not so lucky: it comes to you from a reader, who wrote in about his experiences interviewing for an internship at a bulge bracket investment bank.

“I was applying for internships at bulge bracket banks, and somewhere along the line I had learned that the ‘Please introduce yourself” question was similar to the ‘Tell me your strengths and weaknesses’ one.

Anyway, I had trouble thinking of weaknesses that were legitimate but which were also not overly negative.

But finally I thought of one that sounded more realistic, and rehearsed it a couple times before going in for my next interview…

…and here’s what happened:

Interviewer: Can you introduce yourself and tell me about your background?
Me: You mean my strengths and weaknesses, right? My strengths include my analytical aptitute and my ability to learn quickly. My main weakness is my chronic back pain.
Interviewer: Um… so are you able to work at a desk?
Me: Yes! No problem.
[Awkward silence ensues]

Miraculously, I still landed the internship offer.”

Lessons Learned:

  1. Make sure your “weakness” doesn’t involve a physical attribute.
  2. Learn how to tell your story.
  3. Even if you screw up, it’s not necessarily the end of the world – 1 really bad answer won’t always sink you.

Story #3: Equities in Tokyo

This one started when I was running around applying for as much as humanly possible… first mistake.

Somehow I got an interview at Goldman Sachs’ Private Equity Group in… Tokyo.

At this stage I didn’t even know what private equity was, and there’s no way I was qualified to read 100-page financial documents in a language other than English.

But I said, “Well, Japan is cool and living there was fun, so I might as well just go in for the interview and see what happens!”

I had to drive from campus to San Francisco for the interview, which normally takes an hour – only it was a Friday afternoon and I hadn’t taken into account rush hour traffic.

The interview was scheduled for 3 PM, but I was so late that I had to call them and ask to change it:

Me: Um, I’m scheduled for an interview with you at 3 today but… um… my car broke down and I can’t make it. Can we push it back?
Interviewer: Uh…. ok, but I’m booked the rest of the day – I could stay late and do it at 6 today.
Me: Ok, sounds good… see you then. Sorry to trouble you.

Things were already pretty bad, but then they got even worse when I arrived and met the interviewer.

She saw that I had lived in Japan and that I wrote “Advanced” or something silly in my “Language Skills” section – so she decided to test me.

Interviewer: [Switching to Japanese] So can you explain what you did in your internship?
Me: [Explained it, I was pretty used to talking about it so no issues here.]
Interviewer: Ok, now let’s test your knowledge of finance. Can you explain why a company would want to use debt rather than equity?
Me: Um… um… uh I don’t know the words for any of these concepts…

After I stumbled around for 5 minutes and explained that I didn’t know the words for WACC or amortization, the interviewer switched back to English and started asking the same questions.

Interviewer: Can you explain why a company would want to use debt rather than equity?
Me: Well, equity could be… more risky?
Interviewer: So is it only about the risk?
Me: Actually I’m not really sure…

So I completely failed the same set of interview questions in 2 languages, while making the interviewer stay late on Friday after interviewing people all day.

“Equities in Tokyo” was not in my future.

Lessons Learned:

1. If you ever find yourself not sure of WHY you’re interviewing for something, cancel the interview.

You might be using the “scatter-shot” approach to landing interviews, but it’s better to be more targeted and not apply to 20 different industries.

2. Don’t be an idiot with logistics.

Even if you nail all your questions, showing up 3 hours late to an interview, forgetting to dress appropriately, or interviewing for the wrong position are all enough to sink your chances.

3. Seriously, don’t exaggerate language skills.

Mandarin may be the single most exaggerated language skill listed on resumes.

While you can exaggerate other skills without consequences most of the time, languages are easy to test – and being able to order food at a restaurant or argue with your parents does not make you “fluent.”

Unless you can read business newspapers flawlessly and understand 100% of the financial news, don’t even think about writing “Advanced.”

More?

If you have embarrassing interview stories – and who doesn’t? – send them along or share them in the comments below.

Maybe we can turn this into a regular feature.

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 “No Matter How Badly You Fail Your Investment Banking Interviews, You Can’t Do Worse Than This”

Comments

  1. Anon says

    Had my MS HK phone interview today. Listed that I know “basic” chinese (I did a 3 month short course in China). Coincidentally, the interviewer happened to have went to the same school for the short course and asked me to do a brief introduction of myself in Chinese. Failed miserably. She said it’s okay though. Probably not okay.. oh well..

  2. Nick says

    I’m a native chinese speaker but I picked up this book so I could discuss more specialized business terms:

    http://www.amazon.com/Cheng-English-Chinese-Lexicon-Business-Pinyin/dp/0887273947/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1262956860&sr=8-1

    I’ve gone with my dad a few times for business in China, it is REALLY interesting right now. I’ve met so many 30-ish entrepreneurs making bank, often born in China with international educations who have gone back to fill the need for people with really capable business backgrounds and a world view. I’m thinking about going there myself eventually…

  3. Talisman says

    Quick off topic question. Got myself a job as a part-time research analyst at one of the biggest european investment industrial holding companies while still in school. At my previous internship, a lot of the “younger” analysts and consultants were listening to music on their Ipods while working.

    Can you do this whitout senior management thinking you’re a prick (like not taking your hat of indoors)? This company has a pretty conservative image. Although the research group is pretty “young and hip” in comparison.

    I know it’s a case of personality and “feeling the vibe” at first. But generally speaking?

    • says

      It depends a lot on the group and company. I think at GS they give you crap about doing this, or at least they did to one friend a few years back, but other places are usually more chill.

  4. Phlee says

    I was overexcited when the phone interviewer asked me to describe the current developments in the financial markets. Went like 2 minutes(which is really long for a phone interviews) saying things about equities and commodities and how price fluctuations are affecting institutional flows. The HR person was obviously not an expert in that field(nor a trader/sales person), and I was embarrased when she said I already gave answers to the questions she was gonna ask.
    Thrown off a little after that, and the entire interview ended within like 15 minutes.

      • Phlee says

        But my interview finished in less than 20 minutes. I’m just curious in general, but should I think it is really a bad sign if the interview(phone or not) ended more quickly than expected?

        • Laz says

          I’ve found that when I’ve had successful phone interviews they’ve been much shorter than the given time.

          If the person interviewing you has made up their mind to put you through to the next round in 20mins, they’re not going to waste another 20mins asking you for teamwork, leadership,… examples.

  5. yh says

    Last year I had an interview at a large tech company for their summer operations finance analyst position. The interviewer asked what my career plans were for the future. Because I’ve been interviewing for ibanking quite a bit, I blurted out quickly like to get into investment banking. The interviewer then said, “Oh really…?” Then he started grilling me until the end with technical questions, many of which I couldn’t answer. :[

  6. Johnny says

    Just curious, but at the end of the interview, when the interviewer asks, “Do you have any questions for us,” what kind of questions are appropriate? I’ve heard of a student who actually asked questions which were too prying, and his own questions prevented him from getting these offers… lol

  7. Andy says

    Hi, Thank you for the wonderful article. I have a question for you…I got my MBA in financial services from a lesser known school in New York but I had the opportunity to go abroad for a study abroad program one semester in Paris and London. Do you think I should include that under Education in my resume–and should I list it separately since I attended lectures and seminars in areas of interest like Intl Business in schools there.

    Andy

    • says

      If it’s a brain teaser, you have to try for something… just talk out-loud and go through your reasoning. For technical questions just say that you don’t know or haven’t learned it if you really don’t know.

  8. a says

    How bad would it be to quit after your first year? I have a BB IBD job and I pretty much hate it. Would it look awful on a resume/cut me out of every possible job I could want after banking?

  9. Johnny says

    I’m starting to read the WSJ in preparation for internship recruiting season… but I’m also involved in a lot of other things, so I really need to be effective with my time. Do you know what I should read in the journal to get the relevant information to interviews? What are the interview questions relevant to the WSJ? I figure they might ask what the Dow closed at yesterday and why, tell me about a recent article that you read…. idk about anything else though.

    • Emily says

      @Johnny when I did interviews, I had started out reading the paper version of the WSJ, but found it cumbersome. I switched to the online version, which has a highlighted panel called “Top Stories.” I used to read those bits/full stories. Also, the NYT blog dealbook (Sorkin) is very helpful (more so than WSJ), and lists all current major deals on a day to day basis. In addition, you could put CNBC on in the background and learn by osmosis.

      However, this depends on what you are interviewing for. Dealbook is very useful for IBD because they will expect you to know some recent deals and corporate actions fairly in depth. CNBC is what all trading floors broadcast all day long, and they will expect you to know more about market conditions in S&T. If you are interested in S&T, you should also consider the Financial Times. It’s what all the cool kids read :)

  10. ok so here is the deal says

    i know someone who wants to break into banking but he is already like 30. he graduated and got his bachelors and masters in brazil and does not have any banking of finance-related experiences. he used to do sales (like sales rep, sales manager), but now eagerly looks for a transition. he is getting his mba in us, and at same time he is hoping to break in.

    for guys like him, what’s your suggestion? i thought you shouldnt try to break into banking if you are over 26 or 27.

    • says

      Try to get some type of informal finance experience first, then use the MBA program and recruiting there to break in. 30 is not a problem if you apply for Associate-level roles.

      • bathing ape says

        AH. In my country, you don’t get to start full time work before 25. By full-time, I mean like a white-collar role after graduation from college. That’s because of mandatory conscription of 2 years. So most analysts here are around 25…

  11. bathing ape says

    Re: Story 1.
    I did that once. I was sort of pressured by HR (lame, I know by whatever… early days then), to go for a “support work” role too. And I was already in TAS somewhere. The description of the role really turned me off so I told the interviewer who wasn’t much older than me (+2/3 years?) that this doesn’t interest me and it would be better for us to end this right now. She looked really shocked. I shook her hand and said the usual courtesies and walked out.

  12. TC says

    Two questions:
    I heard the full time position interview are divided as three steps:
    phone interview, on-site interview and followed by the super day interview
    does the internship interview share the same format with the full time position interview? or it’s much simpler?

    if I take an intership in a private equity firm, would it be a disadvantage
    when I apply an full time position at IB at my second year MBA program?

  13. TC says

    Does that mean non-internship is better than PE intership in the case that a guy is interested in landing an IB offer eventually?

    • says

      No. PE internship is way better than nothing at all or nothing in finance. Its just that your odds improve if you’ve done an IB internship instead.

  14. TC says

    I am currently a part-time MBA student who is not eligible to participate the on-campus internships recruiting events according to our school rules. In this case, my strategy is to directly contact recruiters or even MDs if I manage to locate their emails online.
    My concern is that are they gonna take my email or calls seriously ? does my strategy work?
    Or do you have better advices to have me hook up them?

    The internship recruiting often happens during the first year of MBA study. Compared to the full-time position MBA recruiting, will the internship interview include as many technique questions as the full-time position interview?

    Thank you,

    • says

      That’s really all you can do if you can’t use on-campus recruiting – you have to network.

      Internship and full-time interviews are usually not much different, so I would expect the same level of technical questions.

  15. TC says

    I am not sure whether part-time MBA would position me well or not?
    How would recruiters treat part-time MBA student Vs Full-time MBA student?

  16. JW says

    Dear M&I, I was wondering for an offshore winter internship programme, do they fly you over at all for superdays or are the interviews only done through phones and video conference?

    Thanks

    • says

      Usually they do it via the phone unless you are very close (e.g. you’re in mainland China interviewing for positions in HK). Occasionally for superdays they will fly you there regardless.

  17. Matt says

    So, a guy I knew at b-school once went for an interview with an investment bank, for an MBA internship.

    He sits down and, with introductions out of the way, he is asked: “So why do you want to work for us?”

    “Well, I’m not really too impressed by these huge banks. I’d rather work for a smaller bank with a more intimate and entrepreneurial environment, more responsibility, and contact with senior people and clients”

    “OK. Those are good reasons. But you do know we’re one of the largest banks in the world?”

    “Aha. Well, yes” says my friend. “What I meant to say was, I am very impressed by the scale and breadth of your M&A platform and think it’s the right place to build a blue chip career working on the toughest deals”.

    “Well” comes the response “you’re right there – our M&A franchise certainly is one of the best. But… this is a fixed income interview”.

    My friend made excuses and, much like you, left. TBF he delighted in telling everyone about it in the bar afterwards so at least he’s not too proud.

  18. PeeWee says

    Just a question about failing interviews: What if you cold called an MD who ended up getting you an interview, but in the superday interivew, you didn’t end up getting the internship. SHould you still keep in contact with the MD and such?

  19. Allen says

    I have a general question for you if I may. I am currently in my last year of finishing my bachelor in finance from a NY school. I have no experience in IB or any finance field and I’m already 32. I plan to go straight for my MBA once I get my degree this year. My question is, should I get an analyst job then do the MBA simultaneously, or enroll in the MBA and use their on campus recruitment center?

    Thank you

    Allen

  20. A says

    I had a S&T summer internship 1st round phone interview recently and seemed to fail miserably. It was my first ever interview of this magnitude and I found myself stumbling over very easy questions that I had been preparing for for weeks. What do you think I can do better next time or the what mindset should I have going into the next interview?

    • says

      Just practice with friends, family, and anyone else who has the time to help you – with interviews it’s all about practice and comfort.

  21. Kevin says

    Thanks for the advice. I was wondering, so why a company would want to use debt rather than equity?

  22. M says

    So speaking for failing interview. I reaaaaaaaaaaaaallllly pissed off a VP of an elite boutique IB and may have embarrassed myself.

    I know things spread fast within the finance community, will this be spread to other firms and will it affect my chances?

  23. Nash says

    My school had an informational interview with Blackrock and after queuing for 15 minutes i reached the interviewer and
    interviewer: Hi, lets see what you have here
    Me: (Hands over resume) My name is so and so and i am interested in joining your firm.
    Interviewer: so what do you like about this company?
    Me: Its one of the best PE firms with a large investor base … yada yada yada
    Interviewer: No its not.
    Me: are you sure?
    Interviewer: This is not Blackstone.
    Me: Rock … stone …
    Interviewer: We will call you if we think you are fit for a position in our firm

    Awkward …

  24. Eric says

    This article definitely boosted my spirits. I didn’t make it past superday for a BB summer internship – how awkward/useful would it be emailing the interviewer about a winter internship at their group?

  25. gameoflife says

    I had an assessment center today for a role with finance related consulting firm.

    One interviewer, who I spoke to last week in a 45′ phone interview, specifically said there would be no questions on a particular technology topic that he brought up as one of the areas he was working on at the moment–his words were “We wouldn’t ask you about x topic, for instance, because that’s something you’d pick up depending on which project/vertical(w/n financial services) you were working on.” Further instruction was that the interview portion of the assessment would consist of 2 case interviews that would be market sizing-related questions and brainteasers.

    Fast forward to interview: Interviewer (with whom I’d spoken) now with a colleague also interviewing me: “Well if I recall our phone conversation, we discussed so and such technology-related topic in detail. Could you summarize our discussion?”
    ?????

    In the week between the phone interview and the case interview(s) I spent time on Management Consulted and similar sites trying to quickly master the case interview format…and was completely thrown by what actually happened–the first case interview wasn’t a case interview at all–I got the sense that the 2 running the first case hadn’t prepared questions ahead of time, so they were asking random very open-ended questions.

    A potential salvageable point is that there were 2 case interviews, and the 2nd case (or the only actual case), another 2-on-1 case interview that went smoothly for the scheduled half hour. At the end one associate left to attend a scheduled meeting, and the other stayed in the conference room and spoke with me for an additional half hour about the role, and life, etc. Good rapport, and fit is very important in this role–both sets of interviewers told me this).

    I don’t want to get dinged for the first interview (I was shell-shocked about the 180 that was pulled on the subject matter, not a great impression to leave.)

    Is it appropriate to write a thank you note to the interviewer I had my phone interview, who was the primary contact, and who (unfortunately) asked questions specifically outside the scope that he had indicated that I prepare for and as diplomatically as possible remind him of our actual phone discussion, and apologize for having been caught off guard and not assuming that anything he mentioned would have been fair game?

    (TBH, it seemed like an honest oversight on his part, not a stress tactic…)

  26. Brian says

    Hi, I am studying at top 6 business schools. I apply internship for bulge bracket banks, so far I got dinged without any 1st round interview. Do you think it’s related with my CV and cover letter ? I use the same CV and cover letter for all my application.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      It is a bit hard for me to determine why you got dinged without having seen your documents. With the above being said, it is likely that your documents led to you not getting an interview because interviewers judge candidates based on such documents before interviewing them

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