“You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”
I was in my junior year at university when I started thinking about jobs after graduation – and suddenly realized that I didn’t know much about the recruiting process or how to actually win the attention of banks.
And the more people I talked to, the more I realized how much the recruiting process in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) differed from other regions.
The main difference is that it’s much more of a numbers game than what you see in other regions – so many people from all over the world apply that you need to set yourself apart (preferably without using illegal insider information).
To do that, you’ll have to master the application itself, the ability tests, the interviews, and the assessment centers.
Recruiting, Applications and Timing
First, note that most banks in London start their recruiting in August – which means you need to be on top of things from early on. All the banks have slightly different deadlines as well, so you should look up the dates in advance and track everything in a spreadsheet.
The biggest difference between the US and Europe is that everyone can apply to graduate programs offered by bulge bracket banks, regardless of where they attended university or business school.
Technically you can do this in the US as well, but let’s face it: if you apply through a bank’s website, you go to a no-name school, and you haven’t networked much, you might as well be submitting your application into a black hole.
You do still have an advantage if you’re from a top school, but you won’t be competing against only that smaller pool of applicants from well-known universities – so you need to make sure your application is perfect when applying, or you might be rejected for a punctuation or spelling error.
Most applications start by asking for your basic information and contact details. Always use a professional-looking email address – firstname.lastname@example.org – rather than something like email@example.com.
This sounds silly, but in Europe they often reject you for completely nonsensical reasons that have nothing to do with your abilities.
After filling out your contact information, you need to choose the role that you’re applying for – select just one role here.
It’s better to focus on one role like this rather than applying to IB, S&T, ECM, DCM, and so on because doing so makes you look unfocused and unsure of what you want to do.
Most financial institutions only allow you to submit only one application form per recruiting season, so you need to get this right – you can’t just press Ctrl + Z and undo your application once you’ve submitted it.
Next, you need to provide information about your secondary school and university and give a detailed breakout of courses and grades. Unlike the US, they actually care about your academic performance before university, how you performed on your A-Levels, and so on.
There’s not too much to say here, but make sure you also include significant projects, dissertations, or case studies that could help your cause. If you’ve done something finance or business-related in a class, make sure you include that and write about what you did in-depth since every little detail will help you.
After the education section comes the one about your work experience, which is somewhat repetitive since you list everything here on your CV anyway.
You can get away with copying and pasting what’s on your CV into this section, but you should focus on how your previous experience gave you the qualities that the bank is looking for.
Recently, many banks have started asking you to list your responsibilities, the skills you developed, and what you learned on the job.
So think about what bankers want to see – burning the midnight oil, interest in finance, leadership, attention to detail, and so on – and spin your previous experience into sounding relevant.
The last section after this asks you for miscellaneous information such as software you’re familiar with, computer skills, and foreign languages.
In Europe your foreign language abilities are extremely important and if you know multiple languages you have a much better chance of breaking in; it’s not a requirement necessarily, but you need another way to stand out if you only know English.
Up until now, you’ve pretty much just restated your CV and entered a lot of repetitive information.
The real fun begins when you enter your responses to the competency-based questions, which are similar to “fit” questions in interviews but are in written form instead.
You’ll get between 3 to 5 questions (occasionally more than that) per application, and you’re limited to 90 to 250 words per answer. That makes it significantly more difficult because you must be concise and convey a lot of meaning without many words.
The two main categories of questions are industry-based and story-based:
Examples of industry-based questions:
- How much do you know about what an investment banker does?
- Can you describe a day in the life of a relationship manager in private banking?
- How is Goldman Sachs different from other banks?
Examples of story-based questions:
- Give an example of when you had a tight deadline and had to complete a project with limited time and resources.
- Give an example of when you were working in a team and the project did not go well – what went wrong, and why?
- What is the leadership experience you are most proud of? What did you learn from this experience, and how does it set you apart from others?
Always draft your answers using Word because it’s extremely easy to make spelling and grammatical mistakes if you fill out the form online – and even a single misspelled word might result in your application getting rejected.
To answer these questions, use the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) format:
- Situation: We were working on a group project in a team of 4 and one team member had a family emergency and could no longer contribute anything.
- Task: We had to finish everything on-time with limited resources and one fewer team member.
- Action: I rearranged our project to focus on the most important parts, decide to omit a few sections, and re-assigned team members to work on the most critical parts.
- Result: We finished 90% of our original goal despite losing one team member, and were ranked 2nd out of 25 groups in the class.
Once you get through the fun of these competency questions, you may also have to upload your CV / resume and/or cover letter. These have already been covered to death on M&I so I’m not going to repeat anything here – see all the templates and tutorials and follow the tips within.
You may be able to get away with slightly wordier cover letters in EMEA, but you should still resist the temptation to go on and on for pages because they’ll stop reading after page 1.
As a final step before you submit your application, copy and paste the entire form into Word and use that to check for typos and other grammatical errors – you may even want to let it sit for a day and then print it out and go through everything again.
That may sound ridiculous, but a single misplaced comma or period may cost you a spot at top investment banks because firms in London are so picky.
Round 2: The Ability Tests
If your application is accepted and/or you meet the minimum criteria – in the UK, a 2:1 or a 1st Class Degree – you will then get asked to take ability tests that assess your verbal and mathematical abilities.
Don’t panic if you don’t receive a link right away – some banks read the applications first and send the invites, some send invites right away, and some even wait until later rounds to send the invitations to these tests.
Usually you have to take a numerical test and a verbal test, and sometimes you have to take additional logic tests as well.
Numerical tests check your understanding of simple business data – you might get market share information, FX questions, and industry graphs and you typically get 20 minutes to answer 20 questions.
The calculations are not difficult, but you need to think quickly and answer ASAP without dwelling on the rationale because you’re under extreme time pressure.
Sometimes you can jump between different questions on the test, but on other tests you might have to go through the questions sequentially – be aware of which test type you’re taking before you start because that will affect your strategy.
Example Numerical Test Questions: They might show you a chart of 4 companies’ current stock prices, the % change since yesterday, and the dividends payable for each company.
Then they might ask a series of questions about that data: If the share price increased 50% over the share price a month ago, what was it a month ago? What’s the difference in price between 200 shares of one company and 100 shares of another company? What’s the total value of the dividends payable for 1,000 shares of one company?
The math is not difficult – the time pressure makes it difficult, and if you’re not good at mental math then you’ll need to practice that before taking the exam.
On the verbal tests, you’re given a series of text passages, each one with 4-5 related questions, and you have 20 minutes to complete all the questions. You have to go through all the questions and state whether the statement is true, false, or you cannot say based on the passage.
Example Verbal Test Question: They might give you a passage about economic policy – maybe, for example, the impact of tariffs on a country’s economy – and then ask you whether that policy has increased per capita GDP there. You would have to scan the passage quickly and answer “True,” “False,” or “Cannot Say” based on what’s written there.
Logical tests have around 24 questions that you must complete in 10 minutes – that’s less than 30 seconds per question, so you must be speedy and move on quickly if you can’t figure out the answer.
Usually you get a series of diagrams or images, and you must identify the missing diagram or image among a set of possible answers.
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Round 3: Actual Interviews
Once you pass the application screening and these ability tests, you’ll be invited to one or two interviews (note: again, some banks switch the order a bit and may do interviews first or concurrently with the ability tests).
In the first-round interview, you usually speak with someone from the recruiting team and most of the questions are fit-based: it’s almost the same as the competency questions you already answered.
So be prepared with your story and with examples of leadership and team situations, the usual strength and weakness-type questions, and any other anecdotes that would be helpful.
You should use the STAR technique once again and practice telling different stories with this strategy – after enough practice it will become natural and you won’t even have to think about it.
In the second-round interview, you speak with someone from the group you’re applying to rather than HR – sometimes it may also be a 2-on-1 interview with at least one interviewer who’s a recent graduate.
You should still expect fit questions, but it’s more important to demonstrate your interest in the job and to relate your previous internships or work experience to the role.
So if you walk in with previous S&T internships and you want to be an investment banker, you better be prepared to explain what caused this change of heart and how your experience is still applicable.
Technical questions may also come up, but generally interviews aren’t quite as technical in the UK (your mileage may vary elsewhere in Europe).
Round 4: Reality TV Shows Assessment Centers
And then once you pass the interviews, you move onto round 4 – where you get to join the cast of a reality TV show and try not to get voted off the island.
Just kidding – although once you hear about what’s involved at assessment centers and what you have to do to succeed, you may wish you were a castaway on a reality TV show instead.
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