How to Break Into Finance with a Low GPA, No Finance Experience, and Without Going to a Top School: 4 Mistakes to Avoid and 3 Strategies to Embrace

396 Comments | Case Studies & Reader Success Stories - From Non-Target Schools and Low Grades

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It’s one of the most common questions/complaints I get…

“All your advice is focused on people at top schools! What about the rest of us!”

“You assume that we have 4.0 GPAs in finance programs!”

“What do I do if I’ve been a door-to-door insurance salesman for the past 10 years?”

Never mind that advice on topics like networking applies to everyone – and that we’ve addressed how to get in from different backgrounds several times before, with more coming up in the near future.

Today I’ll share a few stories from readers who work at banks and are responsible for interviewing potential new hires – and a story from one reader who recently did exactly what the title suggests:

He got into finance with poor grades, no finance experience, and did it coming from an unknown school.

Here’s how he did it…

What NOT to Do

Let’s start with a few stories from readers who are working in investment banking and interviewing potential intern and full-time hires.

Read each of these, and then do the exact opposite of what the person in the story did.

1. Potential New Hires at a Boutique: Back to the Basics

Here’s a portion of an email I received from an Associate at a boutique investment bank who has been interviewing potential interns recently:

“It seems unbelievable, but most of the resumes we got were poorly formatted and had typos. What are they thinking? Also, it was shocking to me how many people had no idea about basic business and accounting concepts like enterprise value and working capital. Even more shocking was how many students claimed their ignorance was understandable because their university did not have a business program.”

Lessons Learned: Go back to the basics. If your resume has typos and you can’t explain enterprise value, your chances are 0%. Investment banking is a hyper-competitive field that attracts Type-A personalities and overachiever workaholics.

But despite how competitive it is, it’s still worth remembering that the majority of applicants don’t even get the basics right… and at true regional boutiques, you run into even fewer interviewees who know their stuff 100%.

It goes back to one of my favorite points: don’t overestimate the competition.

2. The Guy Who Couldn’t Take No for an Answer: Avoid “Jack Bauer”-Style Networking

This story comes from a friend who works at a boutique outside the US. This was an in-person story, so I’ll quote my friend as accurately as possible:

“I had one guy who requested an informational meeting with me… so we met for coffee once. I could tell that he didn’t know that much, and during the meeting he was trying way too hard to impress me rather than just being himself. I told him we weren’t hiring anyone at the moment, but he kept pressing me for more meetings.

Within 2 weeks, he had emailed me about 5 times asking if I was free for more informational interviews. By the 5th email I basically stopped responding to him.”

Lessons Learned: Persistence is good… to a certain degree. You have to read your contacts and decide who likes you, who is open to further discussions, and who doesn’t want to have anything to do with you.

Remember, a networking ninja is stealthy – but emailing someone 5 times in 2 weeks is the complete opposite. Rather than subtly extracting information from your target, you’re more like Jack Bauer torturing a suspected terrorist to get information on the next attack.

Subtlety comes with practice and there’s no quick-fix solution: the best advice is to get out there and start talking to people. If no one responds favorably, re-think your approach and ask your friends and anyone you’ve spoken with for honest feedback.

It’s probably too aggressive to contact someone more than once every few weeks unless you know him/her very well and have extremely specific questions.

A BIG part of going from networking newbie to networking ninja is determining your “most valuable” contacts and acting accordingly.

3. The “Finance Expert”: Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth

It’s tempting to claim that you have a ton of finance experience to stand out – and that temptation is especially strong if you don’t have top grades, a banking internship, or an Ivy League name on your resume.

But bankers can detect that type of deception instantly, and will always call you out on it – as in this story from a friend who just interviewed one candidate:

“Had a guy who told me he has ‘built financial models and performed relative valuation such as trading comps and transaction comps.’

I asked him to walk me through how he spread those comps… and then he just stumbled and started going off on a tangent for 5 minutes without actually answering the question. Not knowing is one thing, but his biggest mistake was lying about it.”

Lessons Learned: Don’t lie, especially about something that the interviewer can easily determine is a lie – whether it’s “fluent in Mandarin” or “knowing how to spread trading comps.”

It’s one thing if you’re exaggerating your role in a “company you founded” (with your friends in a backyard in high school) and the facts are harder to check, but when it’s something concrete you can’t afford fabrication.

Only bend the truth when you won’t get called on it and when it benefits you in some way.

4. The “Steep Learning Curve”: Wait, Why Did You Want to Do Investment Banking Again?

It’s amazing, but some interviewees have no idea why they’re actually applying to investment banking jobs. I get at least 1 email per month asking what the “best reason to say you want to do i-banking” is… and here’s the truth:

Think for yourself about why you actually want to do it and use that as your reason.

And make sure you have a good reason – unlike the guy below (another story from a friend at a boutique)

“Another guy told me he wanted to get into i-banking ‘because nowhere else would provide a steeper learning curve where he could learn the most in two years.’ He kept rambling on about learning… but I had no clue WHAT he wanted to learn – so I asked him if he wanted to learn i-banking, or learn how to learn… he was TONGUE TIED.”

Lessons Learned: Your “story” and answer to “why i-banking” (or “why PE,” “why consulting,” “why anything”) are the most important parts of any interview – and if you have bad answers, you’ll never make it past the first round.

Saying something generic like “I want to learn” can potentially work but you need to elaborate and say what it is you want to learn specifically – and then tie it into your background and what you’ve done before.

A tech consultant saying he wants to understand the big picture of the industry when applying for tech banking makes sense.

But if you limit your response to “I want to learn” without elaborating, the interviewer would rightfully turn around and say, “So enroll in a Ph.D. program – what are you doing here? Or go read a lot of books.”

From Failure to Success: Getting in With a Low GPA, No Background, and No Top School

No matter what your grades and education are like, you absolutely need to have your “story” together and have good answers to the basic questions.

But if you’re not coming from a “4.0 at Harvard” background, you may be tempted to exaggerate and be overly aggressive when networking, both of which can hurt you.

Here’s how one reader avoided all that and got into finance despite having a low GPA, no prior experience, AND after he had already been working full-time in another industry:

“I know that in one of your recent posts a reader had mentioned that they wanted to hear a story about someone who came from a non-target school, with a lower-than-average GPA, and no finance experience, who made their way into the industry.

Well, I am that person! I went to a small non-target college that no one has heard of, and got under a 3.0 there (though I got a 4.0 on the social scale!).

I’ve been working for the past few years as a tech consultant, though I also did some management consulting-type work.

I recently got an offer from a hybrid banking/consulting boutique, and did it by networking with an alum from my school who I cold-called. He was fairly high-up so it was a good decision to go to him directly.

During my interview process, rather than getting technical questions on accounting and finance, I was asked to provide sample work product showing my writing, presentation, and basic modeling abilities.

I know that’s not the norm at bulge brackets, but I think anyone applying to boutiques and hybrid firms should know that – especially if you have some full-time work experience, showing them what you can do (literally) plays a big role in getting offers.”

Lessons Learned:

1. Although he didn’t go to a target school with a strong network in finance, he used that to his advantage by cold-calling someone high-up and using the rare alumni card to get an “in.”

How many calls do you think someone like that gets?

Not many if he’s from a non-target school.

2. He leveraged his background by applying to a hybrid firm rather than a pure bank. By appropriately spinning his consulting experience, he made it sound like he was well-suited for the position.

And since it was a boutique, his chances were higher to begin with.

3. There’s more than one way to impress. Especially for anyone working full-time and applying to small firms, bringing in examples of your previous work is an effective and often-overlooked strategy.

You have a big advantage over anyone still in school, because you’ve already proven yourself in another field – and you need to use that to your advantage.

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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396 Comments to “How to Break Into Finance with a Low GPA, No Finance Experience, and Without Going to a Top School: 4 Mistakes to Avoid and 3 Strategies to Embrace”


  1. ash0907 says

    Hi, I am an undergrad from a non-target school currently pursuing a double major in economics and finance. I am averaging 3.6-3.8 GPA right now. As I know that getting a job or internship will be difficult due to my school being a non-target, do you think my chances will improve if I get into a reputable Grad school? I will be applying to some good school ins Europe also like the Stockholm School of Economics and HEC Paris, while unis like John Hopkins U here at home. Stockholm ranks in the top 10 in the world for their finance program while the JHU is relatively new and unaccredited. If I had to choose which one should I do? Also since I will be pursuing a MS in Finance anyways, should I make the extra effort for CFA?

  2. victor says

    hello. I am a mba graduate from south korea. graduated in february from new business school (since 2007 only) aacsb accredited, but not well known though. courses, but mostly self studying gave me basic level of depth in practically every subject of finance, nothing special or extraordinary but still I know stuff. now wanna proceed in IB or buy side, and all i have by the moment is bundle of rejections from more or less solid firms. it’s hard to get full time i see – no experience or anything that could make me to be distinguished to some extent. internships usually require last year students, so here is a problem too even I keep applying. im thinking of cfa, even it’s time consuming but still might be useful, especially here, but anyway I don’t want to waste my time working in business development ( as i do now) when I would be better off if could get a relevant internship at least. does it make sense for me to apply online for offered programs ( as internships or student programs) even i don’t meet basic requirements, or should I consider something else? thank you

    • M&I - Nicole says

      I’d say studying at a target school in the States may increase your chances quite a lot. Yes you can apply online though it may not be too useful. Networking and cold emailing people may help you a lot!

  3. Clayton says

    Hi, I already successfully broke in investment banking (here in the Philippines) with a 2.2GPA (economics background). I currently work for one of the big banks here and I was just wondering what my chances are in getting in a bulge bracket bank like UBS or Credit Suisse here? Would they still look at my GPA or will they just focus on deal experience? Let’s say I have 1-2 years of investment banking experience at the analyst level.

      • Clayton says

        So basically since I broke in investment banking I’m good to go and apply to a bulge bracket without having to worry on my GPA? Despite only having 1-2 years experience? Sorry, I just wanted to clarify as this would definitely make me so happy as my GPA is horrible.

    • Victor says

      Could you share some of your experience on how did you get employed and overall situation with IBs and PEs in South-east Asia? What should I aim for in order to break into? Did you graduate from target school and do you have any professional certifications? I’m basically more interested in buy side.

      • Clayton says

        I can’t speak for Southeast Asia as a whole but in the Philippines I can list down some ways on how to break in IB:

        1. Graduating from a top 3 university here would definitely help.
        2. They aren’t that strict with GPAs here as compared in the US. Although, having a GPA like mine (2.2) did require me to network and cold-call/email A LOT. As long as you have at least a 3.0+ GPA, I’d think you’d have a chance at cracking the industry.

        For PEs here, it’s a totally different story. I haven’t heard of anyone that’s gotten in the industry straight out of university. PEs here tend to prefer people with IB experience. Hope this answers your questions.

        P.S. No certifications, just pure cold-calling/email and networking

  4. A says

    Hello! I’m in the same boat as many. I’m a rising senior from a top liberal arts school (though non-target for IB), have an average GPA (rounds up to 3.5), no internships, and not a huge network in finance.

    I went into college with the intent of pursuing medicine (grew lukewarm on the career at didn’t like the idea of being broke till 35 and being several hundred thousands dollars in debt at high interest) switched to economics (though still had no clue career-wise), and didn’t decide to pursue IB until the latter half of junior year. That means, of course, I missed junior year recruiting and having no finance-related internships on my resume.

    I do, however, have a website/e-business related to finance, trading, and data analytics, have been profitably trading the financial markets using my own fund base for four years, and have done freelance work on trading the financial markets. I also have a perfect SAT score that I placed on my resume but I’m unsure if that helps much at this point (I have heard that some banks, like Lazard, may request SAT scores).

    So needless to say, I’m behind. But I’m well versed in financial modeling, would pass the technical interview pretty easily if given the opportunity to interview, and otherwise show that I have the ability and motivation with what I say, but the lack of internship experience is sinking my ship. I would hate to have my career delayed (or ruined entirely) merely because I didn’t know what to pursue in life until I was 21 instead of the those that have put themselves in the IB pipeline since 18, 19, 20.

    What chance if any do you believe I have at landing a full-time analyst offer with those credentials? Would mid-market boutiques take interest in this type of non-traditional candidate? I’d even do an internship at minimum wage for a few months if they need me to prove myself first.

    Thanks for any insight!

    • M&I - Nicole says

      I’d say 50/50. I’d focus on networking via LinkedIn and approach mid-market to boutique/smaller firms and offer to do pro bono work first.

      • A says

        Many thanks for the reply, Nicole. Is pursuing fall internships worth it? I don’t want to spread myself too thin, but it may seem like a necessity to get in with a firm before application submissions.

        How are unpaid internships viewed? I’ve heard of people failing background checks as non-paid employees due to the lack of W-2’s.

        • M&I - Nicole says

          Yes it can potentially increase your chances. If you’re on an unpaid internship I don’t think its a big deal because it opens a lot of doors especially if you don’t have any experience. I wouldn’t worry about W-2s. If you don’t have any experience having some experience, even as an unpaid intern, is probably view more favourably.

          • A says

            Thanks, Nicole. One more question… I know you are busy.

            I have heard that summer analyst positions are off limits to those who are about to graduate (i.e., they interview people in their penultimate year of study and practically no one else). Is there any particular reason for this other than that’s simply the natural chain of progression that they’d like adhere to?

            I feel I’d be better suited for an internship in the banks eyes due to a lack of IB experience. It gives candidates a ten-week trial period, instead of a two-year stint. Of course, after the ten weeks is up I’d be unemployed, but could maybe temporarily move to a different division in the bank or hop into a full-time role should a first-year analyst quit or take a leave of absence.

            Is there any chance they’d be willing to accept a 2016 graduate as a 2016 summer analyst or should I scrap that idea entirely and continue to focus on full-time recruiting only? Thanks!

          • M&I - Nicole says

            Yes probably, it is hard to say. I think they want to limit their pool of candidates.

            I’d focus on full time recruiting (perhaps you can look at off cycle hires).

  5. Me says

    My GPA for Ms in Finance(from a UK based university) has been less than 3, but I completed my masters in 2008!! I have substantial work experience in Finance in India. When I moved to the states, I did voluntary work in order to avoid gaps on my resume and recently completed a Certificate in Financial Accounting with an A grade. How should I deal with interviewers when they ask me for GPA for my Masters which is very low? Also would it be ok to tell them I do not know the exact GPA at this point!!

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