Your 6-Month Step-by-Step Game Plan to Finance Interview Prep, Part 1: What to Do in the Months Leading Up to Interview Season

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Finance Recruiting Timeline, Part 1

“All men are created equal, some work harder in pre-season.”

-Emmitt Smith

Everyone has their pet peeves. For me, it’s someone who:

  • Spends hundreds of thousands of dollars and 4 years of their life on a top-notch education…
  • Spends thousands of hours more, even before that, on getting into that top school…
  • Works incredibly hard at this top university or MBA program, participates in tons of activities and sports…
  • And then fails to invest any time, effort, or money into interview prep.

I’ve been in the resume editing and interview coaching business for a while now and I see it all the time: your background gets your foot in the door, but your interview and your storytelling skills set you apart.

You don’t want to end up bitter after spending $100,000+ on your education, winning 40 interviews… and getting zero offers.

You can make a last-minute effort and still succeed, but you won’t get the best results that way. Instead, you need to start planning at least 6 months in advance by:

  • Sitting down and thinking about the qualities that make you a great candidate for specific jobs
  • Picking the right jobs to apply to in the first place… the ones that match up well with your strengths
  • Making a list of the specific questions you should ask alumni and anyone else in your network when preparing for interviews
  • Giving yourself enough time for interview practice so that you’re not caught flat-footed when interviews arrive

Let’s break down what you need to do in more detail, month-by-month:

Six Months Before the Interview – Figuring Out Who You Are

“The first thing you have to know is yourself. A man who knows himself can step outside himself and watch his own reactions like an observer.” 

-Adam Smith

Ideally, of course, you started preparing for interviews when you were born – but let’s be realistic now and say that it’s 6 months before recruiting season, you haven’t done much work, and you need to know what to do right now.

This is the most overlooked part of the process, but taking the time and thinking about what you’ve done so far and what your strengths and weaknesses are (the real kind, not the half-truths you state in interviews) will give you a big advantage in the recruiting game.

You can sit in your kitchen with a good glass of wine and some sheets of blank paper and start writing about all of your experiences in finance and beyond.

If you’re in a university or MBA program or you’re a recent graduate, start with your studies, the courses you took and all the clubs and extracurricular activities that you were a part of. Write the stories of when you had to step up and lead your peers, but also what happened when you were only a simple foot soldier and worked like mad for a project.

Then you can move on to your internships and jobs and describe what you truly did – not just what’s on your resume.

This is important because reciting your resume is a poor strategy in interviews – they can already see what’s on there, so you need to explain the context behind what you did and the points that are difficult to list on a 1-page document (e.g. did a certain dynamic in office politics make it more challenging to accomplish one of your goals? How did you deal with the personalities involved there?)

Your goal is to start thinking about your pitch and also what specific jobs / internships you want to apply to. Most people fall short because they can’t be honest with themselves over their true strengths / weaknesses.

If your list looks something like this, then you’ve failed:

  • Received excellent feedback in all previous internships! A true team player!
  • Enjoy following the markets, investing, analytical work and working with people, working long (or short) hours, working by myself and in a team, and I also have no pay or lifestyle requirements!
  • My only weakness is that sometimes I work too hard and get lost in the details!

This “list” is so broad that you could use it to justify any role, from a government bureaucrat to a trader to a venture capitalist.

But assuming that you’re interested in finance roles, here are the criteria you need to decide on upfront:

  • Deals vs. Public Markets: Do you like working on extended projects such as M&A deals or investments in / acquisitions of entire companies, or do you prefer to follow the markets and make smaller investments or make recommendations on individual companies?
  • Skill Set: Do you like crunching numbers? Or would you rather be talking to people and selling products/services? This is one point where “A bit of both” might be OK.
  • Team vs. Individual Work: Do you need to be around other people to do well? Or do you perform better on your own, “without distractions?”
  • Hours / Lifestyle: No, you’ll never have “good hours” in this industry, but do you prefer a somewhat more regular schedule, or do you not mind one that can fluctuate greatly depending on deal flow and potential clients?
  • Ongoing Commitments: Do you want to focus on the same company or set of potential companies / deals over time? Or are you always looking for something new?

Based on your findings, you can start considering fields like investment banking, corporate finance, sales and trading, venture capital, private equity, and hedge funds, and deciding on the 2-3 best options.

Yes, in interviews, you’ll always be a “team player” and you’ll have “exceptional attention-to-detail,” but right now we’re just trying to narrow down the roles that you should apply for based on your honest strengths, weaknesses, and preferences.

For example, if you like the public markets and stock investing, but you also like working in teams and talking to people more than crunching numbers and you also want a more regular schedule, institutional sales roles or private banking roles are right up your alley.

A few other examples:

  • You prefer deals, enjoy both number crunching and people/teamwork, don’t care about a fluctuating schedule, and you like longer-term projects but also want variety: This is the ideal profile for investment banking or private equity.
  • You prefer public markets, enjoy number crunching, can work very well independently, want a regular schedule, and you’re always looking for something new: This is ideal for trading roles, whether at large banks, hedge funds, prop trading firms, quant funds, or anything else.
  • You prefer deals, enjoy both number crunching and people/teamwork, want a more regular schedule, and you want an ongoing commitment for many years (oh, and you’re fine with lower pay): This is ideal for corporate development or corporate finance roles.

When you’re done with this exercise, you should have a few “deliverables”:

  • What you actually prefer in each of those categories above
  • The 2-3 roles that most closely match your skill set and what you’re looking for
  • At least 2-3 good stories to use in interviews to explain your background and support your points – these can come from your resume, but should also go well beyond what’s listed there

Three Months Before the Interview – Resumes and Applications

Over the next 3 months, you should go online to research the roles that are available and the companies you might be interested in.

Look up employee testimonials, speak with alumni or co-workers who know something about these companies, and narrow down your set from hundreds of possibilities to perhaps a few dozen (or less).

You should start editing your resume and spinning it to make it more appealing for these roles right about now – does it reflect all your findings from a few months ago, and the job descriptions and requirements?

One approach is to read the job posting and extract the five key points that they are looking for… and then make sure that these five key points are included in your resume.

Don’t kill yourself customizing your resume for each role you apply for, but if you’re going for significantly different roles (e.g. institutional sales and investment banking), it’s worthwhile to create slightly different versions to maximize your chances.

While few people actually read cover letters, you can apply the same process there and limit yourself to 3 key points in any letters you write.

Do not be intimidated if a job description says “8-10 years of experience required” – they actually want someone with at least 5 years of experience who will feel guilty and self-conscious about being under-qualified so that they can negotiate the package down. But most of these roles have inflated requirements, so you should apply anyway.

This isn’t the most exciting part of the process, but it is necessary because you don’t want to be rushing around editing these documents while you’re interviewing; get them done in advance and apply early so that you’re not thinking about it for too long.

Also at this stage, you need to start learning the culture of the field you’re interested in – by reading resources like this site, message boards, and books.

This is especially important if you don’t have any prior experience because you’ll be able to talk about what you do on a daily basis in a more convincing way.

Two Months Before the Interview – Networking and Learning

As recruiting approaches, you need to start setting up informational interviews with alumni and telling your amazing story to them (in shortened form).

Note from Brian: I actually recommend starting to network before this – you can get started as soon as you’ve figured out your story and the roles you’re going for. In practice, most people who win offers via an all-out networking effort spend at least 6 months on it, and often much more than that.

Here’s what you should get out of these chats:

  • Figure out whether or not the firm is actually a good fit for you, and what your answer to the “Why our bank?” / “Why our company” question might be.
  • Show the people you meet with that you’re more committed and interested in the role than anyone else – this may sound trivial, but you would be surprised at how far sheer enthusiasm will take you.
  • Improve your chances of landing real interviews. Sometimes, at the end of these sessions I’ll actually ask them, “So, what would be great questions to ask at the end of an interview at your firm?”

Also around this time, if you have limited or no knowledge of accounting, valuation, or finance, start studying.

You should not do this too far in advance of interviews or you’ll forget everything – 6 months would be far too early, especially if you’re just preparing for first round interviews.

Other tips:

  • For first round interviews, do not go too deep into advanced material because you’ll get confused – focus on the key concepts first.
  • If you do have a solid technical background, you should focus more on review in this part of the process. So if you already know valuation quite well but you’ve forgotten how purchase price allocation in merger models works, spend your time on that.
  • Case study practice can also be a much faster way to get results if you’re in this position – take a look at case studies of real companies or deals, practice completing them yourself, and check your work afterward. That way, you can narrow down what you need to refresh yourself on more quickly.

One Month Before the Interview – Practice, Practice, Practice

So you’ve used your network well and you have good leads. Some of your contacts have even scheduled first round interviews for you.

With a month left before interviews begin, you need to do two things:

  • Learn the Companies – Set up Google news alerts for the companies you’ll be interviewing with and follow the news over the next few weeks. If you walk in and don’t know about major events, it reflects poorly on you; likewise, if you know the company better than your interviewer does, that’s a huge win.
  • Practice Your Responses to Interview Questions and Get Feedback – The worst thing to do here is to simply read through guides and not get feedback on what you’re saying. There are a couple ways to get this feedback, from leaving questions within the interview guide course offered here to working with friends or an interview coach.

Before you begin asking others for feedback, though, practice in front of a mirror or record yourself and listen to what your answers sound like.

Ignore friends who don’t work in finance or who haven’t recruited for it before – other fields are less competitive and interviews are completely different.

As I mentioned, you could also hire an interview coach. Yes, I am biased here because I’ve coached dozens of clients for interviews… but the return on investment could potentially be huge (assuming a $100K / year job, easily an ROI of at least 200x and possibly more) if you use the coaching effectively.

In addition to getting the real-time feedback that’s so valuable, clients also benefit because they send me the actual interview questions they receive afterward and I consolidate all of this to prepare future clients based on questions currently asked by bulge bracket banks and Fortune 500 companies.

It’s hard to get those on your own unless you interview several times per week for at least a year.

If you don’t have the time or can’t afford an interview coach, you could ask other students or co-workers who have recently won offers to mock interview you, or even get your team to help with it if you’re currently interning at a company.

What’s Next?

Part 1 of this Game Plan just covered the ground work and what you need to do long before interviews begin – coming up next, in Part 2, we’ll go through what happens in those last few weeks up to the last few minutes before your interviews start… and immediately afterward as well.

As with test prep in university and business school, a little last-minute cramming is surprisingly effective – but it’s even better if you get in the last-minute prep and also get started with everything above 6 months in advance.

About the Author

is the Founder of 300 Finance Gurus a website where he grills 300 Managing Directors, CFOs, Vice-Presidents, Associates and Headhunters on their best networking and interviewing techniques.

Nicolas has also helped more than 100 clients land offers at top Investment Banks and Fortune 500 Finance Departments. From Analyst to Directors, he coaches his clients on five continents on their networking technique, LinkedIn profiles; he edits their resumes and cover letters, and grills them during intensive interview preparation sessions.

He’s been writing for M&I for three years now on corporate finance and related industries topic and also gives speeches on career performance to large audiences that include Fortune 1000 CEOs, executives and…ambassadors! Forthcoming in 2014, look for Nicolas' book on Corporate Finance interviews.

If you want to know more about his coaching and resume editing services, please visit 300 Finance Gurus or send him an email.

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34 Comments to “Your 6-Month Step-by-Step Game Plan to Finance Interview Prep, Part 1: What to Do in the Months Leading Up to Interview Season”

Comments

  1. Robert F. says

    Hey Nicolas, very interesting article…I’m definitely not working enough on my networking!
    In term of career choice, I’m very dedicated and a hell of a perfectionist do you think that IB is a good place for me (I’m also interested in the work of course)?
    Thanks, Rob

    • says

      Hi Rob,

      Well your personality sounds like textbook Investment Banking but you should ask yourself additional questions around the cultural fit. Because it’s one thing to be a dedicated perfectionist and something different altogether to put together pitch books for 16 hours a day! It’s definitely a good start though.

      Hope that helps,
      Nicolas

  2. Michael H says

    Hi Nicolas, thanks for the article.

    I went through your website and I was wondering if you could offer some kind of group coaching/conferences about networking and recruiting for my university finance club?

    Thanks,
    Michael

    • says

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comment. Regarding conferences for finance clubs I have a few partnerships already in place in the USA and in Europe. Definitely happy to discuss more by email, please contact me through my website!

      Nicolas

  3. Martin says

    Dear Nicolas,
    great article!
    I applied for summer internships at investment banks in Germany, the UK and the US last November/December. I was rejected by 2 and have not heard back yet from 5. While my CV is quite diverse, I got my main experiences in consulting. Receiving no invites from banking, I therefore applied to MBB and received an invite from McKinsey.
    Do you think it makes sense for me to call up the banks “asking about the status of my application, because I will be pursuing consulting if I shouldn’t be receiving an invite soon”, or is this pointless? May it even harm future applications, because it appears as a desperate move?

    Thanks,
    Martin

    • says

      Hi Martin,
      Thanks for your comment. It’s definitely a good thing to follow-up after applying, especially if you have a contact at the bank. But I wouldn’t quite phrase it like that. Indeed saying that you’ll be pursuing consulting if you don’t hear back doesn’t show much commitment to IB. Try to set up informal interviews instead and see how it goes, you’ll then be able to mention the other offers you have.

      Let me know if you have other questions!

  4. Kevin F says

    Hi Nicolas,
    I really enjoyed your article. The part about deciding on which fields of Finance are best suited is a real help too. My worry, however, is that I don’t have an impressive enough background (i.e. school, internships or networking) that would be required. Based on a previous interview I was unsuccessful with (but I thought had gone really well), if I don’t have the “perfect” pre-career history, should I just look at a less competitive area?
    Many thanks,
    Kevin

  5. Bruce says

    Thanks for the article. Recruiting is starting in less than one month in Australia, and the article is a good checklist for my preparation. I look forward to see Part 2 soon.

    • says

      Hi Bruce,
      Part 2 is going to be even more helpful for you then since it’ll focus on what to do a few weeks before an interview up to what to do right after!
      Good luck in Australia!
      Nicolas

  6. Stacey says

    Hey, I know it’s a bit late for internships, but are they absolutely necessary to land a full time gig, and are they always done in the summer? The reason I’m asking is because I graduate from university at the end of fall (albeit with a science major + experience in that area). The workload doesn’t scare me, that’s borderline a typical day for me lately.

    • says

      Hi Stacey,

      Internships are done at a different time depending on where you are trying to break in. In the US it’s usually more in the summer but you’ll definitely find opportunities at other times of the year.

      I’m afraid they’re pretty much necessary to land a full time job. Everything is possible but moving from Science major + Science internships to landing a full time job in Investment Banking would be very impressive, and definitely worth an interview on Mergers & Inquisitions!

      Nicolas

  7. Cameron says

    Great article! I’m still in my 2nd year of my undergraduate, so I’m still a ways off from full-time recruiting. However, I have been networking for summer internships and I have run into a problem. A firm held an info-session at my school for full-time recruiting, and I asked one of the analysts if they offered summer positions. He said they did, and we discussed the program extensively. We were getting on well, and I asked him if I could apply for the position. He told me he wanted to interview me, but he didn’t have his card on him (I know, definitely questionable) so he called to another analyst and asked him for his card. He gave me it, and told me to contact the other analyst about summer internships. I sent an e-mail that day, and then received a response saying that they did not have a summer internship program available at their firm. I was confused, because the analyst I spoke with told me that he wanted to interview me. I replied asking for that analyst’s contact information, and I have not been responded to a week later. This is very frustrating, because I have built a connection with the first analyst, and I knew that I would have aced the interview. What do you advise that I do from here?

    • says

      Hi Cameron,

      To answer your question, on what I would do…I would go “rogue” and find the name of the “nice” analyst that wanted to interview you. Maybe through LinkedIn or by googling details about him. And then just send him an email adress at name@company.com

      If that doesn’t work try to follow up with the “bad” analyst and he might forward the email to his friend if you insist enough!

      I hope that helps.

      Nicolas

  8. J.R Bateman says

    Thanks for the article!

    I will be in nyc as a SA for a boutique investment bank and I have just bought BIWS premium package. When should I start going over the modelling stuff to best prepare for the internship?

    Thanks!

    • says

      Hi J.R

      I’m glad you liked the article!

      I think you know the answer to your question already…you should start right now. The material is really good but you’ll need some time to digest it and I definitely recommend doing it twice especially the basics.

      Good luck with your studies!
      Nicolas

  9. Teddy saxon says

    Nicolas,
    Thanks for the informative articles. I find myself in a pickle, but maybe a pickle many people here would like to find themselves in. I did a BA in econ from a top rated public university. I started as a licensed banker with a global banking firm, and after a year I was promoted to a financial advisor position (at the retail level inside of the bank). Though this has been financially rewarding, there is nothing continually challenging me to advance my skills so I’ve been looking to make a change into a more analytical role at a higher level. I’ve been contacted by a competitor who is hiring for a portfolio manager associate in their fixed income department of the private bank. I have made it through initials and have a final interview at the end of march. Also, I just received an offer from a small local investment banking firm for the position of analyst with the goal of assisting in winning mandates and deal execution asap. I have a small window to accept this offer and unfortunately it will fall before my finals with the PB position. The risk and rewards are very high but I’m inclined to take the IB analyst position as they will offer me direct experience with senior bankers and they are willing to take a risk with an advisor without IB experience. I am worried about giving up my current opportunity and clients, possibly missing out on finding out about the PB portfolio manager position, and jumping in with a smaller IB firm where I’m the only analyst in their local office. Despite these worries, I’m leaning towards accepting their offer as this is a high level position with a growing firm that sees value in me, and will be rewarded based on meritocracy instead of playing the pyramid game. Would love to get your thoughts, or anyone else that has insight they would like to share. Thank you guys again for all you do on this website. Now I have to many options!! I guess a good problem to have, but doesn’t make it easier to make a decision.
    Sincerely,
    Teddy

    • says

      Hi Teddy,

      Yes it’s always tough to be desired right? I think you kinda made your decision already no? Your gut feeling says IB and I think you should go and stick with it for at least 2 or 3 years. After that if you want to go back to being a portfolio manager it’ll be more difficult but doable. And very few fields beat IB when it comes to exit opps.

      Good luck with the move!
      Nicolas

  10. Joanna says

    Thanks for these really great tips. I’m most worried about studying for those valuation, finance questions because even as a business major, I haven’t had too many quantitative classes (I am not in the finance concentration). Would you recommend buying textbooks to study for these, or do you have any websites or other books that would help?

    Secondly, if I want to apply to the finance programs for major banks around September-October, would it be a good time now to start emailing people for informational interviews?

    • says

      Hi Joanna,

      For the finance modeling/valuation questions I really recommend Mergers & Inquisitions, Breaking into Wall Street products not because I get a cut (I don’t unfortunately) but because I tried it out and it’s the best you’ll find out there!

      If you want to apply for programs in September-October it’s a good time to reach out and start networking but you’ve got time so build something solid by asking questions and request small things and then move on to informal interviews!

      Nicolas

    • says

      Also, Joanna, just to add to Nicolas’ response: if you don’t know those subjects that well, then you can start studying longer in advance as long as you can review right beforehand.

      And while, of course, I like the courses we offer, there are other options: there are some good books on Amazon (see Josh Pearl’s book on IB and Damodaran’s books) as well. You can even learn quite a bit from the free tutorials we offer.

      And yes, I would start reaching out now or in the near future for informational interviews.

      • Natalie says

        Thank you! I am going to ask for an informational interview on the phone, then at the end ask if it would be okay to follow up with additional questions or requests later on. You said to follow up once every 2-3 months, so for me that would be now (or near future), then once around summer and then ask about interviews near fall recruitment. If I am not able to make weekend trips, what is the best “excuse” or reason to contact them in the summer? (Wouldn’t it be strange to do an information interview again?)

        • says

          If you networked well enough it’s not going to be strange at all. You can start talking about the recruiting season coming!

          Don’t try to analyse networking too much, yes techniques are important but at the end of the day try to create a genuine connection with people and this way it won’t feel awkward/strange.

          Good luck!
          Nicolas

  11. Pikachu says

    Hi Nicolas & Brian,

    Thanks for the great advice. I need your opinions as I’m really split between several summer choices. I am a current junior at a target school, hoping to pursue a career in asset management. The junior summer internship recruiting season was an absolute disaster for me. I got very few interviews, as I didn’t have too much finance-related experience in either internships or activities, on top of a mediocre GPA. To better position myself for full-time recruiting, I already secured a part-time internship with a small real estate investing firm, but my summer plans are still up in the air. I got an offer from PwC value chain transformation, but I don’t know how much it will help in building a better resume, especially for asset management. From what I understand, this role is a combination of operational consulting, financial advisory and tax services; you get to build some models and write industry/company analysis. I think the plus side about this internship is that the company’s name is solid, so on the paper it will probably look better than a random small firm, and that this role is in between finance AND consulting (it is technically more financial consulting I think), so in case I want to apply for consulting full-time, this experience will certainly help. But my question is, just how much is the name of PwC going to help for the field I want to pursue? Should I give up this internship in search of a smaller asset management firm just to have the more relevant experience? My goal is primarily to make my resume look better so that I have a better shot at getting interviews, so I mainly care about how my experience looks on the paper; spinning the story should be relatively easier once I get the interview.
    Also, PwC needs my response very very soon, but I haven’t actually got any offer from other asset management firms yet, so giving PwC up should be pretty risky. I’m so torn.
    My last question is, what if I give a shot at securing interviews with BB IBD, would this PwC internship help? I’m not sure how people on the street perceive an internship from PwC.

    I know that’s a lot of questions, but I’d really appreciate it if I can have your insights on this.

    • says

      Hi Pikachu,

      I think that PwC is the way to go. You build some relevant skills and get a broad understanding of operational finance + a good brand name. You’ll transition to your next internship in AM easily enough (easier than now at least).

      And if you want to finally switch to IB, it’s going to hurt a lot less to have PwC on your resume than a no-name AM firm!

      Hope that helps,
      Nicolas

  12. Pikachu says

    Sorry, to add another question for Brian: if I didn’t end up getting a summer experience relevant to portfolio management, would taking CFA help in this case? I know you must hate CFA-related questions to guts, but you said several times it could actually help for portfolio management. I have a light workload this semester, so three months should be enough to get me pass level 1 in this June’s exam. Or should I spend ALL my time on networking, starting from now?

    • says

      The CFA might help for PM roles, but you don’t want to complete it at the expense of networking. So if you can juggle both, sure, otherwise focus more on networking for now and say that you’re studying for the CFA and are planning to take it in December instead.

      • Pikachu says

        Thanks, Brian! I think I should focus more on networking. Do you have more to add for my internship choices?

        • says

          I would agree with Nicolas that PwC is the best choice now especially because you don’t have other offers on the table. It’s too risky to turn it down and go after offers at smaller places. Not the most relevant internship for IB, but much better than possibly ending up with nothing.

  13. Dinky says

    Hi Nicolas,

    Great article! I was just wondering, what are the possibilities of getting an offer if you’ve been referred to the interviewer by a network? Are they still going to ask technical questions and go through the tough process or just ask a couple of questions and grabt me a position? Is it guaranteed that you will get an offer if you’ve been referred by a top associate at that bank? And also, what are the chances of your interviewer being the one who referred you in the first place? Thank you.

    • says

      Hi Dinky,

      I see where you’re getting at. Let’s just say that if someone refers me a candidate, the candidate will go through the normal interview process. The network just gets you a foot in the door. Of course if the person referring is someone pretty high up in the hierarchy, then it can get you pretty far!

      But don’t think you’re not going to get interviewed at all!! Because even if you get in a firm like that you’ll probably go through hell during the internship/job because of your “reputation”.

      Hope that helps!
      Nicolas

  14. DGeorge, CPA says

    At a time when the roles and responsibilities of the finance function are undergoing some fairly fundamental changes that demand better interpersonal skills, it pays to brush up on exactly how you assess candidates. I used Tim Andren for my last search. He is a finance and accounting recruiter based in Orange County (Irvine) and a real pro.

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