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
Nicolas is the founder of 300 Finance Gurus and has advised more than 100 clients on their cover letters and resumes. He also provides strategies on networking, LinkedIn and interview preparation for clients in Investment Banking, Corporate Finance and Private Equity (full bio at the bottom of this article.)
“All men are created equal, some work harder in pre-season.”
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.”
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.
- 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.
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.
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