How to Tell Your “Story” in Investment Banking Interviews
If you have 2 hours before your interview, and you haven’t done any preparation, what should you do first?
And if you have 3 weeks, 3 months, or 6 months to prepare, what should you do first?
My answer would be the same in all those scenarios: Perfect your Story.
Your “Story” is your response to the first question in any interview:
- “Tell me about yourself.”
- “Walk me through your resume.”
- “Why are you here today?”
Even though your Story is the most important part of any interview, no interview guide – except for ours – devotes more than a few pages to it.
Authors act like it’s “just another qualitative question” – as unimportant as describing your favorite TV show.
They’re all wrong: If you do nothing else, you MUST get your Story right.
The good news is that you can greatly improve your Story with less than 1 hour of effort.
It’s 100x easier than mastering accounting, valuation, and financial modeling, and it’s the highest ROI task in the entire interview prep process – if you follow our step-by-step guide and templates:
Wait a Minute, Haven’t You Written About This Before? Many Times?
Yes, and much of the advice in previous articles still applies.
However, there are now three major differences:
- You Must Have Previous Experience – Whether you’re an undergrad or a career changer at the MBA level, you need previous finance experience (i.e., a sequence of internships) to have any chance of getting into IB.
- You Must Be More Concise – We recommend a 100-150-word outline and a 200-300-word full version for a maximum length of 1-2 minutes. I’ve seen some suggestions for “3-5 minutes.” Ignore these suggestions! Bankers have ADD and will cut you off quickly.
- Your Goals Must Be More Specific – Any idiot can walk into an interview and say that he/she “wants to work on deals” and “advise companies.” Far fewer people can point to a specific industry or geography, cite a related deal the bank has worked on, and explain how that ties into their long-term plans.
Your Story is not a recitation of your resume; it’s a narrative that relates your experience to this role, and this role to your future.
It highlights your most relevant skills and experience, and it answers the main objections that interviewers will have:
- Can you work long hours?
- Can you talk to humans?
- Did you suddenly “get interested” in finance, or have you made a long-term commitment to the field?
- Do you know about finance even though you majored in Sexuality Studies or Astronomy?
The Structure, the Word Count, and the Objectives
We used to recommend a 5-point structure for your Story, but a 4-point structure is better because it encourages brevity.
Here are the 4 points:
- The Beginning – A quick sentence or two about your background, such as where you grew up or your university or business school.
- Finance “Spark” – The specific person, event, or experience that made you interested in finance or investment banking.
- Growing Interest – How you gained relevant skills and work experience over time that prepare you for this job.
- Why You’re Here Today and Your Future – Why this firm and group fit your long-term plans perfectly.
You don’t have to follow this structure 100%.
It works well for undergrads and recent grads, but you may have trouble with your “Spark” if you’ve already had significant work experience.
So, you could make your “Spark” more of a gradual change over time if it’s not feasible to come up with a specific person, event, or experience.
Point 1: The Beginning
This part is most important for undergrads and recent grads because you have nothing else to set yourself apart.
It’s your chance to say something memorable that the interviewer hasn’t heard 67,232 times.
An “OK” Beginning might be:
“I’m from China originally, but I went to high school in the U.S. and attended Georgetown, where I majored in Math and Economics and joined the Student Investment Fund.” [Word Count: 29]
But it’s boring because there are tons of international students from China, and the school, major, and activities are all standard.
It’s better to cite more unusual activities, sports, or experiences if you can do so:
“I’m from China originally, but I went to high school in the U.S. and attended Georgetown, where I majored in Math and Economics and studied abroad in Bhutan to research culture and politics.” [Word Count: 33]
If you have full-time work experience, don’t kill yourself coming up with a unique angle.
A Beginning like the following is fine if you’ve worked in banking and you’re moving into a new group:
“I grew up outside Chicago, went to Northwestern for undergrad, and majored in Economics and Finance. I did a summer internship in equity capital markets at JP Morgan, and then came back full-time after graduation.” [Word Count: 35]
Point 2: Finance “Spark”
Have you noticed that many action movies start with an explosion?
They do that to grab your attention and set the story in motion.
You can copy this strategy and use your Spark to grab the interviewer’s attention and set your Story in motion.
Specificity is the key to a great Spark.
Here is an example of an “OK” Spark:
“I first got interested in finance when I interned at a consulting group and researched and analyzed clients’ financial statements. I spoke with an MD at an investment bank, Woodstone Partners, and he made me very interested in the industry.” [Word Count: 40]
This Spark is generic; many people work in consulting and analyze financial statements.
But we could add 6 full words to make it better:
“I first got interested in finance when I interned at a non-profit consulting group and analyzed the financial statements of two clients that wanted to merge. I spoke with an MD at an investment bank, Woodstone Partners, and he made me very interested in the industry.” [Word Count: 46]
You could also come up with a retroactive Spark by going back to a textbook in an accounting or finance class, pointing to an example there, and then saying that your class discussion of that example made you interested in the industry.
If you are not an undergrad or recent grad, your Spark can be more low-key:
“I’ve enjoyed my time in ECM, but at the same time, I’ve also gotten interested in working on more complex and varied deals. Since M&A deals tend to be more strategic, they’re often more interesting and challenging to work on. One example is the follow-on offering I worked on for Warbucks, where the company issued shares as part of its plan to consolidate the industry with acquisitions.” [Word Count: 67]
Point 3: Growing Interest
The third part of your Story doesn’t just explain “how your interest grew,” but also how you gained the specific skills that are required for the job.
You should explain what you liked about each experience, but also what you wanted to change.
The part you liked should be a skill required for IB, and the part you wanted to change should be another required skill.
Limit yourself to 3 experiences, and group entries together to streamline your pitch.
Many students complete on-campus jobs or activities, become interested in finance, and then become interested in IB.
You could use this walk-through for that path:
Point 1: “I started out with a few on-campus jobs tutoring younger students in math and accounting, which I enjoyed, but I wanted to gain more real-world experience…”
Point 2: “…so I went to [Local Company Name] and did marketing there for the summer. I did well, liked the business, and helped them generate 20% more leads over two months, but I also wanted to do something that was more quantitative and closer to finance…”
Point 3: “…so the next summer I did private wealth management at [Bank Name], analyzed clients’ portfolios, and made investment recommendations. I enjoyed the analysis a lot more, but I also wanted to work with larger-scale clients…”
[Total Word Count: 106]
In each point, this person cites a skill required for IB – math/accounting, working with clients, and investment analysis – but also what she wanted to change in each case – real-world exposure, quantitative skills, and bigger clients.
And she does this without introducing negativity.
Many Stories have sentences such as: “There was no room for me to advance, so I left.”
That point would play much better as: “I liked working with my team, but I wanted more formal mentoring and advancement opportunities.”
Point 4: Why You’re Here Today and Your Future
A long time ago, you could get away with saying that you weren’t sure of your long-term plans.
But it is not a good idea to express that much uncertainty today.
Even if you intend to hop into private equity ASAP, you should pretend you’re committed to IB regardless of your level (Intern, Analyst, Lateral Hire, Associate, etc.).
The template for this last point is as follows:
“In the long-term, I want to do [FUTURE GOALS], and I see [FIRM/GROUP NAME] as the best way to get there because of [DEALS, CLIENTS, OPPORTUNITIES, ETC.].”
Two examples of this point might be:
Example 1: “So I’m here today because I want to combine my telecom background with finance, and eventually become an adviser to companies in the industry. Your group has a great reputation for that, with deals such as [Name a Deal], so joining your firm is the best way for me to get there.” [Word Count: 52]
Example 2: “I’m here today because I want to leverage my wealth management experience and advise larger-scale clients on M&A deals, going back to the [Deal Name] deal that first interested me. Your group is strong in [Geography / Industry], which I follow, and so joining your team is the best way for me to work on those types of deals.” [Word Count: 59]
Yes, you need to know something about the bank or group before you interview there, such as the types of deals they work on.
But I don’t think that’s a shocking revelation.
What to Avoid in Your Story
First, do NOT spend too much time on the Beginning: Do not explain your family history, why you picked all your classes, why you took a medical leave in your second year, etc.
Second, avoid excessive “plot twists.” Don’t say that you went from being a novelist to a lawyer to a hockey player to a male escort to a banker – simplify it!
Third, don’t forget to give a reason for each transition and move in rough chronological order.
If you’re jumping forward and backward, you need to group together and simplify your experiences.
For example, if you interned at a boutique investment bank, then did a PE internship, and now you want to work at a large bank, the interviewer will trip you up if you try to use strict chronological order:
- “So… why, exactly, would anyone ever want to leave PE and go back to banking?”
- “If you liked banking so much, why did you move to another industry afterward?”
- “How do I know you won’t just move back into PE a few months after you start here?”
Group together the first two internships and say, “I did private equity and boutique investment banking internships, liked working on deals, and want to focus on [Industry/Geography/Deal Type X], which your group specializes in.”
Finally, do not include information that doesn’t help your case.
Students love to go on tangents and “explain” 2-week internships at the local library, prizes from high school activities, and all 12,731 of their activities.
Mentioning all that information to the interviewer is like telling someone that you have herpes on a first date: It ensures that there will be no second date.
Take Me to the Templates, Please
Templates are nice, but you also need to know how to apply them to real-life situations.
For each resume walk-through template in our Interview Guide, you get:
- The key differences when telling your Story from this background (e.g., Law, Big 4, Engineering, Consulting, Corporate Finance, etc.).
- A 150-word outline.
- A 300-word template.
- Executed examples of the outline and template with company and school names and other details included.
Here’s one template for an Engineer or Technical Major who’s moving into investment banking at the Analyst level:
And here’s another one for an experienced professional who’s moving into investment banking from a Big 4/Accounting background:
These templates have many similarities:
- Objections: From either background, key objections will include: “Can you work long hours?” and “Can you talk to people / Are you boring?” We address these objections in the walk-throughs.
- Previous Experience: You probably won’t be able to move from an engineering or accounting role directly into investment banking. You’ll almost always need finance-related experience in between, whether it’s an off-cycle or pre-MBA internship, a stint in the TAS team, or a business development role.
- Specificity: The engineer ties his background to the firm he’s interviewing with (Qatalyst), while the accountant links the firm’s deals to the M&A transaction that originally made him interested in banking.
If you want examples of how to tell your Story for buy-side roles, please see our previous article on that topic.
What’s Your Story?
Your Story is like an undervalued stock: The rest of the market doesn’t put in the required time or effort, so they consistently miss or misunderstand it.
But if you do put in the time and effort, you can realize outsized gains.
Whether you’re preparing for interviews at the last minute or months in advance, you must perfect your Story as the first step in the process.
Get that wrong, and the interview will be over after ~2 minutes as the banker loses interest and writes you off.
Get it right, and the rest of the interview will be smooth sailing.
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