Investment Banking Competitions: The Best Way to Make Up for Average Grades and No Work Experience?

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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.)

Investment Banking Case Competitions

So you’re not feeling very confident about your chances of breaking into finance…

  • You’ve earned decent, but not spectacular grades.
  • You’ve done a few internships but you don’t have any bulge bracket names on your resume / CV.
  • It’s too late to win a major leadership position or to complete another internship, right?

So what do you do? Open your own personal trading account and demonstrate your interest like that?

Camp out outside an MD’s house and hope that he doesn’t notice you as you hide in the bushes?

No.

You participate in company-sponsored competitions and complete case studies, essays, and possibly even trading challenges or group activities.

And you use them to demonstrate your interest, network extensively, and make up for your lack of “real” work experience or solid brand names on your resume.

Just one small problem: you have to participate the right way, or you might as well not do it in the first place.

Here’s why these competitions can be so helpful, when they’re not helpful, the different types you can participate in, and how to come in 1st place each time… or at least make them remember you.

Why Competitions?

First off, note that these competitions are most helpful when you’re an undergraduate or recent graduate; past that they don’t matter as much, and at the MBA-level banks will care a lot more about your work experience and where you went to school.

But if you’re earlier in your career, there are many reasons to participate.

First, they’ll help you stand out in interviews and will make your resume more attractive.

In fact, you can and should turn these competitions into “Work & Leadership Experience” entries because doing that lets you add a bank’s brand name to your resume/CV in a prominent position (yes, there’s even a guide on how to do that right here).

Everyone has generic student group-type activities and boring internships, but few people can describe a competition and how they approached it in a unique way. It’s the perfect way to wake up sleep-deprived analysts as they interview you and doze off in the middle.

Plus, it’s always good to stroke the egos of HR and show off how long you’ve been interested in their bank (assuming, of course, that you’re applying to the same bank that hosted the competition).

Sometimes recruiters even attend the events and you’ll get improved access to them – especially if you’re at a non-target school and would otherwise get very little attention from banks. You might even be able to win an internship out of it, or at least a spring week (huge in the UK for winning banking offers).

During the competitions themselves, you’ll have to work in teams and meet lots of other people… in other words, networking opportunities abound.

Not only can you meet bankers, get their cards, and stay in touch, but you’ll get practice becoming more socially savvy and outgoing for real interviews.

Assessment Center Training… and More?

These competitions are also perfect training for assessment centers, which are common in Europe and other parts of the world outside of North America.

You’ll get a mix of interviews, along with team or individual “games,” case studies, presentations, and so on. And if you can place well in a competition, assessment centers will be a breeze.

Also note that even in North America, case studies are becoming increasingly common, even in entry-level interviews. Maybe you won’t do a group exercise, but you may absolutely be asked to value a company or analyze a situation and recommend a course of action.

Competitions can also be a great way to get international experience because the final stages are often held at the firm’s headquarters… which, in Europe, may be another country altogether for you. Not a bad way to get a vacation and a good story out of it as well!

Oh yeah, and even if you don’t do well in the competition, you can always “spin it” around and use it as your “failure” or “overcoming a challenge” story in interviews.

And if you did slightly better, you can use competition examples to demonstrate your leadership skills.

What Types of Competitions Are There?

Competitions are a great way for a firm to recruit new talent and improve their brand image. There are tons of different events out there, and you have to pick the right ones to maximize your ROI.

Winning 3 trading competitions would look good on your resume, but if you’re trying to break into investment banking it’s not the most relevant experience you can have.

Here are the major categories of competitions you can enter:

Trading Competitions

This is the most common event. The rules are simple: the company provides you with a mock trading account and your goal is to get the maximum possible return with a portfolio of your choosing.

Sometimes it might be based on equity trading; other times it might be FX or commodities.

If hundreds or thousands of people enter the competition, the winner almost always achieves something like a 200% return for 30 days of trading – so it’s hard to finish in the top 10.

That’s why if you are interested in trading, you have to get involved in every challenge you can find – even if trading gold or Colombian pesos isn’t your specialty.

Obviously these competitions are the best if you want to go into sales & trading, asset management, or related public markets roles… but they’re also great if you’re a non-finance major and you want to demonstrate your interest in the field.

Make sure you document your strategy in detail. That is the key mistake people make – they enter a competition, they might do somewhat well, but then when it comes to interviews they forget all the details of what they did.

And in S&T interviews, there is a 99.9% chance they will ask about it if you’ve listed it on your resume.

Be able to explain the following points:

  1. What, specifically, your strategy consisted of.
  2. 3 reasons why it worked, backed up by qualitative and quantitative metrics.
  3. The potential upside you estimated from it, and then what you achieved.
  4. The potential risks and how you could hedge / actually hedged against them.

The Case Study

Yes, it’s time to make fun of consultants once again.

No, not really: these “case studies” are very different from the typical consulting / market sizing ones.

Normally at finance firms these case studies will focus on questions like:

  • How do you value this firm / how much is it worth?
  • Should they pursue an acquisition, expand organically, or try to sell to a bigger company?
  • Should they raise debt, equity, or sell off assets to finance an expansion effort?

I don’t have enough space here to go into case studies without turning this into a 10,000 word article, but you can click here for a guide to how to approach case studies in interviews.

Note that there are some differences between what’s in that guide and how I recommend approaching case studies in competitions, which I’ll get into in the next section here.

Essays

Essays get a bad reputation because they are considered “boring.”

Don’t be so quick to judge, though, because ranking well in an essay competition about ethics in finance or a related subjected is a good addition to your resume.

This event can be solo or team-based and you usually have significant time (several weeks to months) to complete your essay.

This is a great event for any type of finance position because it improves your written communication skills. So be sure to enter essay events even if the subject isn’t clearly finance-related.

Many people think that finance is all about numbers, but you will be writing a lot, at least in IB and PE, so you better get used to it.

Others?

I’ve described above the “classic” events, but some banks are imaginative and do slightly different things.

BNP, for example, has a mixed event with Investment Banking Cases and Trading Competitions.

You may also encounter debate challenges, which I highly recommend to everyone – or interview challenges where you are given a random resume and you have to “sell” it to the recruiters.

The possibilities are endless, but remember that no competition will ever set you back in the recruiting process!

How Do You Win a Company Competition?

“Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

– Woody Allen

Most people fail to take advantage of these competitions simply because they do not apply to them.

This may seem ridiculous, but remember one of the themes of this site: never overestimate the competition. No matter how good people seem “on paper,” no one is perfect… and many people give up without even trying.

Usually when an email about a competition circulates, the attitude is: “Well, everyone else will apply / I don’t have time / I have no chance of winning” – which kills your chances before you even get started.

Take a Crazy Bet and Do Something Risky

Let’s say you have two options at work:

  • Option A: You can rank 5th 100% of the time.
  • Option B: You can rank 1st 10% of the time and 100th 90% of the time.

In your daily job, you would always go with Option A because you are risk-averse and being the best just 10% of the time isn’t worth it.

If you’re at a bank-sponsored competition, on the other hand, you have to go for Option B.

No one ever wins these competitions just by being “above average” or by having nicely formatted PowerPoint slides that explain their view point coherently.

They win by making original choices to stand out and get noticed by the jury.

So if it’s a trading challenge, bet hard on the underdog; in a case study or an essay defend a wild position.

If it seems reasonable that the company you’re analyzing should raise debt to pay for an acquisition, you can bet that everyone else will say the same thing.

So take a more “creative” position and argue for an asset sale, an unconventional type of financing, or something else that will get them to remember you.

Now, you still have to back up your choice with logical reasons… you can’t just be different for the sake of being different.

But decisions like this are rarely 100% straightforward, and as long as you don’t recommend something that’s clearly a bad idea (e.g. liquidating and selling off all assets just to “reward” shareholders) then you’ll come out ahead.

What Next?

The next time you get an email about bank competitions or case studies, answer it and enroll right away.

Don’t obsess over researching it and coming up with ideas beforehand, but do spend some time looking into it and see how people have approached it in the past.

Then when the competition actually arrives, win by being as different as possible and coming up with unique solutions that no one else will have.

Even if you don’t win the competition, you’ll get a great story out of it that you can use and re-use in interviews – and there’s always another competition around the corner that you can win.

Leave a comment below and let us know how it goes when that day comes.

[Edit]: I found one competition that you could be interested in. It’s a financial modeling challenge that starts in October 2012 with cash prizes and interviews to win (plus an improved resume). The first two rounds will take place online so everyone can participate. Go to the Modeloff website for subscribing!

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 from five continents on their networking techniques, 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 on corporate finance and related industries topics 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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55 Comments to “Investment Banking Competitions: The Best Way to Make Up for Average Grades and No Work Experience?”

Comments

    • says

      Hi Mohamed,

      Most of them are advertised through your school network. If you are not in school anymore (or if you want to find more), go to the website of Banks/Consulting groups and head to the recruiting or the event page.
      Nicolas

  1. Dan says

    I’ve done some searches on Google, but I’ve only found banks sponsoring the IB competitions for certain target schools. Is there a way to compete in one of these competitions, if you do not attend the school they are sponsoring it with?

    Also, if we cannot compete, what would you suggest we do outside of case competitions?

    Thanks!

    • says

      Hi Dan,

      Most of the time competitions are open to a school network (usually targets that’s true). If you don’t belong to this network you can try to send an email, say you have a very motivated team and you’d like to participate.

      If they say no you can still look for essays competitions which are usually more open or trading competitions. One of my favorite is BNP Ace competition because it’s a mix of Invesment Banking/Trading/Corporate Finance and you can join with a team from all around the world.

      Hope that helps,
      Nicolas

  2. Lester Davids says

    Wow, i must say i am pleasantly surprised at this post.

    I am a qualified Internal Auditor with a passion for the markets. 3 years ago at the age of 24 I won a national competition via our biggest Sunday newspaper. I achieved a return of 33.2% over 3 months.

    How do you think employers will view this? I am from South Africa.

    • says

      It can’t hurt you and should only help as long as you can describe what you did in detail. In South Africa I believe certifications and degrees are more important but every bit helps.

  3. KL says

    How beneficial would this be for someone who has experience in back office, but is considering going to a semi-target masters program, hoping to enter equity research or S&T?

    • says

      It might help a bit but probably not as much as for someone who wanted to do IB… but always worth entering if you can find them. The Master’s program will help more of course but this is good to have in addition to the BO work experience.

      • says

        Like Brian said the master’s is going to help more. This is not meant to be your big experience like working for a huge bank or going to a target school. It’s going to give more character to your resume and good stories to talk about (or land you an internship/job directly if the firms like you).

        • KL says

          Granted, my undergraduate degree in Economics, as well as my GPA, are not ideal for the IB environment. Do you know when it would be too “late” to go for masters programs and participate in these competitions?

          • says

            Well, it’s rarely too late. But Masters (and competitions to a lesser extent) have a greater impact when you are fresh out of school. If you’re thinking about changing careers, the sooner the better. Too late would be after 10 years of BO. In that case, I’d say M.B.A. or heavy networking.

  4. AP says

    Hi,

    Do you have more specifics (online links, dates etc) about these type of competitions. Which banks hold the competitions and what are the prerequisites?

    • says

      Hi AP,

      Like I said previously, I highly recommend BNP Paribas Ace competition because it’s about different fields in finance and it’s open to anyone. Other than that I can’t recommend anything specific since most of the competitions are local. If you find anything though please share in the comments (i’ll do a little research myself).

      Nicolas

  5. John says

    During undergrad, I participated in an IB competition involving an M&A case study. We didn’t win, but managed to make it to the final 2-3 teams at the school.

    What I found MOST IMPORTANT was that it provided something to talk about during interviews. They are very interested in seeing how you worked as a team, worked under pressure with a tight deadline, etc. All skills which are highly relevant to the job. The case study itself was an M&A deal, so there was the additional benefit of a tie-in to valuation methods, analyzing a deal, etc. Though I think the consulting competitions would be good.

    As someone who had average grades and not much by way of extra-curricular achievements, this was really helpful and eventually got me an analyst position at a BB.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  6. couchy says

    what if you lose the competition? Should you still write it down on your resume?

    Say I have 1 relevant finance internship at a boutique – would putting down a competition that I lost help me at all? Because then I’m basically saying there are much more qualified people out there.

    • Darren says

      Just because you ‘lost’ doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write it down.

      It still shows your interest in finance and gives you something relevant to talk about in interviews.

      For what its worth, I took part in a UBS IB M&A challenge and even though I didn’t make it to the finals, I listed it on my CV – it still led to follow-up questions by interviewers.

    • says

      Yes, you should still list it even if you “lost”… because most people lose. As Darren said above, it still shows your interest and gives you solid talking points.

      Listing a competition would still help even if you have 1 relevant finance internship.

      If you had, say, 3-4 relevant internships and/or lots of FT work experience it would not help as much.

  7. Raina says

    How do you find these competitions? After reading this post, I went to the bank websites and wasn’t sure how to find them. Would love to participate and think this post put forth a wonderful idea that I’d love to take advantage of. Where to go next? Please help! Thank you!

    • says

      Nicolas is looking into that and may come back here with more comments – but my understanding is that it’s actually better to go through school clubs and schools themselves, because they’re the ones that find out about these types of competitions. So I would contact the local finance / investment club and see if they can refer you to upcoming competitions.

  8. says

    Here’s the link to the BNP ACE manager competition: http://acemanager.bnpparibas.com/
    Registration opens on October 15th and you can land internships/jobs

    It’s the only competition I found that is global.

    I also found local competitions:
    BCG in Copenhagen
    http://www.casecompetition.com/partners/boston-consulting-group
    Deloitte competition (already happened)
    http://blogs.mccombs.utexas.edu/bba-news/2012/02/22/deloitte-consulting-undergraduate-case-competition/

    You’ll find most of the competitions through your school network though.

  9. Damien says

    Back in 2010, I came in 2nd in the National Citigroup Foreign Exchange challenge in Singapore. The challenge is basically a S&T challenge whereby I take on the role of a market maker and taker.

    I was 17 then, do you think that coupled with my young age, it is a great edge to break into the buy-side after undergrad?

    If i am not wrong, the strategy which I used then was mainly(60-70%)a trend following strategy and the rest is arbitrage between the various curreny pair.

    • says

      Hi Damien,

      I think the word “great edge” would be a bit exaggerated. It’s definitely a nice thing to have on your resume though. Be sure to document your strategy for interviews. It’s a story that could be interesting for HF and S&T mostly!

      Nicolas

  10. Shivam says

    Hi Brian,
    First of all thanks a ton for writing so much about banking and giving us the insight about the investment banking world. I have a small specific question for you……i m final level student of the Chartered Accountancy certification provided by Institute of Chartered Accountants of India. Also i m a graduate in commerce but no MBA. I have done 3.5years of training/internship which is a part of our curriculum. Right now i m working with a CA Firm (CPA) bt i have a keen interest in PE……bt i m finding it very difficult to see any opportunity for me in the banking world. i would like o know whether i should start as an analyst if i somehow manage to get an opportunity or is there any other way round. Also i would like to know about your view on prospects in IB/PE for a chartered Accountant.

    • says

      Hi Shivam,

      My 2 cents about this since I know a lot of CPA because I work in Corporate Finance… Bankers are not huge fans of CPAs and breaking in IB/PE directly is going to be next to impossible (except if you joined a top MBA/firm). The best way for you would be to join a big 4 in audit and then to make the switch to transaction services internally. After that you’ll be better positioned for PE gigs. It’s not going to be easy but if that’s really what you want to do, go for it!

      Good luck,
      Nicolas

      • Shivam says

        Thanks for the advice Nicolas…..Also firstly i would like to know if some trading experience will be handy for IB or should i keep myself away from that. Secondly what should i learn or look upto beyond finacial modelling (thanks to your tutorials on this site) for IB. And thirdly isnit really feasible to try for a switch from taxation or audit in the Big 4′s to Transaction advisory (TAS)with a hope of making it to a Bulge Bracket Firm/Bank from there.

        • says

          1) Trading and IB have very little in common. It can show some interest for finance in general but it’s not going to get you far.
          2)If you master everything in the Interview guide + modeling course (the one in Breaking Into Wall Street) you’ll be in the top 0.01% of people who interview for IB without previous IB experience
          3)Yes it’s possible. Not easy but possible. That’s what I was saying in my previous post (Big 4 Audit to Big 4 TAS to IB/PE)

          • Shivam says

            Thanks again for your reply Nicolas……well the previous IB experience you talked about in the reply……..are they the people who work as analyst after their MBA or Graduation????

  11. Zhong says

    Great article Nicolas! I never really noticed the huge impact of just being different could have – it really gives an almost unfair edge. It makes so much sense; the judges don’t really want the most reasonable well researched position – they want something that stands out while being well-defended.

    • says

      Thanks a lot Zhong. And it’s a very core point you’re raising.

      Yes, be different! Even if your ideas are classics, pitch them to the jury in a way that’s unique (pretend to be in a tv show debate…)

  12. Stan says

    Ive been following this newsletter for a few months now and it ha made me realize that I would like to pursue a career in finance..I am currently at a sophomore at a junior college and planning to transfer to Berkeley. Do you think this is a good school for recruitment? Also, do you have any tips as to what I should be doing now to prepare myself and better my chances of landing a good internship at an IB? Thanks

    • says

      Hi Stan,

      I won’t advise you on schools since i’m based in Europe. When it comes to preparing for IB internship recruitment, read the banker blueprint that you can access for free on this website. It’s full of good networking tips! If you want to take it to the next level I’d suggest the IB interview guide + heavy reading of the website so you get a better understanding of what IB is about and how to position yourself.

      Nicolas

    • says

      Berkeley is a target school for banks, so yes, it’s a good school for recruitment. But I believe there may be a difference between the business school there vs. everything else (someone else may be able to confirm / deny that).

  13. Vincent Chase says

    Hi guys,

    Do you have any advice on how I can improve my communication skills? I sometimes get told that while I have good analytical skills, I need to improve my communication skills. Any advice would be appreciated.

    Cheers

    • says

      Hi Vincent,

      Your best bet is to find someone who is willing to help/mentor you and has a reputation for good communication skills. Then prepare some pitches and present them to your “mentor”. Get some feedback, then do it again until you get it. It should improve your overall confidence/communication skills.

      You can also read books about the subject like “Pitch Anything” if you struggle with pitches or “how to work a room” if you find it hard to come across well during interviews.

      I hope this helps,
      Nicolas

  14. says

    Shivam I couldn’t reply on your comment so i’m replying here.
    I meant that with the modeling courses and the interview guide you’ll be ahead of everyone that learned finance at school (even in MBA…definitely in MBA)!

  15. Evan says

    Hey guys,

    I’m a senior Finance major with the opportunity to participate in the CFA Institute’s Global Investment Research Challenge. Will this look good on my resume or is it not helpful because it isn’t sponsored by a bank?

    Thanks,

    Evan

    • says

      Hi Evan,

      Do it. If you win it’ll look very good on your resume (even if it’s not sponsored). If you have a decent ranking it’ll look ok. And if you lose it’ll be a good story for interviews!

      It’s a impossible to go home empty handed and that’s the beauty of those competitions.

      Nicolas

  16. says

    I found one competition that you could be interested in. It’s a financial modeling challenge that starts in October 2012 with cash prizes and interviews to win (plus an improved resume). The first two rounds will take place online so everyone can participate. Go to the ModelOff (www.modeloff.com) website for subscribing!

  17. KKKK says

    Hi do you recommend putting a big name case comp experience on the resume to another big name? I just won the GS case comp in my school, could I put it on the resume to MS/DB/JPM/CS? What about some mid-market like Jeffries/Greenhill/Lazard?

    Thanks!

  18. BBG says

    Hi Brian, I had a few information interviews with bankers a few weeks ago. I just wonder if it is ok for me to send a happy thanksgiving email to them just so they won’t forget me.

    Thanks

  19. Varuna says

    Where can i find competitions like essay writing or Case studies?Since i am based out of India, online competitions might help

  20. Alex says

    Hii,

    You are always talking about make the story reasonable and logical. Do you think it’s a bit weird to say that how parents invested in stock market influenced me and stimulated my interest in finance?

    Thanks!

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