How to Get Into Investment Banking from an Unknown State School with No Finance Background: Case Study
Continuing my efforts to eliminate the “All your advice only applies to people who went to Harvard and have 4.0 GPAs!” comments, today I’ve created a case study of one reader – and previous resume customer – who got into investment banking despite coming from an unknown school with a minimal finance background.
I can’t give names of schools, banks, or people – but everything you’re about to read is both true and immediately actionable.
Q: Ok, so how did you get into this industry in the first place? I mean, people from Ivy League schools with top grades are struggling to get into banking in this environment, and bulge bracket analysts are struggling to get PE opportunities. What’s your magic bullet?
A: I got interested my freshman year, but I had no finance background and I was at an unknown state school where hardly anyone went into the industry. We had no on-campus recruiting.
My first step was getting an accounting internship following my freshman year – but I told the MDs there that I was actually interested in investment banking, and they got me referrals to local boutiques and merchant banks in the area.
I saw a few ads for merchant banks on my school’s website, but rather than applying online, I decided to call them directly and tell them I was interested. After I spoke with someone live, I submitted my resume and then called the next day to follow-up and make sure they had received it.
Then I got into a pattern where I would spend most of Saturday researching boutiques and local firms online, look at transactions they had done, and then cold-call them on Monday and Tuesday of each week. I’d try to email at least 5 banks per day.
I just kept calling until I got a response – sometimes it took many, many tries to get through.
I eventually landed an offer at a local bank from my sophomore to junior year – then I went through recruiting this past fall, got an offer at a well-known boutique, had it rescinded due to the economy, and then finally got another full-time offer recently.
Comments: Notice how he started calling banks rather than just applying online – remember, no one reads applications submitted online. Also pay attention to how he got into a regular schedule for his networking efforts, and how he kept at it every day until he got responses. Too many people either wait until the last minute, or don’t try at all to begin with.
Q: Wow, sounds like quite the journey. Coming from that kind of background, you must have faced a lot of “objections” in your recruiting efforts. What were the top reasons bankers said “no” to you and how did you overcome them?
A: They had a lot of concerns, but I’d say there were 3 main “objections”:
- “You’re from a no-name school – why should I hire you over the guy from Princeton or Wharton?”
- “You have a pretty good (3.8) GPA – but what does that mean coming from your school? That’s equivalent to a 2.0 at an Ivy League school, right?”
- “Why didn’t you go to a better school? You seem like a smart guy, I’m sure you could have at least gotten into a better-known state school.”
To overcome objection #1, I pointed out that it’s the person who does the work – not the school. There are plenty of people from top schools who are privileged and unmotivated, but they knew I was hungry and eager to get in.
To answer questions about my GPA, I pointed out that I was also working 30 hours per week and paying for rent and my tuition – so I was actually working way harder than many other students and still getting good grades.
For objection #3, I said that I couldn’t afford a “good” school – I didn’t come from a privileged background and I had to finance my education by myself, so I just went to the best place I could given my budget constraints.
Comments: These are great ways to overcome the resistance he faced. Whenever you get questioned about your credentials, you should always point to what you’ve accomplished rather than the prestige (or lack thereof) of the names on your resume.
Q: Ok, but how well did that story resonate with everyone? Some people in finance are not so receptive if you don’t come from the “standard” background.
A: Most people accepted the story. I did run into a few people with Ivy League undergrad / MBA backgrounds who couldn’t understand the concept of coming from a family that couldn’t afford $50,000/year tuition, but most people “got it.”
Comments: Sometimes you’ll run into people who just say “no” no matter what you do – if that happens, you need to move on and not try to win them over, because your time is better spent elsewhere. There are lots of people who are willing to listen to your story.
Q: You must have found a high percentage of “nice” bankers, that’s pretty amazing.
How did you actually approach firms differently from how someone at a top school would?
A: I was a lot more persistent, for one. I never stopped at just speaking to HR or to an administrative person – I’d always try to speak with at least an Associate or VP, and if they didn’t call me back, I would call back 2 days later to get someone else on the phone.
I made sure every phone call resulted in either speaking with someone real, or getting a real banker’s name and email address.
Comments: This is a great point – if you’re not collecting names, email addresses, and phone numbers when you’re cold-calling places, you’re wasting your time.
Q: What was your response rate when you were contacting these firms?
A: It started out at almost nothing, and I wasn’t sure why since I felt my approach and cold-calling skills were fairly solid.
I thought the problem might be my resume, so I had you edit it for me and then my response rate jumped a lot higher – by the end I was getting responses from around 50-75% of banks after I had a stronger resume.
Comments: [Insert subtle message right here that blatantly sells my resume editing service, before the price goes up again on July 1.]
Q: No problem, I can’t take all the credit for that one though.
One point that a lot of readers struggle with is getting contact information in the first place – how did you do that? When you cold-call, sometimes they’re very reluctant to give you anyone’s contact information or put you in touch with bankers.
A: If I couldn’t find it on the website, I would call the secretary to ask about it and say, “Who can I speak to regarding recruiting / employment here?”
Sometimes they would transfer me, and sometimes they wouldn’t – one “trick” I learned is that when I got transferred to voicemail, I would immediately hang up, call back, say I got disconnected, and then just ask for the real contact information.
They were more likely to give me real contact information (the actual first and last name, spelled out, of the person in charge of recruiting) on my second try – since I said “I got disconnected,” they assumed it was a problem on their end.
The other reason I did this was to ask for the secretary’s email address – once I learned what the company’s email format was, I then applied it using the recruiter’s first name and last name she just gave me.
I also got some referrals from the alumni database, though there wasn’t a lot there – in those cases, I just emailed the alumni first and made sure to point out where I found them.
Sometimes I also just did simple Google searches – “@ubs.com,” for example, would give me contact information for anyone there who put their address online.
Yet another method: I looked through old job postings on Doostang and Monstertrak, and wrote down names of firms I wasn’t familiar with.
On Doostang, I looked through users’ profiles to find firm names as well – this gave me names that weren’t listed in any boutique database online.
Comments: I love his trick for getting real contact information by claiming he got disconnected the first time – you should learn this and apply it to every cold-call you make.
Online searches tend to be hit-or-miss, but it’s worth a shot if you have the time – just make sure that you’re not spending all your time looking for email addresses online, since calling is almost always a better option.
Q: Ok, so when you were emailing these people you came from a relatively unknown school without much finance experience – only that 1 accounting internship. Did you do anything to make yourself stand out or get their attention more effectively?
A: In my initial emails, I tried to make myself sound more experienced than I actually was. I would position myself as having been in the market before, and that I wasn’t just an undergrad looking to break in.
I would always write something like, “I’ve worked at XYZ and XYZ firms before in XYZ industry, and I’m interested in learning more about opportunities at your firm” to avoid sounding like too much of a student.
Comments: This is a really good approach since he was coming from an unknown school. If he had gone to a top school, it would be good to point that out (“I’m currently a junior at Wharton and have worked at XYZ firms before…”) but when you don’t have an impressive name, it’s better to leave it out.
Q: One of my most common questions is, “How do I follow-up? How often do I send emails to check in with people I’ve already spoken with?”
I usually say, “Don’t email or call them every week, but make sure you’re staying on their radar,” but that’s more applicable if you’re developing long-term relationships.
Did you do anything differently to follow-up since you were focused on cold-calling local and smaller firms?
A: After I emailed a firm with my resume, I would wait 2 days to follow-up with a call. Then I’d wait a few more days and email them, then call again, and then if there was still no response I would email them to suggest a date and time for a call.
If I still didn’t get a response after 4 separate follow-ups within the span of a week, I would wait 1.5 – 2 weeks and then try again with a series of follow-up calls and emails within a week.
Some banks didn’t respond at all, and some did – there wasn’t much of a pattern to it, and it was more of a numbers game than anything else.
Comments: This is pretty aggressive follow-up, but it worked well for him since he was calling and emailing specifically for internships. I would not be so aggressive if these were just informational interviews, as it might freak out the people involved.
Q: You were pretty successful in your recruiting – is there anything you would have done differently, looking back on it now?
A: I would have started earlier, for one. It’s never too early to get started – even if you don’t know 100% whether or not you want to do banking, it always helps to start building relationships early.
Outside recruiting, I would have focused more on “fit” questions rather than spending all my time studying the technical ones.
You’re more likely to get tons of technical questions if you’ve had a previous banking internship. I found myself well-prepared on the technical side, but stumbling when it came to basic “fit” questions like “Tell me your strengths and weaknesses.”
Also, lower your expectations. If you expect everyone to say “no,” or you expect the worst in interviews, then anything better than that is a success.
Comments: Everyone always seems to have a different story when it comes to “fit” vs. technical questions – but I agree with him that lots of technical questions are more likely if you’ve had previous banking experience.
Q: Sounds good. Any parting advice for students still looking for internships or jobs, or for anyone out of work right now looking?
A: Keep at it. If you don’t get something right now, don’t give up until you have something lined up – a friend of mine was about to graduate with nothing lined up, but then he went around and started offering to work for free.
That allowed him to be way more competitive – and he got several unpaid opportunities, which could turn into paid options later on.
Also, look at my own story – I had my offer rescinded after I got it, then went around and continued to recruit until I found something else this spring… you just never know, and giving up too soon is a huge mistake especially when you’re dealing with small firms that recruit year-round.
Comments: Well-said – there’s no substitute for persistence. Offering to work for free can be a good idea, but mostly if you’re an undergraduate – it doesn’t work so well for MBAs or anyone with more experience.
More Success Stories
Have a success story of getting into finance against all odds? Want to share it anonymously? Email me the details and I’ll send you something cool in exchange (no promises on exactly what this cool gift will be…).
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