How to Break Out of “Harold & Kumar” Mode and Use Investment Banking Information Sessions to Break Into the Industry
“Uh, this is actually a two-part question. I’m applying for a summer internship at Brewster Keegan, and I was wondering:
a) what it’s like being an investment banker and
b) if you would write me a recommendation.”
-Kenneth, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
If you’ve been to any investment banking information sessions lately, you might be reminded of that scene in Harold & Kumar with all those Princeton kids crowded around Harold asking him “what it’s like being an investment banker” (oh, and for a recommendation too).
If the sessions are crowded with 10 students surrounding each banker, how do you make a good impression and use them effectively?
Ok, that’s an exaggeration.
Information sessions can be part of your strategy, but you should never rely on them. If you are in the position to use them, here’s how to do so without looking like Kenneth.
Why Most Information Sessions Resemble That Scene from Harold & Kumar
There are a few reasons why information sessions usually range from marginally helpful to completely useless:
- The obvious reasons – far too many students attend them, and it’s tough to get 1-on-1 time with any bankers.
- The barriers to entry are too low. Anything you can leverage that other people can’t gives you a big advantage when networking – but anyone can attend information sessions.
- There are many ways to screw up but very few ways to genuinely impress the bankers there (credit to Management Consulted for this point).
- Informational sessions occur late in the recruiting process, right before a resume drop – at that stage it’s hard to spend time developing new relationships, so you can’t gain much of an advantage.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t go to any sessions. It’s just that you shouldn’t focus on them – and you need to spend most of your time networking outside the sessions, even if those efforts start with contacts you made at the sessions.
But They Must Be Helpful for Someone, Right?
2 groups, in particular, have the most to gain from information sessions:
- “Early starters” – anyone in his or her 1st or 2nd year at the university level who still has time to develop relationships. This concept is less relevant at the MBA level.
- Anyone going to a “non-target school” – somewhere banks don’t recruit at – who attends sessions at a more heavily-recruited school.
The first point should be intuitive: of all the relevant factors when breaking into investment banking (networking, resumes, interview skills), developing substantial relationships through networking helps you the most – by far.
With more time, you can develop deeper relationships and gain a much bigger advantage in recruiting.
On the second point, keep in mind what we said above: anything you do that others don’t automatically gives you an advantage. It’s not common for students to attend information sessions at other schools – so you can stand out quite a bit by doing so.
If the session is focused exclusively on alumni, you may draw some negative reactions – but if it’s big enough, you can usually find at least a few bankers who are receptive to your cause.
Even if you’re not in one of these 2 groups, though, you should still consider attending at least a few information sessions.
What to Get Out of Them
This one’s easy: contacts. Sure, there are other ancillary benefits – such as finding out more about the industry, seeing if it’s right for you or not, and making a good impression on anyone involved in recruiting at your school.
Those are all fine, but with the possible exception of the last one there are other ways to accomplish each one.
The advantage of information sessions is that you get to meet dozens of bankers in the span of a few hours – it’s like speed dating for jobs.
Just like speed dating, you won’t develop real relationships with everyone you meet – but efficiency-wise it’s hard to beat information sessions.
Rules of Engagement
So you’re networking your way into investment banking and have decided that you’ll go to at least a few information sessions as part of your recruiting strategy. You’re contacting alumni and acquaintances on your own and making lots of other networking efforts outside the sessions, but you figure it can’t hurt to check them out, right?
Sure – but you need to make the most of your time.
Recall what we said above about the ease of screwing up compared to the difficulty of impressing bankers – most of the guidelines below are more about not making mistakes rather than being a star.
1. Don’t Be Kenneth from Harold & Kumar
Don’t ask stupid questions that can be easily answered elsewhere. Make your discussion personal and specific to the background of the person you’re speaking with – stay away from “Where is the industry heading?” or “How do you like being an investment banker?” type questions.
Better questions: “What was your background before getting into banking?”; “You mentioned that you work in the Financial Sponsors Group – have you worked on any of the big consolidation deals lately?”
The difference between a poor question and a good question lies in the specificity. To pull this off, you need to spend your time asking open-ended questions and listening to what they say.
2. Don’t Be Urkel, Either
By the same token, you don’t want to be so detailed in your questions that you scare them away.
People often get the idea that it’s good to ask questions like, “So do you provide both bank debt and mezzanine financing to your clients in addition to comprehensive M&A advisory services?”
Pretend you’re meeting a new friend – not that you’re reciting a laundry list of finance terms to your professor.
You should approach interviews the same way as well: go for the personal connection rather than reciting obscure technical concepts.
Yes, it’s good to do your homework and be knowledgeable about the industry – but it’s also good to come across as someone who bankers could stand to be around at 3 AM while fixing typos in a pitch book.
3. Get Business Cards from Everyone
Don’t spend too much time speaking with any one individual – maybe 5-10 minutes at most. Your goal is to make a good impression and come across as likable rather than just another guy/girl from Harold & Kumar.
Most importantly, make sure you get a business card and contact information from each person you speak to – there’s no point in going to information sessions unless you get this information and then act on it.
Focus on anyone who isn’t surrounded by 10 other students (if they exist).
4. Follow-Up Within the Next Few Days
This goes back to the point above on barriers to entry: it’s very easy to go to information sessions. What’s more difficult is following up with bankers you meet there and developing relationships.
From my own speeches and presentations, I know that typically less than 1% of event attendees ever bother to follow-up – even if they’ve made a connection and have direct access to someone who can answer many of their questions.
There is absolutely no point in going to information sessions unless you get business cards and then use them to start conversations with bankers.
5. If There Are 10 “Kenneth”‘s Surrounding a Banker, Don’t Hesitate to Jump in Anyway
So what do you do if there are 10 students surrounding one banker and no one else is free or there aren’t many representatives there?
Jump in anyway – with more interesting questions than anyone else is asking. Remember, most of the students there will not have read this article and are still in Harold & Kumar mode, wondering “what it’s like being an investment banker.”
If you’re bold and ask pointed but appropriate questions, you can stand out and shift the banker’s focus to you right away.
Think about most of the bankers there: they’ve just pulled an all-nighter, gotten off a flight, or dealt with some annoying, high-maintenance client. After the session, they’re about to go back to work for even more of that.
The last thing they want to hear is another “Kenneth” question – so take a bold approach and don’t be afraid to jump into a large group with a question that doesn’t inspire them to dive into an acid-coated shark tank.
They might just like your style.
There are tons of other small tips you could use in informational sessions: dress well (business attire – don’t look like you’re about to go to a concert or like you just got back from a funeral), gravitate toward alumni from your school (if the session features bankers from multiple schools), and don’t spend too much time on anyone you already know.
Combined with the points above, these will set you apart from all the “Kenneth”‘s out there.
Other Breeds of Information Sessions
The type of event covered here is just one breed of information session. Other sessions are more like job fairs, where you walk around and literally have first-round interviews on the spot; still other sessions only have a few representatives from each company and they’re more about exploring rather than breaking in.
The more specific the information session, the more helpful it is for you.
Here’s a real example from my own history:
Right after I returned from Asia several years ago, I attended the Boston Career Forum, an event focused on jobs and internships in Japan.
Since you had to be bilingual and had to have some experience in the region, the barriers to entry were high. And as one of the few Westerners there, I stood out even more.
As you’d expect, there were not as many opportunities as you’d find at a more general US-focused job fair – but the “conversion rate” from interviews to offers was much higher. I won multiple offers from a single weekend of work, even though I spoke with fewer than 10 banks/finance firms.
If you want to gain a real advantage in networking, you should seek out targeted opportunities like this one.
I did some research while writing this article and came to a sobering conclusion: like so many other areas of finance, there’s hardly anything online that’s both valuable and specific. I found some good discussions on message boards, but nothing comprehensive that went through all aspects of information sessions.
The closest resource I could find: Kevin from Management Consulted gives a good overview of consulting information sessions, and many of his insights apply to investment banking information sessions as well.
If you know of other helpful resources on this topic, please let me know or write about them in the comments below.
Breaking Out of Harold & Kumar Mode
If you follow everything here, you’ll be in a better position than 90% of information session attendees.
You don’t want to follow a “Jack Bauer” strategy for information sessions (torturing bankers to get an interview is not recommended), but you definitely don’t want to follow a Harold & Kumar strategy.
So use common sense, and please, no questions on “what it’s like being an investment banker.”
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