I’ve referenced informational interviews many times, but have never given a step-by-step tutorial – or even said what exactly an informational interview is.
So let’s change that.
There’s more detail within Breaking Into Wall Street, but I wanted to put this guide out there to answer the most common questions on informational interviews – and show you how to use them to break into investment banking.
Why Informational Interviews?
A banker is looking through a stack of 200 resumes.
It’s 3 AM and he’s also working on a last-minute pitch book for his crazy MD who only sleeps 2 hours a night.
At 3:23 AM his eyes begin to close and everyone’s resume starts looking the same…
PWM internship, 3.7 GPA from target school… F500 internship, 3.5 GPA from non-target school…
As he’s dozing off, he comes across your resume.
He sees your name written at the top and remembers meeting you at an information session a few months ago, then meeting up with you 2 weeks ago and how you got into a discussion about the World Cup.
Rather than reading the rest of your resume and analyzing your experience, he says, “You’re cool” and puts you in the “interview” pile.
That’s why you do informational interviews.
In case you think the story above is an anomaly, think again: the interview selection process is not rational at all.
The good news, though, is that it’s predictably irrational – or at least easier to predict than the stock market or the next trending topic on Twitter.
And unlike other events, with informational interviews you can easily tip the scales in your favor with a small amount of effort.
If you know people at the office you’re applying to, you stand a 10x better chance of getting interviews there.
Do Informational Interviews Really Work?
I’ve seen a couple common objections, so let’s address them head-on:
- Objection #1: Even if I meet someone, how do I know that he’ll actually see my resume and select me for an interview?
- Objection #2: Won’t the bankers I approach think I’m using them?
- Objection #3: Does this work at all levels? What if I’m applying for Associate positions?
- Objection #4: I’m outside the US – I heard networking doesn’t work as well in other countries.
For objection #1, I’ll admit it: there are no guarantees that the same exact bankers you meet will review your resume and make an interview / no interview decision.
To get an idea of specific numbers and what it will take to get noticed, check out this interview with an engineer who broke into investment banking via informational interviews.
Also note that even if your contact doesn’t pick you for an interview directly, he can tell other bankers about you, get you referrals, and help in other ways.
On objection #2, yes, bankers will think that you’re contacting them to win interviews at their firm…
…and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Bankers don’t do this for love – they won’t care that you’re “using” them if hiring you means less work for them.
On objection #3, informational interviews work at both the Analyst and Associate levels – you almost have to do them at the Associate level because your competition certainly will be.
Outside the US
This objection has more truth to it than the others – networking into finance and going around the formal processes is not as common in regions like the UK and Australia.
Banks there are more focused on traditional recruiting – interviews, online tests, assessment centers and case studies, and so on.
But it’s not that networking “doesn’t work” – it just doesn’t work as well.
You may not want to spend as much time on networking in other countries, but you still need to do more than earn high grades and hope that’s enough to get you in.
The bottom-line is that there are no guarantees that any strategy will “work,” but it’s hard to beat the ROI of informational interviews:
- Informational Interviews: 10-20 hours of work might result in multiple interviews.
- CFA: 500 hours of study will result in… an additional bullet point on your resume.
- Cold-calling: 10-20 hours of calling boutiques… may result in nothing or maybe a few potential leads.
So think like a banker and invest in the area with the highest ROI.
What is an Informational Interview?
Wow, we made it all the way here without even defining what an informational interview is.
First, you find the contact information of a banker from your alumni database, from a referral, from student or professional groups, and so on.
Next, you email the person, introduce yourself, say where you found them, and ask if they can chat for 10-15 minutes on the phone or in-person.
If they don’t get back to you, try a few more times.
Then, go in and ask the questions you have about them, make a good impression, stay in touch afterward, and then ask for explicit help with recruiting when the time comes.
When to Set Them Up
You should begin 3-6 months in advance of recruiting – that gives you time to get to know them without feeling pressured to follow-up 24/7.
So if you’re a summer intern preparing for full-time recruiting, start just before your internship or as your internship is beginning.
You can start earlier, but setting up interviews too far in advance – say, 2 years before you recruit – is not a good idea because:
- It’s harder to stay in touch over that length of time and people may forget who you are.
- Finance has extremely high turnover and hardly anyone sticks around for 2 years in the same group at the same bank.
At the MBA-level, you should start before you even arrive at school – just conduct your interviews over the phone in your spare time if necessary.
How to Set Up Informational Interviews
So you’ve found contact information for 5 alumni and you have 4 months until recruiting begins. What now?
Send a 5-sentence email to your contacts that proposes specific dates and times to speak:
- Sentence 1: Who you are
- Sentence 2: How you found them
- Sentence 3: What you want to ask them about
- Sentence 4: Propose 3-4 dates and times (and places if you want to meet in-person) to speak with them
- Sentence 5: Thank them for their help in advance
Do not attach your resume / CV, as that annoys bankers by creating extra work.
Resist the urge to write your life story – normal people don’t even have time for that, and bankers certainly don’t.
Think, “Can he/she read this on a Blackberry without scrolling?”
Phone vs. In-Person
Should you go for informational interviews on the phone? Or in-person?
In-person is the way to go if you’re local or you can make a weekend trip to consolidate your visits; the phone is better if you’re new and want to “warm up.”
Overall, in-person is more effective for all the reasons that meeting your friends in-person is more fun than calling them: the subtleties and non-verbal communication that you don’t get on the phone.
Plus, in-person meetings sometimes lead to in-person tours of the office and meeting even more bankers there.
Questions to Ask and Questions Not to Ask
So now you’re set to speak with a banker at JP Morgan next Tuesday at 2 PM – what questions do you ask?
First, do a few minutes of research on him beforehand (Google and LinkedIn are fine, Capital IQ / Bloomberg are better if you have access) and figure out where he went to school and where he worked (geography / company / group) before.
Once you’ve done that, you can plan out the questions you want to ask.
Personal questions work the best – though if you’re networking with traders, you should make your discussion more markets-focused.
- Can you tell me about how you got started at [Bank Name]?
- I noticed that you studied abroad in [Place Name] according to our alumni database – what was that like?
- I saw that you worked in [Industry 1] before switching to [Industry 2] – can you tell me how you did that?
- I noticed that your group was involved with [Announced Deal Name] – did you work on that?
People, and especially bankers, love to talk about themselves, so the questions above are much better than the “What does an investment banker do?” / “How do you break in?” variety.
Bad questions consist of anything that you can find out in 5 seconds elsewhere or “questions” that are really attempts to brag about yourself.
- What’s it like being an investment banker?
- How many hours per week do you work?
- Where can I read more about the industry?
- By the way, I have a 4.0 GPA in my Finance classes – do you think I should mention that on my resume?
Your new banker friend could also test you by asking technical or fit questions in the beginning, just like in a normal interview – so be prepared with your story and accounting/finance knowledge.
As your 10 – 15 minutes are drawing to a close and you’ve asked your questions, make a mini-request.
People are just like dogs: we need to be trained.
If you don’t ask for something small – a suggestion to meet on a weekend trip in the future, a referral, or even if it’s OK to send follow-up questions – the banker will assume you just want to be “friends.”
As with dating, you need to avoid the “friend zone” from the very beginning.
NOTE: Please do not do this if you email me – I’m already inundated with emails and requests, and sorry, but I do not make introductions.
Banker Having a Bad Hair Day?
Don’t expect that everyone will respond favorably – they won’t.
The banker might be having a bad hair day, might have just lost a client, might have broken up with his significant other, or might be suffering from dozens of other calamities.
You can’t take it personally because this has nothing to do with you 99% of the time.
Put the ones who don’t want to speak with you lower on your priority list and focus on the ones who seem more helpful.
What to Do After the Interview
The biggest mistake you can make: following up repeatedly for no reason.
Sure, it’s good to stay on bankers’ radar every 2-3 months if you’re networking far in advance, but don’t go crazy sending 2 articles every every day because that will annoy them.
You should follow-up with specific questions, requests for referrals, or to ask for help getting an interview.
Some networking “experts” advise you to constantly ping everyone you know, but that is a mistake because:
- Bankers are 10x busier than the average person.
- You’re on a short time frame – months rather than years.
And yes, when it’s recruiting season you really can just say:
“With recruiting approaching, I wanted to see how I could best position myself for an interview at your firm.”
First, go to your alumni database, or ask your friends, family, or organizations you’re in for bankers’ contact information.
Email 5 of them to set up informational interviews, use the guidelines above, get referrals from those 5 to expand your list, and keep doing that until you’ve met a few dozen bankers.
Then when recruiting begins, ask for their help directly and persist if you don’t hear back.
When you’re done, post a comment below telling us how many interviews and offers you’ve won via networking.