“So, what exactly have you been doing since graduation? Did you go through recruiting last year and just not get any offers?”
“Can you tell me with a straight face that you’d really prefer working here in Idaho rather than New York?”
Sometimes you get questions you just can’t answer truthfully. It’s like your interviewer has you pressed up against a wall and he’s about to finish you off with a fatality.
So how do you get out of it and still land the offer?
You use ju-jutsu to turn your perceived weakness into a strength, and unleash a fierce counter-attack on your interviewer.
The Questions You Can’t Answer
There are a few categories of questions that make you want to hide in a corner:
- What have you been doing… / Why no finance work experience? / Why are you so old?
- Why this second-rate group / location? What’s your REAL first choice?
- Why are you grades so bad? / Why did you do something else questionable in the past?
Sometimes interviewers will be direct: “I see you have a 3.2 GPA. Why is it so low?”
Other times they’ll mask a “Why are you so old?”-type question with something more charitable: “I see you have 15 years of work experience… so why the sudden interest in finance now?”
But no matter how they phrase they question, you need to be prepared with your counter-attack.
The Art of Interview Ju-Jutsu
Ju-jutsu is a martial art developed in Japan where a small fighter takes out an armored opponent by using the attacker’s energy against him, rather than directly opposing it.
Interview ju-jutsu follows a similar strategy: rather than directly “refuting” the interviewer’s claim, you acknowledge it and use it against him.
You can’t do much to change an interviewer’s existing beliefs – so instead, accept them and then make new points he hasn’t thought of to show how your “weakness” is actually a strength.
To see how to do this, let’s look at 6 examples of interview questions you can’t answer and see how you can use ju-jutsu, combined with a good helping of spin, to answer them anyway.
Tough Question #1: I see you graduated last year and have nothing on your resume between then and now (9 months). What have you been doing?
What Really Happened: You went through full-time recruiting last year but didn’t receive any offers. You kept looking for jobs after graduation and had a few small internships, but nothing worth mentioning in an interview or on your resume. You’re recruiting again in hopes of landing something this time around.
What You DON’T Want to Say: The truth – because you’ll sound like “damaged goods” if you say that you went through recruiting but didn’t get any offers.
Your Counter-Attack: Don’t directly “oppose” your interviewer by making up a story about being productive with something else, or about not going through recruiting before.
Instead, acknowledge that you did some recruiting but were not 100% focused on it due to a serious family issue at the time, and that you then spent a few months afterward attending to that.
You took some time off as a result, but since then you’ve been working / studying independently and are even more excited about finance.
Tough Question #2: Is Chicago/Houston/San Francisco really your first choice? Why not New York/London?
What Really Happened: This is your “Plan B.” You want to be in New York/London/elsewhere, but you got an interview here and figured you might use it as a backup plan.
What You DON’T Want to Say: No one wants to be your “Plan B,” so don’t say that directly. And giving a vague answer like, “Anywhere is fine with me, as long as I enjoy the work!” also sounds bad, because you’re dodging the question.
Your Counter-Attack: Agree with the interviewer and acknowledge that New York is better in some ways… but then make up a story and say that despite that, you are still drawn to this location due to friends/family/industry focus/cost of living.
Your #1 concern needs to be getting the offer – not getting the perfect offer in the perfect place. If you want to move elsewhere, wait until you get the offer first and then speak with someone else at the bank (who doesn’t know your location preferences) and push for the change.
Tough Question #3: Why are you so old? Don’t you know only young people can do investment banking?
Ok, they usually say this one a bit more tactfully.
What Really Happened: You had a quarter-life or mid-life crisis, realized you hated your current job and wanted to do something else – even if it meant defying the odds and getting into investment banking even though you’re 10 years older than everyone else.
What You DON’T Want to Say: Go into your life story, or get defensive about your age and argue that you’re not “too old.”
Your Counter-Attack: Start by acknowledging that you are “more experienced” than the average Analyst/Associate, and that you are coming from a non-traditional background.
But then point out that how you’re actually better for the job than fresh graduates because you have more perspective, understand the world better, and it has been 100x as difficult to get interviews in the first place.
Tough Question #4: “I see you have a 3.2 GPA. Why should we hire you over someone with a 4.0 from Harvard?”
What Really Happened: You spent your entire first 2 years at school drinking and failed all your classes. Or maybe there’s no particular reason why your GPA is so low. Or maybe your grades actually declined over the past few years.
What You DON’T Want to Say: Attempt to justify your GPA by saying your classes were hard, or that your school was too difficult. This is the “kung fu” method of interviews – we want to use ju-jutsu instead.
Your Counter-Attack: If they don’t have your transcript, anything goes. Say that you did poorly your first year, but then you became a lot more focused and improved your performance since then.
If they do have your transcript in front of them and/or they start asking about specific classes, you need to get more creative. In those cases you’re better off saying that you focused more on work experience / internships and pointing to the stellar recommendations you have.
Tough Question #5: Why were you a liberal arts major? Don’t you know that’s useless? Do you really think you know anything about math or finance?
What You DON’T Want to Say: Admit that you like reading/writing more, or get defensive and say that it’s still highly relevant.
Your Counter-Attack: You realize you’re not from the usual economics/finance background – but you were really interested in whatever you did study, and that gave you time to complete finance classes or do independent study on the side.
If you have a good reason for picking your major, you can also turn this into something “interesting” about your background and answer the third, and most important, interview question correctly.
Tough Question #6: Why are you interviewing for this IT/risk management/other back office position? Didn’t you have front office positions before? Are we just your backup plan?
What Really Happened: Yes, they are just your Plan B. Who on earth would want to go from front office to back office?
What You DON’T Want to Say: Say you want to learn more about what it’s like “behind the scenes” at a bank, or that you didn’t enjoy client work. No one will believe you.
Your Counter-Attack: Your only chance of spinning this is to say that you’re interested in working at a large bank rather than the smaller bank you were at before, or at a bank vs. whatever you worked at before.
This is one of the most difficult situations to spin and no matter what you do, you probably won’t convince them that they’re not just a backup plan.
But you have to try.
Getting Your Black Belt
Go through your resume, think about your previous interviews, and the group/bank/location you’re interviewing with and figure out what your toughest questions will be – the ones that make you want to shrivel up and hide in a corner.
Then, think about how you can acknowledge their objection and then spin it to turn your weakness into a strength.
Oh, and think about some martial arts classes while you’re at it.