Even back in the dark ages (in Internet time, 2-3 years ago) one of the most asked questions here was “OK, but how do I get a summer internship in the first place?”
And since then I’ve gotten many more questions on the timing for summer internship recruiting, how it’s different from full-time recruiting, what to focus on, and what happens when – so let’s get to it.
I’m assuming that you’re an undergraduate or MBA – or that you’re graduating but are starting a Master’s program right afterward.
Summer internships are only available if you’re in school.
Yes, you could still apply if you’re graduating or you’ve already graduated but that has a very low success rate, especially at large banks.
You don’t have to be at a “target” school, but you will have to rely heavily on networking if you’re not. You are at more of a disadvantage at the MBA level if you’re not from a top school, because there are fewer spots available and the competition is much savvier.
You know, investment banking summer internships. Haven’t we been through this before?
“Internship” is just another word for an 8-10 week interview at a bank: if you pass, you get a return offer at the end. And if you don’t, you don’t get a return offer and have to look elsewhere for full-time work.
You perform tasks similar to what full-time analysts and associates do, but you’re always supporting them and you’re given more grunt work since you don’t know anything.
It’s different in sales & trading because you’re not allowed to trade as an intern, so it’s more of a shadowing experience there.
Summer internships are important because having one will dramatically increase your chances of getting full-time interviews and offers.
If the economy is bad, you might not even have a shot at full-time interviews if you haven’t had an internship – and many bulge bracket banks fill their entire analyst classes with summer interns.
Even if the market is frothy, an internship still gives you a big advantage, and even more importantly, gives you more options than someone without an internship.
When Do You Get an Internship?
I’ve been writing “summer internships” throughout, but banks do occasionally offer autumn, winter, and spring options as well – more so in Europe than the US.
But the other internships are not much different aside from timing and summer internships are the most common ones, so we’ll focus on those.
Recruiting begins in December or January and concludes sometime in February. The internship itself starts in June and finishes in August, lasting anywhere between 8 to 10 weeks.
Before you reply and say that you heard of a friend who interned longer or shorter than that or someone who did not follow that exact timing, yes, there are exceptions and the sentences above just give approximate guidelines.
Some banks may finish later – especially boutique and middle-market firms – and sometimes recruiting starts in November, especially outside the US.
More important than the specific dates is when you should start networking and preparing for recruiting.
A long time ago when I interviewed readers who broke into banking from non-target schools (no, that special offer is no longer active because the courses were released a long time ago), most of them reported starting 6 months in advance.
They networked through the summer and started with weekend trips in the fall before interviews began in the winter.
If you haven’t already done all that and recruiting is underway, it’s not the end of the world – although you will have to approach things differently (see the networking section below).
How to Get a Summer Internship
Summer internship recruiting is not dramatically different from full-time recruiting – you still get in via networking, having a solid resume, and then acing your interviews.
But there are some differences and special considerations:
This is more necessary if you’re at a non-target school than if you’re at a top school and already have a competitive profile: networking always helps, but if you have perfect grades and 2 internships at Goldman Sachs you will get (at least some) interviews anyway.
If you have time to start in advance, you know the drill: start with informational interviews over the summer, continue with weekend trips in the fall leading up to recruiting season and make your “ask” just before interviews begin.
If you have not started in advance and this is a last-minute effort, here are some tactics to try:
- Go to all the information sessions you can – these are held right before the application deadline, so you still have a shot even at the last-minute.
- If you’re at a non-target school, go to another school’s information sessions and sneak in if you can get away with it. Don’t kidnap someone and steal his/her student ID, but see if you can “borrow” a friend’s or otherwise talk your way in if security is tight. Some bankers frown on this, but others will be impressed that you were hungry enough to get in.
- Look up alumni on LinkedIn or in your alumni database and still set up informational interviews – but be more direct and ask how you can position yourself for a formal interview at the end of each conversation.
- Cold-call aggressively – this works better at boutiques and you should do it only if you have no other options and/or you made it through recruiting season without any offers.
It’s not ideal to start networking at the last-minute, but it is slightly less of a deal-breaker than if you went into full-time recruiting with minimal networking.
And if you already started months in advance, you’re well ahead of the game because most aspiring bankers don’t read this site and are still going to information sessions asking what it’s like being an investment banker.
Resumes / CVs
First, download and use this university student resume template if you’re an undergraduate or this MBA-level template if you’re at the business school level.
Using one of those templates helps you avoid the most common mistakes like poor formatting, impossible-to-scan text, the temptation to be “creative” and make a video resume (please don’t or it will be forwarded widely and your life will be ruined), and so on.
But much of your resume is beyond your immediate control: bankers place a heavy emphasis on your school name, where you’ve worked, and your grades – and you can’t change those at the last-minute.
But you can control how you present your experience and what you focus on:
- At the MBA level write about the 2 or 3 full-time positions you had before going to business school, focusing on whatever was closest to finance; just 1 full-time position is OK if that’s all you have, but you may want to include an undergraduate internship or an activity you’ve been involved in for the sake of variety.
- If you have limited work experience as an undergrad, pick the 2-3 activities, sports, or competitions you’ve been most heavily involved in (see this tutorial and resume makeover for more). Hopefully you’ve held a leadership role in these.
For example, you could write about a student investment fund that you’ve led, a nonprofit you’ve been volunteering with, and a case or investment competition you won.
They don’t have to be finance-related, but it certainly helps when it comes time to tell your story and prove your interest in the field.
If you’ve had a rotational internship or you’ve had actual finance experience, then devote at least half your resume to that and don’t write as much about unrelated activities.
The specific format for each entry is the same as what’s in the tutorials above – pick a project-centric or task-centric structure depending on the experience and be as specific and results-oriented as possible.
As usual, cover letters are mostly useless but there is a cover letter template right here if you need it – there are no differences for internships.
For full-time interviews bankers focus more on your most recent internship, but for internship interviews you haven’t had as much experience – so they will ask more about your background before university or business school and the activities you’ve been involved in.
You still need a solid story and then 2-3 mini-stories (see The Banker Blueprint for an explanation) that you can use to answer the usual questions about leadership, teamwork, strengths and weaknesses, and so on.
The only difference is that you may rely more on your activities as an undergrad, or on your pre-MBA experience at the business school level.
Going back to the example above, the interviewee might talk about where he’s from (the “beginning”), then use the case competition as his finance “spark,” and then talk about how he started the student investment fund for his growing interest (see the story tutorial for definitions of all these and the overall outline).
The key challenge will be to convince bankers that you want to be in the field without sounding TOO certain and coming across as unrealistic – it is just an internship, after all.
So rather than saying you want to be a banker for life, say that it’s what you’re most excited about doing and what you want to do full-time after graduation. You know it depends on how you perform in the internship, but that is what you’re most looking forward to right now based on your past experience, networking, and everything you’ve learned on your own.
Back then, you might have gotten in with little technical knowledge, but these days you pretty much have to know accounting, valuation, and how to answer basic questions such as how changes to line items affect the 3 statements.
And often you’ll get asked a lot more than that – it is not unheard of to get questions on merger models, LBO models, and so on even if you haven’t had banking experience and are going for summer internships.
Generally you will not get as difficult questions if you don’t have a finance background and haven’t had previous internships, but there are no guarantees.
You may get overwhelmed if you try to cram in everything at the last-minute, so this is another area where you want to start prepping at least a few weeks to a month in advance.
Undergraduate vs. MBA Differences
There aren’t many: networking and interviews are similar, and your resume may look different but the basic idea is the same.
The key difference is that bankers expect more polish if you’re at the MBA-level: they know that you’re good at BSing and talking your way into situations if you’ve made it that far, so they will ask more probing questions.
An undergraduate might get away with a generic answer for the “Why investment banking?” question, but you will not: they will ask more detailed questions to see whether you’re being relatively truthful or you’re just good at making stuff up on the spot.
Everyone else will also be networking, since that’s arguably the true purpose of business school – so you need to get started before you even arrive on campus.
Technical questions in interviews may also take the form of case studies – whether written or informal discussions – more often at this level.
Instead of asking how to value a company or the trade-offs of the different methodologies, bankers may ask about a specific company and walk through an imaginary scenario where someone else wants to acquire them, and then frame all the valuation questions in that context.
The main differences:
- In addition to CVs and cover letters, you may also have to submit written answers to competency questions (more common in Europe).
- The interview process will also consist of an assessment center and case studies that you complete there (mostly Europe and Australia).
- In emerging markets, the recruiting process will be more unstructured and haphazard.
For #1, just pretend you’re answering interview questions but condense what you say into 200 or 300 words, or whatever the word limit is.
Just like with cover letters, if you say something stupid it could come back to haunt you – but amazing answers won’t help you that much.
Answer each question with a definitive statement (e.g. “My top 3 qualities are my work ethic, leadership, and ability to work in a team.”) and then give a specific example or two to back up what you say.
Banks claim to pay attention to these questions, but overall they are less important than your CV and interview skills so don’t lose sleep over them.
Good news travels quickly: if you get an offer, you’ll probably hear back right away. If you don’t get an offer or you’re on the wait list, you won’t.
And yes, before you start panicking, there are exceptions and banks don’t always do this.
If you get an exploding offer, you pretty much have to accept it unless you have another offer lined up.
For internships it is much better to take something – even if it’s at a boutique or middle-market bank – than to turn it down and take a chance on getting an offer at a much larger bank.
Even with a lesser-known bank on your resume, you’ll still get interviews at bulge bracket banks for full-time recruiting – so the risk of not accepting an offer outweighs the potential upside of waiting and taking a chance on a better offer.
You could renege on your summer offer but that has its own set of risks.
And for summer internships it is arguably more risky than with full-time recruiting, because you may have to interview once again after your internship – if someone remembers that you reneged on an offer, that’s bad news for you.
Plan B Options
What if you go through recruiting and end up with no summer internship offers?
Get as close to banking as possible – outside of PE/HF/VC the best options are probably corporate finance/development and wealth/asset management.
The back office is not necessarily the kiss of death as it is for full-time work, but it is a step below client-facing / revenue-generating options.
If nothing on that list works for you, start your own project, your own student club or investment fund, or something similar.
Whatever you do, don’t just sit around or only take classes or study for exams and certifications because you’ll put yourself at an even bigger disadvantage.
And don’t even think about the Best Buy option.