Everyone already knows that to properly prepare for your investment banking summer internship, you need to memorize every single Excel and PowerPoint shortcut key, know your models as well as you know your bottles, and read the Wall Street Journal cover-to-cover each day.
Then there’s the matter of training yourself to sit motionless in front of a computer for 28 hours straight, and reading Monkey Business, Liar’s Poker, and When Genius Failed 3 times each.
If you’re reading this site and you have an upcoming summer internship, you’ve probably done all that already.
But what else can you do to maximize your chances of getting a return offer?
Conventional Preparation Tactics
I hope you didn’t actually believe what I wrote above, because it’s not true (sarcasm is difficult to detect on the Internet) – or at least, it’s not the whole story.
I’ve received a lot of these questions: “How much Excel should I learn? Should I take all these extra modeling classes? How many books do I need to read? Should I memorize what happens in the market each day?”
The short answer is that you just need to know the basics. You can get by without knowing anything, but I think it is helpful to have at least some idea of how to use Excel and PowerPoint and what investment bankers actually do.
You’ll learn or re-learn this once you start, but keep in mind that:
- Training programs for summer interns are sometimes poor – and smaller firms often don’t have real “training programs” in place.
- Competition for offers this year will be tough, to say the least – so if you don’t have to spend a week learning basic Excel shortcuts, that does give you an advantage.
If both of those are true, then why not bother going all-out and learning everything you’ll have to do as a Summer Analyst or Summer Associate?
Because you can’t.
Why Conventional Tactics May Result in Ambush or Capture Behind Enemy Lines
There are multiple problems with trying to learn “everything” before you start, but the most immediately obvious one is that you can’t really do it.
1. Because every bank does things differently – from simple pitch books to PIBs (public information books, another common task you’ll get as an Analyst) to complex models.
I received requests to add this type of material to Breaking Into Wall Street, but it’s nearly impossible to teach anything useful – whereas a basic DCF is pretty much a DCF from bank to bank, each firm has their own process, logos, graphics, and templates for other tasks.
It’s worthwhile to know the basics (e.g. a sell-side pitch book usually has a bank’s credentials upfront, then an overview of the company and market, then a valuation, then a buyer list, and then process recommendations at the end), but if you want to learn how Goldman Sachs specifically creates pitch books then you have to be at Goldman Sachs.
2. To quote Jon Voight on 24, “Stress is the fertilizer of creativity.” We can re-phrase this one as, “Stress is the fertilizer of learning.”
You can try to get your bank’s internal models ahead of time (if you can get someone to violate confidentiality agreements) and learn the in’s and out’s, but it’s not likely to stick with you unless you need to use it.
Wait, What Do You Actually Do as a Summer Intern Again?
And then there’s another, less obvious reason that trying to learn “everything” in advance is futile: you rarely do much “real” work as a summer intern.
Even as a full-timer working in Mergers & Acquisitions, there’s a ton of administrative work and far less “modeling” than you imagine.
A reader wrote to me the other day asking about a summer internship he had lined up, concerned that he would mostly be doing grunt work based on the description they gave him. Here’s my reply:
“To be honest I think that’s about what you’d find in most SA gigs – it’s very, very rare to get an internship where you actually do “real” work. And even in banking, most of the time you’re editing pitch books, fixing things, and making lists.
There is WAY less technical work than most people think – even in an M&A group, I spent most of my time doing administrative tasks. So I’d say it’s at least as good as anyone else’s summer internship.”
Even if you’re working at a top bank in a “top” group you’re still unlikely to do much “serious” work – because there isn’t that much to begin with, especially with the dearth of deals these days.
Conventional Tactics That Work
This doesn’t mean that all preparation is futile.
It just means that you should adopt the 80/20 approach with learning Excel and other topics related to finance and not stress over every single detail.
Knowing how to create “advanced” models and pitch books is unlikely to give you an advantage – and if you go around telling people you know how to do that, you’ll be at a disadvantage because they’ll think you’re weird.
You always want to under-promise and over-deliver when it comes to work – and going around acting like you’re an “expert” will result in failure, whether in interviews or internships.
So if learning every single detail of Excel, PowerPoint, and other programs doesn’t help you, what does?
How to Prepare Like a Ninja
The most useful way to prepare for an internship is intelligence gathering – figuring out how your group operates, who’s really in charge, and who’s most influential.
Because your chances of getting a return offer will be largely dependent on who “goes to bat” for you in the full-time selection process.
At the end of the summer, senior bankers and anyone who worked closely with interns gather around to discuss who should get return offers – and you maximize your chances by getting to know one or two influential people well rather than by spreading yourself thin.
It’s good to know others at your office, but it’s way more helpful to figure out who has traditionally helped interns get return offers, and then spend most of your time working with that person (or people).
Infiltrating Your Enemies & Gathering Intelligence
How do you actually gather intelligence and figure out who’s helpful ahead of time?
You need a friend on the inside. If you got to know anyone at the office particularly well during the interview process, you should reach out and see if he/she can meet up with you briefly before you start.
Don’t jump into the meeting saying, “So, can you tell me who’s the best person to work with and who helps interns the most?” but instead go in with more innocuous intentions (“I wanted to find out more before I start working there next month”) and use this structure to gather your information:
- Start by asking some relatively innocent questions, seeing how your friend is doing, and if he/she has any updates.
- When your friend starts mentioning senior bankers or talking about other people at the office, take this opportunity to ask more questions about them and see who’s good and who you should avoid.
- Don’t dwell on this – just extract what you can in the middle of the conversation, and then shift the topic to something else at the end.
If you don’t have an inside source, then you can’t gather too much intelligence in advance.
Once you start, focus on learning as much as you can from the other junior bankers – pay close attention to what they say among themselves, because it’s often far different from what they tell you.
Summer Analyst vs. Summer Associate
All of the above applies whether you’re a Summer Analyst or Summer Associate – despite what your bank may have told you in the “sell” process, the two roles are not that much different.
The main difference is that as an Associate, you’ll be expected to know more about corporate finance and how to conduct yourself in front of clients – so the bar is higher.
As a Summer Associate your inside source(s) should always be other Associates, and as an Analyst your inside source(s) should always be other Analysts – it looks weird to ask someone at a different level for information, unless you happen to know him/her very well already.
Aside from intelligence gathering, what else can you do to prepare?
Well, networking always helps – but you have to be careful doing it in advance because it may send mixed signals. Use discretion and start speaking with friends at different banks if you want to hedge yourself, but an extensive, all-out effort is probably not worth it.
Oh, and make sure you have the appropriate attire (less of an issue for MBAs than it is for university students).
So learn the basics of the work at a bank, but don’t obsess over the details – because the intelligence you gather matters way more than knowing yet another clever trick in Excel.