Revealed: The True Story of How I Got Into Investment Banking and What You Can Learn From It

44 Comments | Case Studies & Reader Success Stories - From Non-Finance Backgrounds

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As I’ve been speaking with readers here in China, I’ve been getting one question over and over again.

No, nothing about models and bottles.

But rather how I broke into the industry in the first place.

I’ve never written about this in detail before, and I figured it might be helpful to anyone working their way in right now.

The Background

Those who ordered The 200 Investment Banking Interview Questions & Answers You Need to Know are familiar with my advice to always say you’re focused on banking when interviewing – even if you’re torn between opening a zebra ranch, traveling around the world, starting a business, or making the difficult consulting vs. banking decision.

I was in this same position when it came time for recruiting. I had just returned from living and working in Asia and switching between about 5 different industries and had no clue what I wanted to do.

In addition to all of the above (ok, I wasn’t thinking of opening my own ranch), I was also considering hedge funds and trading, as well as random positions at “normal” companies.

So I did what everyone does: apply to everything and hope at least 1 of them would work out.

Step 1: Be Clueless Until the Last Minute

Everyone knows how critical it is to start early. In my infinite wisdom, I did the exact opposite and only became interested in finance mere months before recruiting began.

I had quite a random background and had worked at everything from nonprofits to tech companies. But I had no finance experience and I didn’t even know what the 3 financial statements were when I started applying to banks.

As you might expect, my most common question in interviews was “Why banking?”

Lesson 1: You need to start early – especially in a bad market. As we’ll see below, I had some other things working in my favor so this did not sink me.

Lesson 2: If you don’t have a finance background you need to anticipate objections in advance and plan out how to handle them.

Step 2: Haphazardly Get Lots of Contacts at Banks

One thing I did right was making lots of friends in financial services, even before I was interested.

I won’t lie – going to a target school helped a lot with this one.

I didn’t develop relationships specifically for getting into the industry – I wasn’t trying to use people. Instead, I knew them to begin with, started to ask questions as I became genuinely interested, and then met even more contacts through those connections.

Lesson 1: People are much more receptive when you’re actually interested and not just using them.

Lesson 2: Even though I “started late,” I had developed relationships much earlier than that – so it wasn’t really that late.

Step 3: Come Up With a Good Story Despite Having a Random Background

I firmly believe that telling a good story is responsible for 90% of your success in interviews.

Since I had a tech background, I told banks that I was interested in venture capital and being an investor one day, and saw banking as a good way to get there. I showed how I moved closer to the “business” side of the industry with each successive job, and how I realized I like the business side more than the technical side.

Obviously, this story worked best for TMT groups at banks – for consulting, hedge funds and everything else I was considering I had to modify it.

For hedge funds and trading the story was more about how I thought of everything in terms of risk and reward, and going through past cases where I “thought like a trader.”

Lesson 1: You need to turn your weaknesses into strengths – maybe you don’t have a business background, but you have gained some insights from what you’ve done that could be applied to finance.

Lesson 2: Associate candidates should not say they are interested in “exit opportunities” – this is risky and I would only recommend it for Analyst interviewees.

Step 4: Bankify the Resume

My own resume at the time was incredibly bad – it looked more like I was a former llama herder than someone who was serious about finance.

A lot of my early applications were outright rejections because I didn’t focus enough on the business side of what I did and was too technical.

If you’re from a finance background, you have no excuse not to be specific with numbers and results. But if you’re not, you must be “creative” and re-position what you’ve done to make it resemble business.

The new resume I created actually resulted in interviews.

Lesson 1: You need to have a good resume/CV to stand out. With so many people applying, it’s easy for banks to toss your resume if it’s poor.

Lesson 2: The resume is actually more important if you don’t have a finance background – it’s your chance to “prove” that you have what it takes.

Step 5: Stumble Through Ace Interviews

I made 2 mistakes when preparing for some early interviews:

  1. Being overconfident in my abilities, I didn’t prepare at all and figured I could just “wing it.”
  2. I spent all my time trying to learn accounting/finance.

The first mistake needs no explanation – but the second point may surprise you.

Since I had no finance background, I received few technical questions. Sure, there were a few interviewers who liked to play “bad cop,” but I wasn’t tested nearly as much as I had been expecting.

90% of the questions I received were variants of “So why are you switching careers now?” Preparing a good answer for that one helped far more than memorizing my accounting textbook.

Lesson 1: You need to be prepared, but probably not in the way you think you need to be prepared. Focus on your “story” and the big questions over everything else.

Lesson 2: There are a few exceptions. If you’ve had a banking internship or have worked in the industry before, you need to know what you did and be prepared for many technical questions.

The End Result

I ended up with offers in everything I was considering, and decided on banking in the end. Looking back, that was definitely the correct decision –  although there were a few hedge fund offers that were quite tempting (some of them collapsed in recent years, so I’m glad I didn’t go that route…).


If there’s enough interest, I’ll try to do more case studies / interviews like this in the future. Everything will be anonymous, of course, but from recent conversations I’ve had it seems a lot of readers are curious about how “normal” people get in.

About the Author

is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys learning obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, and traveling so much that he's forced to add additional pages to his passport on a regular basis.

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44 Comments to “Revealed: The True Story of How I Got Into Investment Banking and What You Can Learn From It”


  1. db says

    Thanks for the excellent article; there was one part in your post that caught my attention however:

    In addition to all of the above[…]I was also considering hedge funds and trading[…].

    So I did what everyone does: apply to everything and hope at least 1 of them would work out.

    So when you applied for the investment banking analyst positions at these banks, you also applied to the sales & trading analyst positions as well? I have been told that it is important to focus and apply to only one division. Also, won’t word people find out that you’ve applied to both the investment banking division and the trading division? Is this a negative?

    • says

      Sorry I didn’t specify, I did not apply to S&T and banking at the SAME banks – I always picked one. And i don’t think I even applied to that many S&T spots, I think it was mostly hedge funds now that I think about it.

      It is not a good idea to apply to multiple divisions, as you mentioned.

  2. Jennson says

    I learned much of this from dealing with recruiters when I was interviewing for a position at the firm I am currently with. Another reason in Step 5 that may surprise a lot of people is that most firms are not necessarily interested in people who know their accounting and finance. A lot of it (especially accounting) can be taught on the job, so it’s generally not as much of a concern as the candidate’s willingness to work and perform in a banking environment.

    • says

      Yup exactly. This is why I find it so funny that people obsess over expensive training courses and/or reading books to learn accounting/finance in detail when you will just re-learn everything anyway.

  3. Scott says

    This advice is all well and good but your experience is much different from what someone who did not go to a target school might experience. My friend who recently broke into banking and went to a well respected liberal arts school in the North East was grilled on his interviews. They asked him many more technical questions that ones about professional aspirations and fit. If you don’t go to an Ivy League school you have an uphill battle when trying to convince companies that they should hire you. Especially if your GPA is not in the 3.8-4.0 range. Obviously I haven’t seen your old resume, but if my friend had no finance experience he would not have gotten that banking job or every other position he applied to. I welcome any opinions people might have on what I just said.

    • skotumk says

      I kinda second scott’s view. From my recent informationals (actually ytd) with bankers about what they’re expecting at interviews (if they hire summers at all!), I’ve been hearing they’re expecting to see more interest/ tech knowledge in candidates. They’ve advised me to go beyond what are shown in guides about tech questions as they may throw one or two questions to see if you can really think/ understand the material.

    • says

      Right, this was just to give an example of what someone might expect. Obviously everyone is in a different position but I’ve seen lots of people who come from this same background so figured it would be helpful.

      As I said, there are exceptions to the last point and going to a non-target school could be one of them.

  4. says

    I think most applicants should also have a pretty in depth knowledge of the current financial crisis. The real tension would be convincing the interviewers they understand the gravity of the situation while also showing that they’re a long-term bull (why else would they be entering the industry?)


    • Justin says

      Careful how you phrase the knowledge, especially if you have no business experience. When I was interviewing candidates for full-time analyst slots and they spoke up about the credit crunch, it sounded suspiciously like the previous day’s Wall Street Journal coverage. A little poking and it turns out that their “in-depth knowledge” was, in fact, yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.

      That’s kind of the trick here. Bankers, especially analysts, are usually so beaten down by the hierarchy (being yelled at, having to pull all-nighters on weekends, etc), they look for other avenues to justify their self-worth. So they usually sit down to interview convinced they’re smarter and much more experienced than you are. You need to show that you are smart, but be humble so they think you don’t think you’re better than the process. If you piss them off, they’ll just burn you in the interview with bullshit technicals (quick, how does SFAS 86 affect the amortization of software development on the cash flow statement) or mark you as a non-fit.

      Bottom line: they need to walk away thinking you’re amazing, but they’re still better.

    • says

      Yeah, that’s definitely true though I think very few people ACTUALLY understand the current crisis in-depth. But yeah emphasizing the long-term bull concept is important.

  5. says

    Kids who pretend to know more about a topic than they actually do? Sounds like a perfect future investment banker to me.

    In all seriousness, applicants should understand the story arc of the current crisis. You don’t have to know every detail along the way, but understanding that poor decisions creates bad results is a very important lesson that is being heeded across the street. Wall Street types have been pushed back on their heels, so showing the same sobering maturity that Wall Street is currently experiencing is important. Be a long-term bull, but also ask questions/be cynical. Part of the reason we are in this mess is because there were too many long-term bulls and not enough people asking questions.

  6. Jack says

    What made you choose I-Bankings over hedge funds?
    Also, coming out of undergraduate B-school, what are the differences in hours and pay if you go into hedge funds rather than investment banking? It seems like you would make more money and work less hours if you go into hedge funds rather than I-Banking, yet I-Banking seems to be more popular for BBA grads… What is the reason for this?

    • says

      Because banking gave a broader range of knowledge and things you could do after, which is why I suspect most people choose it.

      Also keep in mind hedge funds have tended to be quite a bit more volatile and unpredictable in terms of pay (although that probably applies to most anything these days).

      • Jack says

        That makes sense… I know you went over a comparison between hedge funds/private equity and I-Banking… but this comparison seemed to be for someone who has already completed 2 years of I-Banking and considering going to the buy-side. What would the differences in hours and pay be for someone coming out of undergrad school, assuming they can get into a hedge fund right out of school?

        • says

          It’s hard to say exactly because hedge funds are so varied – it’s not like PE where most are very similar in terms of work/hours etc.

          In general, for a smaller hedge fund you can expect better hours though there are always exceptions. Something like Cerberus would be way more intense, though it’s also really difficult to work there right out of school.

          As for pay, again that is all over the place depending on the fund. In general it’s less than what you would get after 2 years of i-banking, but it’s very heavily dependent on the fund and how well they’ve done.

  7. says

    I understand that your background from a target school helped you along the way but how did you exactly get the interviews for analyst recruiting? For s&t they only recruited from campuses so I am just wondering how you managed to get the interviews for banking? I have just finished a sales and trading program at a bb and seriously considering banking.

    Thanks a lot,

    • says

      Some were through on-campus recruiting, some were from referrals from friends.

      For S&T its actually harder to get interviews because there are so few spots so those were all pretty much through official recruiting.

      But banking was a mix of both and some smaller places I talked to didn’t even recruit on campus officially.

  8. Sam says

    I’ve very much enjoyed your website.I’m not in finance myself, but a freind of mine is thinking about it. He says he knows someone who is in the Taft-Hartley division of an investment bank.He says that person recently made Partner-Director and earns a fortune. Roughly how much on average would such a position pay? Thank you.

    • says

      Maybe $1MM USD per year? I’m honestly not sure, but most partners make at least that much.

      It takes a very long time to get there and you’ll hate your life by the time you make it, though…

  9. suchy says

    this question is unrelated…
    but how helpful would a bachelor of commerce (financial planning & accounting), and a 2 year internship in financial planning be if i intend to become an investment banker.


    • says

      It’s ok I suppose but a 2-year internship seems quite long. That puts you at a disadvantage vs. people who have done 3-month long banking/PE internships instead.

      • suchy says

        Hmm… well i have the option of completing my degree a year earlier and finding an internship myself (accelerated program), or getting a 2 year financial planning internship through my uni while completing my degree part time

        Does that make any difference? — Also, i live in brisbane, Australia and i suspect that there are much fewer investment banking positions here

        • says

          If they give you the internship, you should probably do that – but overall I really don’t know how much financial planning would help vs. IB/PE.

  10. Anon says

    You say in this article that “there there’s an entire lesson in Breaking Into Wall Street devoted to telling your story,” however I didn’t find such a session. Did you take it down?

    • says

      This article was written a long time ago (December 2008).

      It was referring to a completely different version of the site that I ended up canceling when I realized no one cared about anything other than modeling.

      There will be a section on this topic in the new interview guide.

  11. Jerry says

    How did you phrase the answers to questions you really didn’t know? Let’s say someone started bad-copping you, how did you work around it?

    • says

      I don’t remember – this story was from almost 10 years ago now. For technical questions just say you don’t know and you don’t want to waste their time with giving wrong answers.

  12. Anirudh says

    I?m currently pursuing my Bachelors degree in Electronics and Telecommunication (Penultimate year) in Bangalore, India. I?m planning on switching to finance or consulting at some point in the future. So, basically I should do an MBA after working for a few years? Are there any internships I could do before though? I get only about 4-6 weeks in Summer and a month during Christmas. Most of the companies I looked up offer an internship for a minimum 8-10 week period. Will this be a problem? And should I concentrate on my field now or try for training/internships in Finance (Which I have no knowledge about at the moment)?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Please only post the same comment once on our site. I have responded to this comment on the post Why Investment Banking.

  13. Kit says

    This question is for Brian and it is out of curiosity..

    I always see Korean advertisement and characters on your google chrome in your BIWS videos.
    How was working in Korea?
    and How did you learn the language so quickly? I know the alphabet are easy but must be tough to communicate.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Brian is pretty swamped these days so I’ll have to answer your question. I believe he enjoyed working there and he is just naturally good with languages.

  14. Hans says

    Thank you very much for your article, this helps lot !
    one thing that i want to ask, i came from Indonesia (Maybe you don’t know where is this country) in South – East Asia. I interested to apply to CADP – JP Morgan Indonesia Office (local presence), according to you, is there any different in term of Resume format and application process since my country culture of work very different from US or Europe culture of work?or should I adjust your advice to my country culture? is your advice & articles in this website also apllied in my country?

    thank you for your attention


    • M&I - Nicole says

      I think you can adjust our advice to your country. Our resume/cover letter tips should apply. You may want to list Fluent in English though since you’re in a non-English speaking country

  15. GT says

    So it’s perfectly acceptable to make it seem like banking is not something you want to do in the long run when applying for SA positions? I come from a technical background and would like to focus on one industry at a bank because I actually see myself being an investor or business owner in this industry later down the road. I’ve been networking a lot and when people ask me this they say that I shouldn’t make it seem like I want to get out of banking right after two years. Is there anything wrong with this? Thanks in advance.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Yes, I wouldn’t make it sound like you want to get out of banking after 2 years. I’d say that in the long term you see yourself as a deal maker.

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