Your Biggest Obstacle to Interview Success: Trying Too Hard?
Summer internship recruiting season is over.
And full-time recruiting finished a long time ago.
Maybe you made it through and got the offer you wanted…
…but in all likelihood, it didn’t go exactly as planned.
Maybe you got an offer in the industry you were targeting, but it wasn’t at the firm you wanted.
Or maybe you had to choose one of your “Plan B” options instead.
By now, you’ve probably:
- Done a play-by-play analysis of what happened in every interview.
- Read all the articles on this site about why you may not have received the offer you wanted.
- Gotten input from your friends, parents, and even your 2nd cousin twice removed (he was an MD at Goldman 20 years ago!).
- Made a “to do” list of 51 tasks that you must complete to perform better next time around.
But you might want to think again.
There’s a good chance that trying too hard and coming across as overbearing sunk your chances the first time around.
And that 51-item “to do” list might just sink your chances next time.
Yes, that’s right: you might get better results by putting in less effort, or at least concealing the effort you’ve put in.
Why Are You Trying So Hard, Exactly?
I saw this behavior when I interviewed candidates as far back as 5-10 years ago, but it has become far more common lately.
Just like how interviews have become more case study-based and candidates’ communication skills have fallen to shockingly low levels, “trying too hard” is another major trend.
It happens in interviews, in networking, and even when you’re preparing to start working.
And I know this firsthand because of all the email and inquiries we get on this topic:
Example #1: People Asking Us to Complete Their Timed, On-the-Spot Case Studies for Them
Someone wrote in the other day with this message:
SUBJECT: need on-the-spot modeling service
Thanks for your time! I need on-the-spot modeling help.
Similar to a case study, but I will be providing the case and I would like you to return the completed model within the time (this is a standard LBO case).
Please kindly let me know if you will be able to provide the service and please also suggest a price.”
I refuse all requests like this, for both ethical and personal reasons.
But I am 100% certain that people out there are paying and getting paid for these types of “services.”
Example #2: Reciting an Overly-Rehearsed “Story” and/or Overthinking Other Questions
Another message from the other day:
SUBJECT: interview question
“I hope this email finds you well. Just wanted to check in about how to answer the ‘Tell me one thing about you that’s not on your resume’ question.
What are the exact qualities that IBD interviewers are looking for? What’s a good answer I could give?”
And I am supposed to answer this one… based only on your resume?
And another message / comment on a different topic
“Recently I had a Superday interview at a bulge bracket bank. When they asked me to walk through my background, I answered in about 60 seconds and he looked at me and said, ‘That was very well-rehearsed.’
Is that a bad sign?”
Maybe not the end of the world, no, but it does mean you’ve been practicing/rehearsing too much.
Example #3: Trying a Wee Bit Too Hard to “Prepare for the Job”
This one came out of a really long email message we received, but I’ll paraphrase the punch line as:
“I really need a sample verbal presentation that bankers would deliver to clients.
Can you please record and send me one, ideally a real one that bankers have delivered confidentially to their clients, so I can memorize the tone and style and prepare for my internship?”
Sorry, I am not Jason Bourne.
But hey, if they do make another sequel you might want to contact the producers…
How Do You Cross the Line from “Being Well-Prepared” to “Being Overbearing”?
There are a few specific reasons why this has been happening more and more frequently:
Reason #1: Prep Resources Have Multiplied, and You Think “Interview Prep” = Binge-Watching House of Cards
Netflix just released the new season of House of Cards last week.
I haven’t finished it yet, but some crazy people stayed up all night to watch all 13 episodes, or stayed in all weekend to watch.
You, however, should not follow their tactics when preparing for interviews.
It’s tempting to do this because there are so many guides, courses, coaching services, and preparation resources out there.
And yes, I’ll plead guilty to magnifying this trend, but most of our courses are not at all intended for “last-minute consumption.”
The key to technical mastery is starting long in advance and then practicing repeatedly over a long time – months or years.
If you already know the concepts and just need to review, yes, last-minute cramming can work.
But binge-watching to learn is like preparing for a marathon by running 10 miles once – the day before – but doing nothing in the 4 months before that.
Reason #2: You Assume That School Success = Work Success
If you are applying for roles in IB / PE / related areas and you haven’t had much work experience, there’s a good chance you’re incorrectly equating academic success and workplace success.
But they are very, very different.
In school, you can try harder than other people, memorize more than them, study longer hours, and pull all-nighters until you come out on top.
This is because you’re judged on test scores, essays, and written assignments.
But this stops working as well in the workplace because you are judged by other people, not your scores on specific exams.
So you can’t “memorize” your way into making people like you: you can make yourself more personable, but not by staying up until 3 AM studying for the CFA.
Reason #3: You Went Through an Education System That Discouraged Creativity / Critical Thinking
This comment seemed to draw a lot of controversy last time, so I’ve modified this “reason” entirely and removed references to specific regions.
All I’ll say is this: if your education system, regardless of where you grew up, encouraged rote memorization rather than critical thinking, you’ll be at a disadvantage in recruiting because much of the recruiting process is based on “gut feelings” about people rather than hard numbers.
To overcome that, you’ll have to spend more time developing other skills and resisting the temptation to memorize answers in advance.
Memorization works well in some areas, but memorizing actual answers to interview questions is counter-productive and hurts your chances.
Reason #4: You Assume That Nuclear War is the Answer to Any Conflict
Let’s say that 2 nuclear powers get into a conflict over a tiny piece of land.
Instead of conducting negotiations first, one power simply decides to launch a barrage of nuclear weapons at the other one.
What type of reaction would everyone else have?
This is a ridiculous scenario, but you might be doing something similar in interviews.
I’ve seen many people go into interviews and give off the attitude that they know more the interviewer – or that they are perfect for the role because of Reason X.
Sometimes this is actually correct… but you should never act like it.
Instead, you need to use a lighter touch, downplay your knowledge, and appear “competent, but not perfect.”
How to Cross Back from “Overbearing” to “Well-Prepared”
There isn’t a quick, simple fix for everything, but I would suggest these 7 steps first:
- Understand Your Own Profile
Start by taking an honest look at yourself and understanding what bankers’ 5-10 second impression will be.
There are so many case studies and reader interviews on this site that you should have a good idea of their objections, but here are a few examples:
- Former Engineer – Good at math and detail-oriented, but may have poor social skills or may not be able to work long hours.
- International Student – Strong work ethic and good at doing the work, but may struggle with English or fitting in at the office.
- Extensive IB/PE Experience Looking to Switch Firms – Can do the work and knows the job, but may be boring or too much of a job-hopper.
Once you know your 1-2 key “risk factors,” you should structure your answers to address those.
So if you have already completed 3 PE internships, please, don’t walk in and spend all your time convincing them that you’re a technical wizard.
- Stop Binging Your Interview Prep
Your interviewer is not Frank Underwood.
In fact, you are unlikely to ever speak with Kevin Spacey or anyone associated with him.
So please do not sit down for a single 12-hour period and expect to master accounting or valuation.
If you only have hours left and you just found about an interview and you really know nothing about it, you are better off either:
- Cancelling the interview or asking to switch the date; or
- Simply telling them you don’t know about Topic X and offering to get back to them on the answers afterward.
This issue often comes up when you apply for too many roles all at once and you suddenly need to know about finance in 10 different industries.
Particularly at the MBA and “lateral hiring” levels, this does not work well.
Even if you’re superhuman, the odds are greatly against you when you apply for too many different roles instead of focusing on just one.
- Stop Writing Down Answers to Specific Questions
Sometimes I wish I had never included examples of resume walk-throughs or answers to specific “fit” questions in the interview guide because they are consistently misinterpreted.
These are intended to be examples of the points you might mention in your own answers; they are not intended to be copy-and-paste templates where you recite everything and change 2 words out of 150 total words.
And you are definitely not supposed to write out 2-page long responses to anything.
Yes, you can think of anecdotes in advance, but anything beyond that is pushing it.
- Make Your Answers Less Structured
In one mock interview a few months ago, a student said something like this in response to the “Why our firm?” question:
“There are 3 reasons I’m interested in Firm X…”
And then he gave 3 really detailed reasons that included name-dropping and specific deals / deal values.
Whenever you start an answer by giving the exact number of points you’re going to make, it sounds more like a recited speech and less like a natural conversation.
It’s OK to say this occasionally, but you don’t want to preface every single answer with a number of reasons.
Your answers should still have a structure, but you don’t want to state the structure upfront all the time.
After all, would it be any fun to watch Frank Underwood if he told you in Episode 1, “By the end of this season, I will accomplish X and Y and destroy Persons A, B, and C – please watch me do it!”
- Speak More Slowly
If it sounds like you’ve just consumed 25 Red Bulls and a pinch of cocaine, interviewers will assume that you have (and that you’ve practiced way too much).
So slow down, and if you have to choose between more information at a higher speed vs. less information at a slower pace, pick the slower pace.
It’s also fine to have pauses and brief hesitations in your responses; you don’t want to sound robotic.
How fast is “too fast”?
You can test this by recording yourself and counting your words per minute.
“Too fast” would probably be 200 words per minute and above; 120 to 150 words would be more appropriate, and a lot of radio shows and podcasts are done at 150-160 words per minute.
So get a sense of what those speeds feel like and aim for the 150-160 wpm range, even if it means cutting some information.
NOTE: And before you even say it, yes, I realize the irony: I often speak more quickly than 150-160 wpm. It will be fixed, but it takes a lot of time to re-record hundreds of hours of video.
- Include More Personal Details in Your Story
What makes a story “interesting”?
Almost every story has the same structure: the protagonist has a problem, struggles to solve the problem, fails at first, reaches a low point, but then pulls something together in the end to solve it just as the figurative bomb is about to go off.
So a proper structure doesn’t make a film / TV / book story, or your own personal pitch / story, “interesting.”
Think about a very distinct movie like Pulp Fiction, but told generically:
“Two mob hitmen attempt to kill someone for their boss, but get surprised when an accomplice jumps out of hiding and shoots at them; they survive, but one hitman decides to quit. The other stays in the job and almost gets his boss’s wife killed, but ultimately dies when a boxer he’s hunting down surprises him and kills him first.”
It doesn’t necessarily sound “boring,” but you might not even recognize this movie because it lacks details: there’s no Royale with Cheese, no foot massage, no quotation from the Bible, no adrenaline injection, etc.
You can’t insert tons of personal details in your story, but you should mention at least one point that sets you apart: a hobby or activity others won’t have or unexpected regional experience (e.g., being from Asia but working in Africa, or being from the US but working in Asia), for example.
- Get a Hobby and/or an Unrelated Part-Time Job
A few months ago one student came to us and said, “I got an internship offer, but it wasn’t at the bank I wanted. How should I prepare for full-time interviews in 6 months? Aren’t they even more difficult?”
He had very good technical skills, multiple internships, and seemed competent in interviews.
So I told him to do the opposite and recommended spending time getting a new hobby or an unrelated part-time job that required a lot of face-to-face interaction (not for a resume entry, just for the experience, stories, and more practice with non-electronic interactions).
It goes back to point #1 above: understanding your own profile.
He appeared overeager and came across as a bit too intense in interviews, so it made absolutely no sense to continue memorizing technical questions.
If you’re in that position, doing something similar would also help you a lot more than poring through even more questions and answers.
Are You Still Overbearing?
But if you try less or you hide your efforts more effectively, you might just appear less overbearing and get better results.
And the next time you get the urge to binge-prep or go through 50 practice interviews, take a break, get a hobby, or binge-watch House of Cards instead.
The Underwoods will thank you, and your interviewer might as well.
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