by Brian DeChesare Comments (18)

Your Biggest Obstacle to Interview Success: Trying Too Hard?

Finance Interviews - Why Being Overbearing Kills Your ChancesSummer 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:

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

BODY:

“Dear All,

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

BODY:

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:

  1. 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:

  1. Former Engineer – Good at math and detail-oriented, but may have poor social skills or may not be able to work long hours.
  2. International Student – Strong work ethic and good at doing the work, but may struggle with English or fitting in at the office.
  3. 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.

  1. 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:

  1. Cancelling the interview or asking to switch the date; or
  2. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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!”

  1. 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.

  1. 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.”

Details do.

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.

  1. 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?

Yes, probably.

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.

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

Break Into Investment Banking

Free Exclusive Report: 57-page guide with the action plan you need to break into investment banking - how to tell your story, network, craft a winning resume, and dominate your interviews

We respect your privacy. Please refer to our full privacy policy.

Comments

Read below or Add a comment

  1. Brian,

    Reading this just makes me cringe, because I see what I have been doing wrong for the last 4 months. So, if people that I’ve reached out to have already gotten a overbearing impression of me, what can I do to help change their view about me? I’ve noticed myself being too aggressive/overbearing in my emails/interview/networking efforts, and this article just confirmed that I need to fix this. Thanks Brian.

    Tyler

    1. At this point, not much. Just relax and contact other people or wait a while before following up again.

  2. ANONYMOUS

    Although you bring up some key points that could be seen as weaknesses such as rote memorization of the right answers, this isn’t an issue that affects only (or mainly) Asian cultures. If you actually asked someone who has been through the education system there, they will tell you that is changed. There’s more focus on extracurricular and social activities outside of school. However, you didn’t describe this weakness in the general context, but attributed to one subset of people, which is disturbing.

    Why can’t your next post be about why a Black person shouldn’t put basketball on his resume because bankers will not like that either? I don’t think you would to be honest, but Asians can’t join the orchestra? How does that make sense?

    1. We’ll have to agree to disagree on the changed education system – I see what you’re saying, but recent change isn’t really helpful for people who started the whole system 15-20 years ago and who are now recruiting for internships or full-time roles.

      Yes, I agree the language above was too strong and the specific reference to the orchestra should not have been made. Future articles will not include references to specific people or subsets of populations.

      However, the underlying point remains intact: you need to understand in advance what type of bias or stereotype bankers will have of you, and then be prepared to counter it. This applies regardless of your background… biases exist for athletes, engineers, accountants, lawyers, Americans, Europeans, Asians, etc. etc. etc.

      I understand you feel strongly about this issue, but that’s about all I will say on this. I agree that the original language used in the article and in the comments above went too far, so I’ve removed the reference above, and, as mentioned, will no longer be referring to any subset of people in any articles.

      If you would like to continue the discussion, I will have to ask you to message me on LinkedIn or via email as I won’t debate anonymous posters online past a certain point.

  3. Hey Brian,

    This isn’t the first time I’ve seen slights directed towards Asian cultures. “You Are a Victim of the Education System in Asia”? Seriously? That’s pretty judgmental towards a culture you probably don’t know much about. I’m not sure where your bias/ignorance comes from.

    1. BBQ Shape

      I know this wasn’t directed at me, but I have a little exposure to Asian countries and China in particular admits it has issues with its education system that it would like to remedy. This goes hand in hand with China wanting to switch from a manufacturing economy into a high-tech consumer-driven economy much like developed countries. I know I’m leaving out other countries in Asia but, bear with me.

      That wasn’t a slight at “Asian culture.” It’s a critique of an institution. Critique is how we improve as a society and we alter ways of doing things for new ways of doing things.

      You’re correct, it is a judgment made, but I agree with it, it’s a sound judgment, and it doesn’t come from ignorance. It comes from listening to Asian countries’ own complaints about their own education system and noticing patterns in learning styles from other regions.

      I think a little critical thinking in this regard would help see that the comment is an objective one and it’s meant to be helpful. Brian wasn’t writing an attack and I think he knows a little more about “Asian culture” than you would believe. Every critique he’s made about many institutions is a valid one and whether you agree, the logic is always sound. He has critiqued “the path”, the concept of “elite schools”, and many other ideas and paradigms that may go against what the masses say. I personally find it refreshing and not derogatory in any way.

      Hope that helps cast a different light on this. Those are my thoughts.

    2. Thanks for your comment. I expected that line to draw some controversy, so I’m surprised you were the first one to respond that way.

      To answer your question: that part came not from ignorance or bias, but from 1) Direct, firsthand observation of the education system in Asia and 2) Working with 150+ clients over the years, many of whom grew up in the education system there.

      I’m not sure how long you’ve been reading the site, but I’ve written about my time there many times and I even used one story in the main modeling course we offer (see: lesson 01-04 in the Fundamentals course).

      There’s a good reason for that: I have spent much of the last 10 years in Asia, including time spent working at a traditional Japanese company in Kyoto where no one knew English and where the business customs were completely different from anything in Western countries.

      I’ve also tutored students there at all levels and spoken to hundreds of people in East Asian countries about the education system. And then a huge percentage of our clients have grown up in Asia and are now studying or working in other countries.

      Do I know as much as someone who actually grew up there until age 18? No, of course not. But I do know enough to comment on issues I’ve seen with clients who have come from that region.

      In doing everything above, I have never once met someone who actually thought highly of the education system there in any way. In fact, 2 months ago I was at an event in Korea with dozens of students from the top university in the country and the most common comment about the education system was “It’s all memorization.”

      Beyond anecdotes, though, I also looked at client documents and summaries of key problems / challenges going back to 2008, and found that almost everyone who grew up in Asia and then moved to another country later in life made the same mistake in interviews / interview preparation: trying to memorize exact answers to questions or writing down exact answers to questions in advance.

      We saw this with 90%+ of candidates who matched that profile. Certainly, some candidates who grew up in other places also made this mistake, but the percentage was much lower (maybe 30-40%) and their key challenges were more varied.

      No, it’s not a controlled scientific experiment. Yes, correlation is different from causation. But when all is said and done, percentages that lopsided seem unlikely to be a coincidence.

      Happy to explain any of this in more detail if you want to add me on LinkedIn or email me separately.

      1. M&I - Nicole

        Having being through the educational system in Asia (and the West) and having met a lot of people who have been through the system in Asia, I second what Brian says.

  4. Hi Brian,

    Any recommendations for people who are looking for housing in summer? Is it a good idea to look for housing/roommate on wallstreetosis?

    Thanks,
    Sarah

    1. M&I - Nicole

      I’m not 100% sure regarding WSO but you may want to check out Craigslist and Airbnb. Going through your alumni connections may also help.

  5. BBQ Shape

    I absolutely loved this post. You’ve mentioned before in other articles about these canned answers that sound way too rehearsed. Example that came to mind was the “What’s your biggest weakness?” “Oh, I work too hard,” or “I’m too generous.” Haha. I don’t interview candidates but if I was forced to, I might grimace at those answers.

    We often read a lot in the general workplace about how confidence is so key, and people need to bring forth a lot of confidence etc. For myself, and probably especially others in the finance field, I feel like we have to actually tone it down and pretend to be shy a little. Instead of 100% confidence that you can nail this thing, I take it down to about 80%. This has actually gotten me great results over the years even though it seems counterintuitive. Granted I’m not an IBD guy, but I imagine some of this correlates.

    Oh, and my favorite part is how you said “There’s just no Royale with Cheese.” This describes it perfectly and I couldn’t stop laughing when I read it because it’s absolutely true. Even in just plain conversation when some people talk about their field, it’s these dry and lifeless answers that are difficult to listen to.

    This one definitely should go down in M&I’s Best.

    1. Thanks!

      Yeah, that is very true. I think people from “elite schools” especially tend to show way too much confidence, and most of it is not justified especially when they are just starting out.

      Yeah, most people tell pretty boring stories about anything, work included…

  6. Great article. I am in urgent need of help though. I recently cold called several wealth management firms in my area and had my resume sent in. I got a email reply back today saying that it was a great speaking with me but the firm is unsure whether they want an intern or not. How should I reply to this email? I just have no idea if I should even reply at all. I was thinking along the lines of, “thank you very much for your quick reply and I hope to speak to you soon”. But I’m just freaking out because I really need this internship this summer.

    1. One more thing, I am actually traveling to the city that I cold called and was wondering if I should try and set up an informational meeting with anyone?

      1. Yes, definitely. Email anyone you called or contacted previously and ask about it – if you have limited time between now and then, maybe aim for the top 5 contacts you have there.

    2. I would reply back and say thanks, you understand their position, but you would be able to assist with any tasks they have that are taking up more senior staff members’ time and that you’re capable of helping with [X, Y, and Z – whatever skills you have that overlap with their needs].

      Also, you’re happy to make it a short trial internship so they can say “no” at any time, so there’s no risk to them at all.

      You can probably word that better, but that’s the idea. Calling would also work for this.

  7. Another great article. As a female Asian doing on her MBA in the States, do you have any suggestions on how to overcome the language and cultural barriers? If people can’t fake themselves as a super social and love drinking. Moving up in banking, people need to win clients. For Asian internationals, any suggestions/advice you would give?

    In terms of finding something interesting/part time jobs, any suggestions in particular?

    1. Thanks! My recommendation would be to join MBA clubs for completely random things… for example, find some type of club for people in another region, or a club for something like poker, sports, or comedy. Or even something like public speaking would be interesting. The key is getting to know people outside your immediate background.

      For part-time jobs, maybe something to do with the school administration such as fund-raising or outreach to alumni – anything where you have to speak on the phone or in-person a lot would help. I am not sure exactly what’s available at the MBA level, but maybe you can contact the school and ask what’s available. Another option might be tutoring undergrads or doing tutoring as a volunteer activity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *