How to Break Into Finance with a Low GPA, No Finance Experience, and Without Going to a Top School: 4 Mistakes to Avoid and 3 Strategies to Embrace
It’s one of the most common questions/complaints I get…
“All your advice is focused on people at top schools! What about the rest of us!”
“You assume that we have 4.0 GPAs in finance programs!”
“What do I do if I’ve been a door-to-door insurance salesman for the past 10 years?”
Today I’ll share a few stories from readers who work at banks and are responsible for interviewing potential new hires – and a story from one reader who recently did exactly what the title suggests:
He got into finance with poor grades, no finance experience, and did it coming from an unknown school.
Here’s how he did it…
What NOT to Do
Let’s start with a few stories from readers who are working in investment banking and interviewing potential intern and full-time hires.
Read each of these, and then do the exact opposite of what the person in the story did.
1. Potential New Hires at a Boutique: Back to the Basics
Here’s a portion of an email I received from an Associate at a boutique investment bank who has been interviewing potential interns recently:
“It seems unbelievable, but most of the resumes we got were poorly formatted and had typos. What are they thinking? Also, it was shocking to me how many people had no idea about basic business and accounting concepts like enterprise value and working capital. Even more shocking was how many students claimed their ignorance was understandable because their university did not have a business program.”
Lessons Learned: Go back to the basics. If your resume has typos and you can’t explain enterprise value, your chances are 0%. Investment banking is a hyper-competitive field that attracts Type-A personalities and overachiever workaholics.
But despite how competitive it is, it’s still worth remembering that the majority of applicants don’t even get the basics right… and at true regional boutiques, you run into even fewer interviewees who know their stuff 100%.
It goes back to one of my favorite points: don’t overestimate the competition.
2. The Guy Who Couldn’t Take No for an Answer: Avoid “Jack Bauer”-Style Networking
This story comes from a friend who works at a boutique outside the US. This was an in-person story, so I’ll quote my friend as accurately as possible:
“I had one guy who requested an informational meeting with me… so we met for coffee once. I could tell that he didn’t know that much, and during the meeting he was trying way too hard to impress me rather than just being himself. I told him we weren’t hiring anyone at the moment, but he kept pressing me for more meetings.
Within 2 weeks, he had emailed me about 5 times asking if I was free for more informational interviews. By the 5th email I basically stopped responding to him.”
Lessons Learned: Persistence is good… to a certain degree. You have to read your contacts and decide who likes you, who is open to further discussions, and who doesn’t want to have anything to do with you.
Remember, a networking ninja is stealthy – but emailing someone 5 times in 2 weeks is the complete opposite. Rather than subtly extracting information from your target, you’re more like Jack Bauer torturing a suspected terrorist to get information on the next attack.
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Subtlety comes with practice and there’s no quick-fix solution: the best advice is to get out there and start talking to people. If no one responds favorably, re-think your approach and ask your friends and anyone you’ve spoken with for honest feedback.
It’s probably too aggressive to contact someone more than once every few weeks unless you know him/her very well and have extremely specific questions.
A BIG part of going from networking newbie to networking ninja is determining your “most valuable” contacts and acting accordingly.
3. The “Finance Expert”: Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth
It’s tempting to claim that you have a ton of finance experience to stand out – and that temptation is especially strong if you don’t have top grades, a banking internship, or an Ivy League name on your resume.
But bankers can detect that type of deception instantly, and will always call you out on it – as in this story from a friend who just interviewed one candidate:
“Had a guy who told me he has ‘built financial models and performed relative valuation such as trading comps and transaction comps.’
I asked him to walk me through how he spread those comps… and then he just stumbled and started going off on a tangent for 5 minutes without actually answering the question. Not knowing is one thing, but his biggest mistake was lying about it.”
Lessons Learned: Don’t lie, especially about something that the interviewer can easily determine is a lie – whether it’s “fluent in Mandarin” or “knowing how to spread trading comps.”
It’s one thing if you’re exaggerating your role in a “company you founded” (with your friends in a backyard in high school) and the facts are harder to check, but when it’s something concrete you can’t afford fabrication.
Only bend the truth when you won’t get called on it and when it benefits you in some way.
4. The “Steep Learning Curve”: Wait, Why Did You Want to Do Investment Banking Again?
It’s amazing, but some interviewees have no idea why they’re actually applying to investment banking jobs. I get at least 1 email per month asking what the “best reason to say you want to do i-banking” is… and here’s the truth:
Think for yourself about why you actually want to do it and use that as your reason.
And make sure you have a good reason – unlike the guy below (another story from a friend at a boutique)
“Another guy told me he wanted to get into i-banking ‘because nowhere else would provide a steeper learning curve where he could learn the most in two years.’ He kept rambling on about learning… but I had no clue WHAT he wanted to learn – so I asked him if he wanted to learn i-banking, or learn how to learn… he was TONGUE TIED.”
Lessons Learned: Your “story” and answer to “why i-banking” (or “why PE,” “why consulting,” “why anything”) are the most important parts of any interview – and if you have bad answers, you’ll never make it past the first round.
Saying something generic like “I want to learn” can potentially work but you need to elaborate and say what it is you want to learn specifically – and then tie it into your background and what you’ve done before.
A tech consultant saying he wants to understand the big picture of the industry when applying for tech banking makes sense.
But if you limit your response to “I want to learn” without elaborating, the interviewer would rightfully turn around and say, “So enroll in a Ph.D. program – what are you doing here? Or go read a lot of books.”
From Failure to Success: Getting in With a Low GPA, No Background, and No Top School
No matter what your grades and education are like, you absolutely need to have your “story” together and have good answers to the basic questions.
But if you’re not coming from a “4.0 at Harvard” background, you may be tempted to exaggerate and be overly aggressive when networking, both of which can hurt you.
Here’s how one reader avoided all that and got into finance despite having a low GPA, no prior experience, AND after he had already been working full-time in another industry:
“I know that in one of your recent posts a reader had mentioned that they wanted to hear a story about someone who came from a non-target school, with a lower-than-average GPA, and no finance experience, who made their way into the industry.
Well, I am that person! I went to a small non-target college that no one has heard of, and got under a 3.0 there (though I got a 4.0 on the social scale!).
I’ve been working for the past few years as a tech consultant, though I also did some management consulting-type work.
I recently got an offer from a hybrid banking/consulting boutique, and did it by networking with an alum from my school who I cold-called. He was fairly high-up so it was a good decision to go to him directly.
During my interview process, rather than getting technical questions on accounting and finance, I was asked to provide sample work product showing my writing, presentation, and basic modeling abilities.
I know that’s not the norm at bulge brackets, but I think anyone applying to boutiques and hybrid firms should know that – especially if you have some full-time work experience, showing them what you can do (literally) plays a big role in getting offers.”
1. Although he didn’t go to a target school with a strong network in finance, he used that to his advantage by cold-calling someone high-up and using the rare alumni card to get an “in.”
How many calls do you think someone like that gets?
Not many if he’s from a non-target school.
2. He leveraged his background by applying to a hybrid firm rather than a pure bank. By appropriately spinning his consulting experience, he made it sound like he was well-suited for the position.
And since it was a boutique, his chances were higher to begin with.
3. There’s more than one way to impress. Especially for anyone working full-time and applying to small firms, bringing in examples of your previous work is an effective and often-overlooked strategy.
You have a big advantage over anyone still in school, because you’ve already proven yourself in another field – and you need to use that to your advantage.
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