From International Student at Non-Target School to Bulge Bracket Investment Banking: How to Beat the Odds and Break In
You might say that it’s “pretty tough” to break into investment banking in the US these days – even if you have perfect grades, an Ivy League degree, great work experience, and you’ve networked so much you never want to “meet someone for coffee” again.
Now imagine that you come from a… slightly different background:
- You go to an unknown school that no banks recruit at.
- You just moved from China to the US 3 years ago with a limited command of English.
- You’re not a US citizen and you don’t have that all-important work visa.
- Your family has no connections in the US, and so you can’t rely on that uncle who’s Head of Investment Banking to help you out.
Impossible to break in?
Not at all.
Our interviewee today broke into the industry in under a year, even with all those handicaps working against him.
Here’s how he did it, and how you can do the same – including how to deal with visa issues, how to stand out as an international student, and how to overcome cultural differences when networking.
Let’s get started.
In the Beginning…
Q: Can you tell us how you arrived in the US and picked a school there?
A: Sure. I moved from China to the US a few years ago, and could barely communicate at the time – I spoke minimal English and had trouble holding real conversations.
I couldn’t get a very good SAT score as a result, so I started looking at cheaper, public schools that had solid business and finance programs.
I found a “non-target” school that offered me a scholarship, and took the offer since I couldn’t get in anywhere else and couldn’t afford expensive schools.
Q: You mentioned before we spoke that you had performed well academically in China – why didn’t you just go back there and attend a top university?
A: I did have the chance to attend one of the top universities in China – my family is involved with several businesses there, which is how I originally got interested in finance.
But in Asia, higher education in Western countries is still better-respected; many of the top students want to study in the US or UK even if they intend to move back to their own countries one day.
Q: OK, so you wanted the respect and so you decided to move to the US for college.
What was your next step?
A: From day 1, I knew I had to get real internship experience and upgrade my English level if I wanted to work in the country.
So I started talking more with my roommates and striking up random conversations with people, and that helped with learning the language and getting adjusted to the culture.
The bigger problem was getting a work visa. I went through a couple interviews for firms after I enrolled in school, but I kept losing out because companies were not able to sponsor me.
Q: I think that happens to a lot of international students – so what was your solution?
A: I started offering to complete unpaid internships at smaller firms since no work visa was required for that.
Just like you’ve recommended here, I networked aggressively, cold-called lots of banks, and even went back to China to complete an internship there when nothing worked out after my first year in the US.
That internship in China was unpaid, and then I completed another unpaid internship at a boutique in the US after that.
After I got that experience, I started networking like crazy and used LinkedIn to contact over 1,000 bankers, also taking weekend trips to New York (5 times) and to Chicago (3 times).
I ended up winning a bulge bracket internship offer, which I accepted immediately.
Always Be… Networking
Q: So your strategy for dealing with the visa issue: do unpaid internships, go back to your home country and do an internship there, and then leverage that experience when you return to the US.
That’s a great story – but I want to go into more detail on a few parts.
How did you get this unpaid internship at the bank in China, and how is the culture there different in terms of networking?
A: It was a bit easier in China because I had more connections and I could go through family and friends, so I didn’t have to rely on cold calling quite as much.
Getting internships in China can be easier because you talk to HR people and they decide what to do with you – it’s not like the US where HR has little decision-making power and it all comes down to the senior bankers.
And it’s more common to get unpaid or low-paying internships there because of the corporate culture. So it doesn’t take as much work to convince local firms, or even international firms with offices there, to take you on as an unpaid intern.
Q: I see – any other differences with networking besides the people you reach out to?
It’s extremely difficult to get in touch with senior bankers here – you need to go through the right channels, make sure you ask the right people, and so on.
So it’s not even worth your time to find their information. Just worry about HR and maybe entry-level analysts if you can get in touch.
The way you reach out is also very different. You need to be very polite, you can’t use peoples’ first names, and “having a casual chat” is not as common as it is in Western countries.
So you need to take a more formal approach, and sometimes you spend more time asking about business and work rather than personal questions.
Q: What other mistakes have you seen people make when they’ve networked in China?
A: Sometimes people returning from other countries like to say that they’re going to college abroad or that they come from a wealthy background – but people in China may interpret that as “bragging” and it could easily backfire on you.
So you don’t want to mention any of those points by themselves.
Focus on the difficulties you overcame and what you had to do to get where you are. Complaining about life in another country would just sound silly.
Q: So did you find people there to be more or less responsive compared to those in the US?
A: They were more responsive and helpful to me in China.
It might just be a cultural thing, but the difference is that in the US people often act nice to you even when they don’t or can’t help you.
But in China, people are often direct, bordering on rude and bossy, even if they actually want to help you out – or at least they’re straightforward about what they can do for you.
Q: Right, those are some interesting differences to note and that should be helpful for anyone who needs to network in Asia.
Can you talk about your approach to networking when you were back in the US? What types of strategies worked well, and what did not work well?
A: At first, I tried sending very long emails detailing my background, strengths, and weaknesses, and so on.
Q: Bankers stop reading emails after sentence #5.
A: Yeah, that’s what I realized after a while. No one has time to read through your entire email, so my response rate was horrible.
I switched to using very, very short emails that just stated my name, what university I was at, the internship(s) I had completed, and then asked for a few minutes of their time to tell me about their experiences.
Like you’ve said before, it really is a numbers game. You can craft the best email in the world and be incredibly interesting, but if people are in a bad mood, they won’t reply. And if they’re in a good mood, they will reply.
Q: Can you give us a sense of those numbers?
How many bankers did you contact, and what was your success rate?
A: I emailed over 1,000 people through a combination of Internet searches and LinkedIn. I also became friendly with a few professors who had industry connections, and I had lists of the largest banks in the US and regional boutiques.
Every day, I sent out around 20 emails, all to different banks. I realized that sending out multiple emails to people at the same bank each day could hurt me if they got to talking, so I spread out my networking among more firms.
Of those 1,000 people, I got responses from around 200, and of those 200, 100 were actually interested in speaking with me while the other 100 were just being polite.
And then of those, around 50 helped me get ahead, referred me to other people in the industry, and even pushed for me in interviews.
I exchanged emails, set up times to chat, and spoke to those 50 most helpful contacts for around 15-20 minutes each; eventually I also set up multiple weekend trips for New York and Chicago.
Q: Those actually sound like good numbers – and the percentages match what some of our previous interviewees have reported.
Besides the work visa, what other obstacles did you encounter when recruiting?
A: Language was still the #1 problem for me at first.
Some people were nice, but others were more direct and told me I needed to improve my English skills.
Sometimes the culture could cause issues – lots of bankers would talk about American sports, which I knew nothing about at first.
So I started learning about it, reading up on news, and learning about key players and using their language to talk about what they were interested in.
Coming from a non-target school hurt me, but I was able to explain why I did it: I went there for financial reasons, even though I had the opportunity to go to a top-tier school in China.
Be careful not to deprecate yourself too much; always talk about how you’ve improved over time and what you can bring to the table (languages, knowledge of a region, expertise in an industry) that others won’t have.
Q: Right. We skipped over it at first, but I’m also curious about the work visa issues and exactly how you overcame them.
What was your experience with getting banks to sponsor you?
A: For summer internships this past year, I just focused on bulge bracket banks and they were much better about sponsorship than smaller firms.
It will still be a problem if you’re international because you need to be better than the US citizens who are applying.
If you’re up against someone from Harvard who’s a citizen and has perfect grades, you need something to set yourself apart – otherwise they’re paying extra and completing more paperwork for the same person.
One of the best ways to differentiate yourself: network with people from your own country at banks.
Since you have a common background, they’ll help you out just like alumni will.
And if you can’t find anyone from your own country, find other foreigners who faced similar challenges and have been in your situation before. They’ll be much more sympathetic than people who were born and raised in the US.
Q: You mentioned just now how you need to be better than candidates with brand-name schools and top grades – but how do you actually do that?
At the junior levels, how can you really set yourself apart, especially if you haven’t had much work experience yet?
A: Besides the point above about networking with other foreigners, I would suggest extreme preparation for technical questions.
These days, even liberal arts people know basic technical questions so you need to go beyond the basics and learn more advanced material on M&A, LBO models, and even how specific industries differ on the technical side.
But you can’t be cocky about it; lead them into technical topics and surprise them with your knowledge (assuming you know your stuff very well).
As an example, in one first round interview I got the standard question about which valuation methodology generates the highest value – a DCF or comps.
Rather than giving a straightforward answer, I re-phrased the question instead and said, “Did you say comps, DCF, or LBO?”
That led them into knowing that I knew something about LBOs, and that led to a discussion of more advanced topics where I proved my knowledge.
You can’t be too blatant about showing off your skills, but you want to lead the interviewer as much as possible and show that you’ve gone above and beyond with your preparation.
Finally, you can also stand out by talking about what you’ve done to get here and the difficulties you’ve faced compared to other candidates.
It’s just like the Rocky story: show that you’re hungrier than candidates from privileged backgrounds, and you have a huge advantage.
Q: You get bonus points for referring back to that article – it was one of the most fun ones to write on the entire site.
What about interviews themselves? Did any questions come up repeatedly given your background?
A: I did not go through a huge number of interviews because I won an offer early on. I had interviews lined up elsewhere, but I turned them down because I didn’t want to risk losing this offer for a slightly better one.
Mostly, they were just curious why I decided to come to the US and whether I made decisions according to a plan, or if I decide to do things just because I’m passionate about them.
The last thing they want is for half-motivated people to join and then leave after 6 months – so they assessed how committed I was by asking more about my own personal story and how well I had thought out my move to the US.
I never thought of the interview as a way to just get a job – it was a way to learn more about each other and exchange stories.
So I always acted like a real person and not some random job seeker, even when I was under a lot of pressure to win offers.
Q: That’s great advice. It’s similar to how some people think “Walk me through your resume” means to walk the interviewer through your resume, when in reality it means “Tell me your story.”
Speaking of your story, what’s yours? What are your future plans? Are you thinking of staying in banking, or even in the US?
A: I’m not sure yet since I just recently landed this internship. I’m most interested in Leveraged Finance right now, and if I can get into the group I want to stay there for a few years.
I do want to return to China at some point, or at least go back to somewhere in Asia, such as Hong Kong, to move closer to home.
So I might end up doing one of those or moving into PE after working in banking for a while.
And it might be fun to start my own firm one day in China or somewhere else in Asia, but that’s obviously a long ways off.
Q: I’m sure you’ll end up owning half the country one day (at least, if the government doesn’t claim ownership first).
Thanks for your time – really enjoyed hearing your story!
A: Sure, happy to share it with everyone.
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