How to Break Into Investment Banking at the Associate Level from a Part-Time / Evening / Weekend MBA Program
If there’s one feat more difficult than breaking into investment banking coming from a non-target school, it’s breaking in from a part-time / evening / weekend MBA program.
Not only do you contend with inferior access to recruiters and on-campus presentations, but you’re also working full-time and therefore have limited time to network and learn everything on your own.
On top of all that, you also have to deal with borderline “illegal” questions designed to determine whether or not you have a family and kids, and whether or not you can truly “commit” to the job.
But it can be done.
Our interviewee today did just this and moved from a full-time job and part-time MBA program into an investment banking associate summer internship, which he plans to leverage for an… uncommon path in the future.
Let’s dive right in and learn about at least one way to leverage IB experience that you haven’t thought of before:
Statement of Purpose
Q: So, how’d you get interested in banking and what are you planning to do with it in the future?
A: Sure, so I started out completing an undergraduate degree at a “target school” and majored in math and business. Afterward, I worked in consulting for about 4 years.
Then, I moved to a highly acquisitive Fortune 500 company, where I followed the corporate finance career path, in FP&A specifically.
I’ve been there for the past 5 years, and 2 years ago I started the evening / weekend / part-time program at a well-known business school.
So I’ve been taking classes on nights and weekends while working full-time at my company for the past 2 years, which has been quite hectic.
I became more interested in M&A and banking when the company I worked at went on an acquisition spree and I got firsthand exposure to these deals. The industry was in the midst of major consolidation, and I had a front-row seat to much of it.
As a result, I grew more interested in corporate development careers at my company, but it was tough to get in without an investment banking background.
So I decided to apply for MBA programs to have a fighting chance at getting into IB… which I want to stay in for 3-5 years, and then use to move back to my old company in a corporate development role.
Unlike most other MBA candidates, I’m not aiming to become an MD or even move to the buy-side – my current plan is to reach the VP-level and then switch over once I’ve gained enough transactional experience to move into the corporate development team.
Q: Interesting plan, though I suppose you couldn’t exactly state this one in interviews…
A: No, of course not – but I didn’t view it as any worse than what other people were claiming.
At least I’m not planning to jump ship after only 1 or 2 years.
Q: Yeah, that’s true and I bet if you look at the data, most new Associates actually leave the firm in less than 5 years anyway.
So what was your overall networking and recruiting strategy?
A: Essentially, I was super-aggressive with my networking and also very focused on a specific industry (the one that my current company is in) and a specific geography (think East Coast vs. West Coast vs. Midwest).
The process starts with “investment banking days” at my school, where banks came in September to present 30-minute speeches on their deals, culture, people, and more.
A couple factors worked in my favor:
- Relatively few people from my school were going for investment banking this year – I’m not sure if it’s because of the economy, recent industry trends, or because it’s just not as popular here.
- I really did go crazy with networking. I collected business cards from literally everyone who came to these events, sent out emails to all of them, and attempted to set up informational interviews with all of them.
I set up over 60 informational interviews at 14 banks and I spent around 4 months simply networking.
From that effort, I won 14 first round interviews, several second round interviews, and ultimately an offer at one of my top choices.
I started back in September, well in advance of the December / January summer internship recruiting timeframe.
I also took a diversified approach to banks – with lower hiring and news of layoffs, I really didn’t know where I’d end up or if I’d win an offer at all.
My “top 5” consisted of both bulge brackets and newer, smaller boutiques making inroads in my industry.
Q: Awesome. Did you notice any trends throughout this process? Were MDs, Associates, or VPs most helpful?
A: The main trend: alumni were always the most helpful. It didn’t matter whether they were undergrad alumni, MBA alumni, or even which version of the MBA program they had completed.
I almost always targeted Associates – I would pick 3-4 Associates per bank, read up on deals they had worked on, discuss the culture with them, and set up most of my informational interviews with them.
I never targeted Analysts, and I didn’t even focus on MDs that much; I found that Managing Directors were less responsive than Associates from my school. I met with a few VPs as well.
The Challenges of Part-Time / Evening / Weekend MBA Programs
Q: We’ve gotten lots of questions on whether or not you’ll be at a disadvantage coming from non-full-time MBA programs.
What was your experience?
A: Yes and no. On one hand, you do have more time to recruit if you’re in a full-time program; on the other hand, you can turn around and spin your other commitments as strengths in interviews (e.g. “I’ve already been working 70-80 hours per week due to classes and work, so I can easily do it again”).
You do gain an advantage at most full-time programs because they might offer better access, more fellowships / scholarships, and so on, but it’s not impossible to break in coming from part-time / evening / weekend programs, either.
However, you do NOT want to act like you have a lot of “baggage.”
So do not go into networking or interviews pointing out how you have a family, heavy workload, crazy schedule, and so on – only bring up these points to answer “objections” if they specifically ask you about the work hours and whether or not you can really do it.
Don’t lie, but don’t voluntarily disclose damaging information, either.
“Act like a full-timer” as much as possible, including going out for drinks and dinners after these events.
Q: What about handling your current job while you’re in the midst of recruiting for these roles?
A: You are at a disadvantage due to the time constraints, but if you’re open with your manager about the MBA program and recruiting (and he likes you), he’ll understand and do everything he can to help you.
In my case, my manager knew all along because I was receiving a tuition reimbursement from my company.
Fewer than 5% of part-time / evening / weekend MBA candidates here actually complete internships, but I was upfront with my manager from the start and told him that I planned to do an internship, and he supported it.
So he gave me additional time off, allowed me to work from home and/or build a more flexible schedule, and so on.
He was a bit disappointed that I decided to leave (at least for the summer) to complete the internship, but he never tried to stop me or “demote” me or anything like that.
Q: And did you face any differences in the recruiting process, networking, or interviews as a result?
A: Recruiters sometimes got confused over graduation dates because many of these part-time programs are 3 years rather than 2 years. So you need to explain precisely when you’re graduating.
I studied your guides and networking process diagrams, and I don’t think there were huge differences at the Associate-level vs. the Analyst-level.
A few things I did notice:
- Informational interviews are much more likely to turn into real interviews. I was caught off-guard once – in one informational, I was talking about my background and suddenly they leapt into questions about Enterprise Value, Unlevered Free Cash Flow, and so on. I am in corporate finance, but I don’t necessarily use these concepts all day so I needed more practice.
- You need to know a specific industry very well at the MBA-level. Be on top of all deal activity, sub-sectors, legislation, and so on – expectations of industry knowledge are much higher, especially if you’re also working full-time in that specific industry.
- Consistency is very important. They record literally every interaction with you, what you’ve said at different events, and who you’ve spoken with. So you need to go in with a clear story and say the same things over and over from the start.
Q: Great. What were your interviews like?
A: All my 1st round interviews took place at my school and most of them were 2-on-1. The 2 interviewers usually consisted of a VP and a Senior Associate; MDs were very rarely there for 1st round interviews.
I had at least 3-4 interviews every day, some within 15-20 minutes of each other.
Honestly, the biggest challenge was getting the names and deals correct – I had researched and spoken to so many people by this point that it was tough to keep everything straight.
100% of my interviews started with the “Walk me through your resume” question; after that, they were all pretty standard behavioral and situational questions.
The main difference was that some interviewers focused more on my current job and what I did there in corporate finance, while others would ask about the banking industry and ask me for stock pitches.
I was caught off-guard once because I had “long” recommendation prepared, but no “short” pitch, so I had to think on my feet and come up with an overvalued company.
Q: Any big twists in the process or the questions?
A: One factor I didn’t consider: I hadn’t met many of my interviewers previously.
My contacts made while networking helped me get my foot in the door, but the interviewers themselves were often brand-new, so my networking didn’t necessarily give me an immediate advantage.
A few unexpected questions came up: some banks actually asked brainteasers (e.g. “How many people have ever lived on Earth since the beginning of civilization?” and “How much does this building weigh?”), and they asked about “client emergency situations” such as what you would do if you had to prepare a presentation for a CEO and had extremely limited time to do so.
They also asked about recent deals in my industry, such as high-profile LBO and M&A deals that had recently been announced – even if I didn’t mention them, they just assumed I would know about those deals.
The “curveball” questions came up in the 2nd rounds more than the 1st rounds.
Q: So how did you prepare for everything?
A: I focused on your interview guide for the first round, along with watching the modeling videos themselves.
Beyond that, I found that it was more important to actually complete the files and do the work myself in your modeling courses – otherwise it would have been very difficult to answer some of the technical questions.
Another difference at the Associate-level: they will ask you more about the specifics of analyses and will go into a lot more depth.
Effectively, many interviews turn into “verbal case studies” where they walk you through a specific company or scenario, and you have to apply the analysis and answer questions about tweaks and special cases.
It’s difficult to answer those questions without actually having completed all this work on your own.
Finally, don’t underestimate the scope of possible questions: they even asked me to estimate the IRR for different amounts of capital invested and returned and different timeframes in one interview.
Q: I get a lot of flak for the “approximating IRR” question and devoting space to explaining it in the interview guide, but I’m glad that it proved helpful…
Did anyone “object” by questioning your commitment to the industry?
A: It never came up as a direct question, but it would have been easy to answer: I had only worked at 2 different companies in the past 8 years, so I wasn’t exactly jumping around all the time.
And, of course, I always said that I saw myself in banking for the long-term.
The way I pitched myself and told my story: banking is a “marriage” of client-facing roles, finance roles, and industry knowledge.
I’ve had experience in both roles (from consulting and corporate finance) and I know my industry very well, so I have the “complete package.” And in the future, I’m going to leverage that package to advise companies in this industry.
Q: Yeah, that type of industry-specific approach tends to work well at the Associate-level.
Did you see any differences at different-sized banks or in different regions?
A: I focused exclusively on one region and one industry, so I can’t say for sure – I actually decided against applying to other places because I wanted to stay in this area.
I did apply to many banks because I wanted to hedge myself: the way I looked at it, my current job was fine, and if I got only poor offers or no offers, I wouldn’t have left.
The questions were very similar across the 14 banks I interviewed with, but the middle-market and boutique ones focused more on the “Why the middle-market?” question (which I didn’t necessarily have a great answer to).
A few places went deep into technical questions and ignored everything else, but that was the exception and not the rule.
Q: And now to a controversial topic: did they ever try to figure out if you were married, or had kids or significant commitments outside work, and “screen you” like that?
A: Technically, they can’t ask those kinds of questions directly because they’re illegal in the US.
But they would always try to find out indirectly by asking questions like, “So, what do you do for fun outside of work?” or “How do you spend your time outside of work?”
That’s an innocuous question for an undergrad, but at the MBA-level it means, “Do you have a family and/or other commitments and, if so, will you really be committed to this job?”
I approached these questions by disclosing some, but not all information.
For example, I might have said, “I spend time with my family,” but I stayed away from, “I have a wife and 2 kids, one 10-year old and one 5-year old.”
But it’s dependent on the bank – some claim to “love their kids,” others are silent on the issue, and others hint that they require your total commitment to the job. You need to figure out these types of office and bank differences when networking.
Don’t be defensive or then say, “… but I can still do this job! Really!” – answer the implied “objection” directly only if they follow-up and ask you more about it (which is unlikely due to the illegality).
Q: Great. Thanks for your time! You have a great story, and I learned a ton about MBA-level interviews in the process.
A: My pleasure. Also, you should write an article on how to negotiate and/or shop around full-time offers coming out of an internship… just an idea.
Q: Oh, it’s on the list. Coming soon, hopefully.
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