by Brian DeChesare Comments (21)

Investment Banking Internship Guide: How to Succeed and Win Return Offers

Investment Banking Internship Guide

Wouldn’t it be nice to get a complete investment banking internship guide in a single article?

We’ve covered this topic in the past, but due to changes in the market, the recruiting process, and internships themselves, I wanted to revisit it and update everything.

If you handle it correctly, an investment banking internship will be your gateway into a lucrative career in finance.

And if you handle it poorly, an investment banking internship will be like your last life in a video game before the enemy swarm kills you, knocks your body into a lava pit, and devours your corpse:

Investment Banking Internship Guide: Why Now? And What Has Changed?

The biggest change is that investment banking internship recruiting now begins much earlier than it did before, at least for Analyst roles at the undergraduate level.

In practice, this timing has made it more difficult for students at non-target schools and tilted the mix of interns even more toward the top universities.

Also, there is vastly more preparation material than there was a long time ago – many interns have already completed courses on Excel, PowerPoint, and financial modeling, or have read books on these topics.

As a result of these changes, many interns have developed a false sense of confidence.

They assume that since they can complete a 3-statement model in Excel, they’ll be able to impress everyone on the job and win return offers – but they fail to realize that office politics and plenty of intangible factors also come into play.

So, understanding the “soft skills” is more important than ever because so many interns now walk in with decent-to-good hard skills.

This article will focus on the internship itself, including your goals, what to expect on the job, and how to win a return offer.

If you want investment banking internship guides on other topics, such as what happens before (recruiting and preparation) and after (return offer or not), please see:

Finally, note that this article only concerns investment banking internships.

If you want to know about sales & trading internships, research internships, asset management internships, or hedge fund internships, please see those separate articles.

Investment Banking Internship Guide: What Is It, Exactly?

An investment banking internship is an extended job interview.

It lets banks separate the BS from reality: anyone can memorize answers to interview questions, talk a good game, and come across as knowledgeable.

But many fewer students can work 80+ hours per week, deliver work products accurately and on time, and last for an entire 8-10 weeks.

You recruit for internships long before internships begin, sometimes up to 1.5 – 2.0 years in advance in North America, and then you complete the internship in the summer before your last year of university.

You apply for and win the internship by networking, submitting an online application, and then completing a series of interviews and other assessments, depending on your region.

If you’re in a full-time MBA program, you will complete this internship between your first and second years; if you’re in a part-time or EMBA program, you do it in between your second and third years, assuming a 3-year program.

In the internship, you assist full-time Analysts and Associates with everything imaginable, ranging from menial tasks such as ordering food and coffee to tasks that require slightly more thought, such as presentations, financial modeling, and deal analysis.

In both undergraduate and MBA-level internships, your main goal is to win a full-time return offer so you have a post-graduation job for the next ~2 years.

There are many other varieties of internships as well:

  • As an undergraduate, you might complete internships during the school year or in summer periods before your penultimate year. These internships set you up for a “real” internship at a large bank.
  • In regions such as Latin America, 9-12-month extended internships after graduation are common and lead to full-time roles… if you perform well enough.
  • In places like France and the U.K., “off-cycle” 6-month internships are common, even if you’ve already graduated. Often, banks use these to string along interns without any real intention of hiring them.

If you want to learn more about these other types of internships, click through to the article links above.

Here, we focus on traditional summer internships that lead to full-time return offers.

What Are Your Goals in Investment Banking Internships?

There are three goals in any investment banking internship:

  1. Main Goal: Win a full-time return offer. Even if you decide that you don’t want to work at this bank, you still need an offer so you can use it to win other offers.
  2. Secondary Goal: Decide whether or not investment banking is right for you. Since recruiting starts so early, you have to recruit for these internships without even knowing if you want them. If, after 2-3 months on the job, you decide that you hate banking and never want to do it, great! Mission accomplished.
  3. Secondary Goal for Earlier Internships: Build a sequence of work experience you can use to answer the “Walk me through your resume” question for networking and interview purposes.

Goals #2 and #3 here are self-explanatory, but the first goal about winning a full-time return offer requires more explanation:

Investment Banking Internship Guide: How to Win a Full-Time Return Offer

Analysts and Associates who have worked the most closely with the summer interns have significant clout and make suggestions on who should and should not receive offers.

There is usually a “roundtable” near the end of the internship where everyone in your group gathers and discusses the interns’ performance.

Since it’s a group discussion involving many people, you need to do the following:

  1. Win at least one strong advocate and ideally several others who like you and will back up what the first person says.
  2. Do NOT try to bypass junior bankers by going directly to senior bankers during the internship. Continuing with the “false sense of confidence” theme, many interns attempt to suck up to senior bankers early on and ignore the juniors. But that can easily backfire since everyone participates in the roundtable at the end.
  3. Do not worry about the “conversion rate” or how much competition there is. At least 50% of interns will end up being incompetent or unsuitable for the job, so that immediately reduces the competition by 50%.

Interns make many mistakes (see below), but one of the top mistakes is spreading themselves too thin and trying to “network” repeatedly instead of doing their work effectively.

You should do the opposite and work with 1-2 team members closely, do a great job on at least one single project, and then make sure a few others will also recommend you.

Bankers judge you based on:

  1. Work Product – Did you understand the tasks, complete them accurately and on time, and draw the correct conclusions?
  2. Enthusiasm – Did you make yourself available 24/7 and not complain about late-night, weekend, and last-minute tasks? Did you seem interested in deals without coming across as weird or socially awkward?
  3. Interpersonal/Fit – Did you get along with everyone in the team, even if you didn’t become BFFs?

Many interns focus on points #2 and #3 at the expense of #1.

But that’s a mistake because bankers would prefer someone who’s moderately social and who produces accurate work consistently over someone who’s the “life of the party” but who also produces average or poor work.

What Will You Do on the Job?

So, we’re halfway through this investment banking internship guide and just now arriving at the part about what you’ll do on the job – and that’s because you do the same things in an IB internship that you do in a full-time IB job:

  1. Pitch for deals (marketing).
  2. Work on deals for clients (execution).
  3. Complete random tasks.

With the first one, pitching, you’ll research a company and create a pitch book that presents a proposal from your bank, such as how the company might sell itself or raise capital.

As an intern, you’ll usually contribute to smaller portions of the pitch, such as data gathering needed for specific slides.

See the article on investment banking pitch books for more.

The second task – deal execution – is covered in the articles on equity capital markets, debt capital markets, leveraged finance, and mergers & acquisitions.

“Deal execution” includes everything from making lists of potential buyers and tracking their responses to creating marketing documents such as sales team memos and CIMs to completing financial models and other analysis.

Once again, as an intern, you’ll be contributing to smaller parts of deals, focusing on grunt work that full-timers don’t want to do.

Finally, the third category – random tasks – includes items like picking up food/coffee, transporting documents, working on introductory presentations or market updates, and looking up background information that an MD needs for a call.

In an internship, you’ll tend to complete a higher percentage of work in this “random task” category than you will in full-time roles because:

  1. Deals often take years to execute and close. Banks can’t put an intern in charge of critical details, only to have the intern leave in 2-3 months.
  2. Senior bankers and staffers tend to be more hands-off with interns and let full-time Analysts and Associates allocate the work. That means you’ll do everything they don’t want to do.
  3. Many banks, especially smaller ones, do not have structured programs for interns. Everything is ad hoc and based on what they need to finish that day.

Do not go in expecting to work on complex Excel/VBA/Python/other models, or expecting to chat with CEOs daily, because both of those are unlikely-to-impossible during an internship.

Treat an IB internship as an improved version of working at McDonald’s, with better pay and a more respectable brand name.

Investment Banking Internship Guide: How to Succeed

If you want to win a return offer, here are the most important points:

  1. Above all else, be reliable.
  2. Be proactive but not annoying.
  3. Under-promise and over-deliver.
  4. Always check your work by printing it out and reviewing it multiple times.
  5. Make a strong, positive impression in the first week because that sets the tone for the entire internship.
  6. Ask for constructive criticism/feedback as the internship moves along and fix your flaws.

Your job is to make the lives of Analysts, Associates, and senior bankers easier so they can leave work earlier and get an extra hour or two of sleep.

If you keep screwing up, forgetting things, or otherwise making their lives worse, then you have a ~0% chance of winning a return offer.

This advice sounds like something you’d tell a 5-year-old, but a surprising number of interns come in with an “attitude.”

The first point about reliability is simple: if you’re assigned a task, get it done on time.

If you say you’re going to be somewhere or do something, do it.

If there are people still at the office, stay there until everyone else leaves, and if they tell you to go home, verify that there’s nothing you can help with first.

Being reliable also means responding to emails quickly – ideally within 15-30 minutes on weekdays, and within a few hours on weekends. And you’ll have to be faster than that if you’re working on a time-sensitive or critical project.

If you’re asked to order food or get coffee, write down everyone’s orders and don’t screw it up.

And as you get tasks from full-timers, write down the details in a notebook so you don’t forget the small bits later on (note-taking on phones/tablets is riskier).

With the second point, there is a subtle distinction between being “proactive” and being annoying to full-time bankers.

For example, let’s say you’ve finished your tasks for the day and have nothing to do.

That usually happens when everyone else is busy with meetings, conference calls, and random fire drills, and they forget about you.

When this happens, you could find an Analyst and ask for work in one of two ways:

  • Good Question: “Hey, is there anything you want me to get done for you?”
  • Bad Question: “Hey, is there anything I can do?”

The second question comes across as a bit pushy – and if the Analyst is busy, he/she might even get annoyed at you.

The first question is framed in terms of a benefit for the Analyst, so he/she is naturally more inclined to respond well.

With the third point – under-promising and over-delivering – one trick is to add at least 50% to the time you think a task will take.

For example, if an Analyst asks you to create company profiles for a pitch book, and you think it will take 4 hours, say that you’ll finish it within 6 hours.

Another trick is to consider other peoples’ schedules before promising anything.

For example, if a VP will be on the road all day on Tuesday, don’t send your presentation to him in the middle of the day on Tuesday; send it on Monday afternoon so he can review it before leaving. And you can easily check calendars or ask the person’s assistant to find this information.

With the fourth point – checking your work – the secret is to print it out before you turn in anything.

You will spot errors and potential problems in the hard-copy version that you missed on the screen.

It also helps to let the work “sit” for a while and return to it later on because you’ll also spot issues after time away from it.

With point #5 about making a strong, positive impression in the first week, you’ll often complete a short training or orientation right around then.

This is your chance to meet other interns, introduce yourself to the full-timers, and show that you’re reliable.

It also helps to over-dress a bit in this first week, such as by wearing business formal rather than business casual initially; use that to assess what people usually do in the office.

Finally, with the last point about constructive criticism and feedback, many groups and individuals will be reluctant to tell you anything unless you really press for details.

So, you don’t want to ask about this every day, but asking about it periodically (maybe once every 1-2 weeks) will help.

The “intern discussion roundtable” at the end tends to be weighted toward what you did at the beginning and what you did at the end.

If you screwed up in the beginning by being too loud, showing up late, not wearing the appropriate attire, or being messy, you can’t do much to erase that.

But if you can make a big change by the end, you can at least improve your chances.

What If Your Internship Sucks and You Can’t Make It Better?

In some cases, your internship will be terrible, and you won’t be able to do much to make it better.

Your best option here is to spin the random tasks you completed into sounding like more substantive experiences.

For example, let’s say that you’re completing market research for a potential client as part of a pitch book.

Your bank goes back and forth a few times, but you end up not winning the deal because the company delays its plans.

If you just describe the qualitative research you did, interviewers will realize that you didn’t do much technical work and that the deal did not progress too far.

Instead, you should complete a valuation for this company in your free time, based on the pitch book and other files from the company, and turn that into a “potential” transaction.

Say that the company was interested in a sale or minority-stake investment and wanted to know the valuation it might receive.

Your task was to do the market research, contribute to the valuation, and come up with estimates.

You can then describe some of the back-and-forth and follow-up requests from the company.

If interviewers ask you for the outcome, say that you left before the deal progressed further, so you don’t know (a true statement, but not “the whole truth”).

Besides creating your own deals like this, you can also use your downtime to study accounting and financial modeling and improve your technical skills.

And if you are feeling bold and you’re sure you won’t get a return offer, you could also approach the 2-3 full-timers you know best and ask for referrals to other firms that might be hiring (obviously, only do this at the end of the internship).

Do not quit midway through just because the internship is bad.

In 99% of cases, you’re better off getting the brand name and decent-looking experience on your resume and spinning the details of what you did.

The “Anti” Investment Banking Internship Guide: What NOT to Do

To sum it up in a single phrase, I would say:

“Take all the stereotypes that older people have about millennials and ‘Gen Z’ – and then, act the opposite way.”

Common stereotypes about “the younger generation” include:

  • They are lazy and unreliable.
  • They are addicted to their phones and have poor or nonexistent social skills.
  • They are entitled and expect to be running multi-billion-dollar deals on day one of an internship.

I do not buy into these stereotypes, but many older bankers and executives do.

Extending from this theme, here’s what to avoid in internships:

  1. Do NOT arrive late or leave early (i.e., when full-time bankers are still there).
  2. Do NOT argue about accounting and finance. You know far less than you think you do.
  3. Do NOT ask senior people questions about minutiae, such as Excel or PowerPoint shortcuts. Google these questions, ask other interns, or ask the Analysts if necessary.
  4. Do NOT dress too well. Yes, you need some business formal and business casual clothing, but do not buy a $10,000 suit to show off.
  5. Do NOT be too enthusiastic. You’ll annoy people if you constantly ask finance-related questions and seem to have no outside interests. Figure out the mission, accomplish it, and report the results.
  6. Do NOT complain about work or say you’re “too busy” to do something. The internship only lasts a few months, so suck it up, and if you hate it, don’t go back.
  7. Do NOT get romantically involved with anyone at work, whether it’s a full-timer or another intern. No explanation needed.
  8. Do NOT get drunk at events or show up to work hungover.
  9. Do NOT badmouth your firm or group when you network with other bankers. Finance is a small industry, and rumors about sub-par interns spread quickly.
  10. Do NOT spread yourself too thin. One or two good, long-term projects beats a dozen mediocre projects where you barely did anything.
  11. Do NOT sleep at work. Yes, they will find you in the bathroom or the empty conference room, and it will be bad.
  12. Finally, do NOT play on your phone all the time. Use your phone primarily for email when you’re outside the office; if you’re in the office, consider setting it to airplane mode to avoid the temptation.

Investment Banking Internship Guide: The Truth

Many students obsess over how to handle IB internships and which banks and groups have the lowest or highest “conversion rates” (i.e., percentage of interns who receive full-time return offers).

But the truth is, performing well in an internship is mostly common sense.

If you’re reliable, you finish your tasks on time, and you make the lives of everyone around you easier, you have a good chance of winning a return offer.

And if not, at least you found out that investment banking is not for you – without taking too much damage from the lava pit.

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.

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  1. Hey Brian,
    Some internship applications are closing in July. I had a bad freshman year and my gpa is on the low side. But I’m going to retake some courses and I know that my sophomore term is going to be much better. How should I state my gpa for online applications? I don’t know when employers request transcripts or if they do at all? I think by the time before june my GPA will be greatly improved and I’m not sure how to go forward with this.

    1. They usually do not request transcripts upfront. So maybe list a GPA that is somewhat higher, but don’t be too aggressive with it or you could run into trouble. I would not list it as “Expected GPA” or something like that or they’ll immediately be suspicious.

      1. If I take account of the failed courses I would be at around a 2.5. But if I retake those courses and do reasonably well in those courses I would be at a 3.2-3.5. So should I just say something like “GPA: 3.35/4.00”?

        1. Yes, I would probably just say 3.4 or something like that.

  2. Hi, Brian. I’m in my freshman summer and I noticed a number of boutiques only hire people who are graduating in 2020. Is it a waste of time to try to apply to these? Thanks.

    1. Not necessarily, but probably not a good use of time to focus on them. You could always contact them and ask about off-cycle/school-year internships, and some boutiques will go for it if they need extra help.

  3. Hey Brian, how are return offers usually given out? Do they pull you into a room on your last day and give you an offer, or are they emailed a few weeks after the internship ends?

    1. Usually in-person at the end of the internship, but some banks delay the decision for a while (GS is notorious for doing this). But you should usually have a pretty good idea of your chances by the midpoint of the internship.

  4. Any advice for networking during the internship? Everyone can quite easily see who’s going for coffee/lunch with who in the open-plan type offices so i was wondering what your advice would be on how to approach networking within and outside of your team and how senior to take it? thanks

    1. I would just do more of it via email so it’s not quite as visible. So maybe get the referrals via email and make the initial contact there. The thing is, you don’t really need to network that much to win a return offer in investment banking – you just need to be reliable and deliver solid work for your team members. So you don’t have to go crazy with it. Networking is more important in S&T internships.

  5. Can you write a post on Corporate Derivatives? Seems to be an up-and-coming product group in IBD at many firms—albeit on the capital markets side alongside ECM/DCM/LevFin. Can’t find much information on it.

    1. We’ve covered elements of it in the articles on equities and fixed income sales & trading. See the parts about what salespeople in FICC might do to help companies hedge interest rate and FX risk. Other than that, maybe, but I don’t know if there is enough information/demand to write a detailed article about it.

  6. Hey Brian, longtime fan (reading since 9th grade and I’m a junior in college now!). So up until now, I haven’t had any ib or finance experience and so I decided to take this semester off to pursue a boutique ib internship (I’m at an ivy). However, I’ve been having trouble formulating a successful networking plan.

    I’ve made a list of alumni who work in boutiques, would you recommend emailing them for informational interviews? Or do you think mentioning that I am looking for an internship would be better? Given my unique situation in which I’d be able to intern longer than the average intern (until September), I feel as though that wouldn’t be such a bad idea to get noticed by them. Please let me know what you think.

    1. OK, so if it’s already your junior year, you’re quite late because recruiting for summer internships now starts ~2 years in advance of the actual internship. So… I don’t even know if it would be useful for you to apply to boutique banks or other IB roles at this stage.

      If you look at the steps in this article:

      https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/how-to-get-into-investment-banking/

      I think it may be better for you to apply to something like Big 4 or corporate finance roles (or real estate or something else outside of pure IB roles) for now, win a full-time role for after graduation, and then make a lateral move over to a bank in an IB role. Otherwise, the earliness of recruiting works against you in a big way.

      You could still contact alumni and ask for informational interviews, but most of them are going to tell you that you need previous internships and that you needed to start earlier to have a good shot at an IB role right out of university.

      1. Thanks for the response. So in your opinion not even ib boutiques, say the ones that range 10-50 employees, would consider an intern? I know that it is too late at this point to want to intern at a bulge bracket or even top/mm boutique firms. But from what I’ve read (and I may be wrong on this), small boutiques may be more open than other types of ib firms to take on an intern without prior ib experience.

        Also, to your point about the big 4 or corporate roles, what are your thoughts on using wealth management as well to lateral into the ib world?

        1. You may be able to find an internship at an IB or PE boutique, that is true. The issue is that it’s hard to leverage such an internship into a full-time role there because many of those firms just bring on temporary interns but do not extend the offers or turn them into full-time ones. This is why IB/PE boutiques are fine for 1st or 2nd year internships but don’t work as well after that – they let you get the experience, but not the return offer.

          So, even if you intern at one of those places, you’ll likely have to find a full-time role somewhere else and then use that to move into IB eventually.

          You can certainly go for it and see what kind of results you get with a few months of effort, but those are the trade-offs.

          Wealth management to IB can potentially work, but it’s more difficult because PWM is less relevant than Big 4 / valuation / corporate finance roles.

  7. Hey Brian,

    First, I love your work – I’ve been following you for 6 years on this blog, every week.
    Also, first time I comment.

    Here is a question for you:
    You say: “write down the details in a notebook so you don’t forget the small bits later on (note-taking on phones/tablets is riskier)”

    I wondered if you could expand on the later-part: why is note-taking on phones/tablets riskier?

    So far I can see 3 reasons:
    1) you do not want other people to see what you’re writing, so better to keep it safe at home on a notebook
    2) the bank has access to all your notes and one could be cautious of what they can find there
    3) if you get fired you lose access to it on the spot, with no possibility to recover it (that would be a shame to loose all this information)

    Do you think any of those reasons is relevant?
    Did you have other in mind?
    (if you already wrote an article about that, happy to go read it)

    Thanks in advance for your insight Brian,
    Thomas

    PS:
    And just so you know, some of the stuff you wrote influenced my work-habits and impacted my perceived performance. Deeply appreciated. If you ever come to Sydney Australia, I would be happy to help in any way you find useful (contacts, the (actual) good places to go to), surf discovery, …)

    1. Thanks!

      Yeah, those are 3 reasons why it’s better to rely on a traditional notebook rather than a phone or tablet. But there are 2 others:

      1) People might think you’re not paying attention to them and that you’re just playing games or sending messages on your phone. Not a great first impression. But no one would look at you taking notes on paper and worry that you’re playing games.

      2) Charging/battery issues. If you pull an all-nighter or otherwise have a rough week and forget to charge the device, you could be screwed when you need to find some important fact. Not an issue with paper.

      Haven’t been in Sydney lately, but will let you know if I make it there again!

      1. Thanks for the quick reply Brian.
        Agree with you, especially #1.
        Regarding #2, I’ve been using OneNote synchronised between 2 phones and 2 computers over a year now, and so far it has prevented those “Oh no, I forgot to charge one device” moments. Also convenient when at a networking event: I would pretend to have to reply quickly to a text when I would be actually writing down information / checking the names of their wife / kids (useful to reinforce connection, especially when you meet someone you haven’t seen in ages and were not expecting).

        1. Yes, that can work if you’re confident the sync is reliable. That’s a good tip for networking events as well.

          1. Agree.

            Technical insights: OneNote Online has 2 safeguards mechanism I like: 1) it can be organised in tabs. If one does not sync / fail (happened to me once), all the others are still OK 2) if a tab do not sync, it saves both revisions and you can check both from a computer and manually overwrite the version you prefer (no loss of information)

            PS: comment made purely as a useful tip for any interested reader. It is NOT a recommendation for OneNote over other similar softwares (like Evernote), as I’m not familiar with those.
            That being said Brian, I used your tips on the custom shortcuts for Excel & PPT applied to OneNote to save more time when taking notes on a computer.

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