Investment Banking Internships: How to Succeed and Win Return Offers
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:
- How to Prepare for Investment Banking Summer Internship Recruiting
- How to Decide on Investment Banking Summer Internship Offers
- How to Prepare for Your Investment Banking Summer Internship in Less Than 8 Hours
- What If You Don’t Get a Return Offer from Your Investment Banking Summer Internship?
Finally, note that this article only concerns investment banking internships.
What’s The True Purpose Of An Investment Banking Internship?
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’s The Goals Of An Internship?
There are three goals in any investment banking internship:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
How to Win a Full-Time Return Offer After Your Internship
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:
- Win at least one strong advocate and ideally several others who like you and will back up what the first person says.
- 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.
- 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:
- Work Product – Did you understand the tasks, complete them accurately and on time, and draw the correct conclusions?
- 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?
- 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 As An Intern?
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:
- Pitch for deals (marketing).
- Work on deals for clients (execution).
- 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.
“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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
How to Succeed As An Investment Banking Intern
If you want to win a return offer, here are the most important points:
- Above all else, be reliable.
- Be proactive but not annoying.
- Under-promise and over-deliver.
- Always check your work by printing it out and reviewing it multiple times.
- Make a strong, positive impression in the first week because that sets the tone for the entire internship.
- 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:
- Do NOT arrive late or leave early (i.e., when full-time bankers are still there).
- Do NOT argue about accounting and finance. You know far less than you think you do.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Do NOT get romantically involved with anyone at work, whether it’s a full-timer or another intern. No explanation needed.
- Do NOT get drunk at events or show up to work hungover.
- 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.
- Do NOT spread yourself too thin. One or two good, long-term projects beats a dozen mediocre projects where you barely did anything.
- Do NOT sleep at work. Yes, they will find you in the bathroom or the empty conference room, and it will be bad.
- 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.
The Truth: It’s Mostly About Common Sense
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.
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