by Brian DeChesare Comments (34)

Investment Banking Interview Ju-Jutsu: How to Spin Your Weaknesses Into Strengths and Answer the Tough Questions

jujitsu“So, what exactly have you been doing since graduation? Did you go through recruiting last year and just not get any offers?”

“Can you tell me with a straight face that you’d really prefer working here in Idaho rather than New York?”

Sometimes you get questions you just can’t answer truthfully. It’s like your interviewer has you pressed up against a wall and he’s about to finish you off with a fatality.

So how do you get out of it and still land the offer?

You use ju-jutsu to turn your perceived weakness into a strength, and unleash a fierce counter-attack on your interviewer.

The Questions You Can’t Answer

There are a few categories of questions that make you want to hide in a corner:

  1. What have you been doing… / Why no finance work experience? / Why are you so old?
  2. Why this second-rate group / location? What’s your REAL first choice?
  3. Why are you grades so bad? / Why did you do something else questionable in the past?

Sometimes interviewers will be direct: “I see you have a 3.2 GPA. Why is it so low?”

Other times they’ll mask a “Why are you so old?”-type question with something more charitable: “I see you have 15 years of work experience… so why the sudden interest in finance now?”

But no matter how they phrase they question, you need to be prepared with your counter-attack.

The Art of Interview Ju-Jutsu

Ju-jutsu is a martial art developed in Japan where a small fighter takes out an armored opponent by using the attacker’s energy against him, rather than directly opposing it.

Interview ju-jutsu follows a similar strategy: rather than directly “refuting” the interviewer’s claim, you acknowledge it and use it against him.

You can’t do much to change an interviewer’s existing beliefs – so instead, accept them and then make new points he hasn’t thought of to show how your “weakness” is actually a strength.

To see how to do this, let’s look at 6 examples of interview questions you can’t answer and see how you can use ju-jutsu, combined with a good helping of spin, to answer them anyway.

Tough Question #1: I see you graduated last year and have nothing on your resume between then and now (9 months). What have you been doing?

What Really Happened: You went through full-time recruiting last year but didn’t receive any offers. You kept looking for jobs after graduation and had a few small internships, but nothing worth mentioning in an interview or on your resume. You’re recruiting again in hopes of landing something this time around.

What You DON’T Want to Say: The truth – because you’ll sound like “damaged goods” if you say that you went through recruiting but didn’t get any offers.

Your Counter-Attack: Don’t directly “oppose” your interviewer by making up a story about being productive with something else, or about not going through recruiting before.

Instead, acknowledge that you did some recruiting but were not 100% focused on it due to a serious family issue at the time, and that you then spent a few months afterward attending to that.

You took some time off as a result, but since then you’ve been working / studying independently and are even more excited about finance.

Tough Question #2: Is Chicago/Houston/San Francisco really your first choice? Why not New York/London?

What Really Happened: This is your “Plan B.” You want to be in New York/London/elsewhere, but you got an interview here and figured you might use it as a backup plan.

What You DON’T Want to Say: No one wants to be your “Plan B,” so don’t say that directly. And giving a vague answer like, “Anywhere is fine with me, as long as I enjoy the work!” also sounds bad, because you’re dodging the question.

Your Counter-Attack: Agree with the interviewer and acknowledge that New York is better in some ways… but then make up a story and say that despite that, you are still drawn to this location due to friends/family/industry focus/cost of living.

Your #1 concern needs to be getting the offer – not getting the perfect offer in the perfect place. If you want to move elsewhere, wait until you get the offer first and then speak with someone else at the bank (who doesn’t know your location preferences) and push for the change.

Tough Question #3: Why are you so old? Don’t you know only young people can do investment banking?

Ok, they usually say this one a bit more tactfully.

What Really Happened: You had a quarter-life or mid-life crisis, realized you hated your current job and wanted to do something else – even if it meant defying the odds and getting into investment banking even though you’re 10 years older than everyone else.

What You DON’T Want to Say: Go into your life story, or get defensive about your age and argue that you’re not “too old.”

Your Counter-Attack: Start by acknowledging that you are “more experienced” than the average Analyst/Associate, and that you are coming from a non-traditional background.

But then point out that how you’re actually better for the job than fresh graduates because you have more perspective, understand the world better, and it has been 100x as difficult to get interviews in the first place.

If they press you on your ability to handle the hours / workload, give examples of past work experience when you had to burn the midnight oil over an extended period.

Tough Question #4: “I see you have a 3.2 GPA. Why should we hire you over someone with a 4.0 from Harvard?”

What Really Happened: You spent your entire first 2 years at school drinking and failed all your classes. Or maybe there’s no particular reason why your GPA is so low. Or maybe your grades actually declined over the past few years.

What You DON’T Want to Say: Attempt to justify your GPA by saying your classes were hard, or that your school was too difficult. This is the “kung fu” method of interviews – we want to use ju-jutsu instead.

Your Counter-Attack: If they don’t have your transcript, anything goes. Say that you did poorly your first year, but then you became a lot more focused and improved your performance since then.

If they do have your transcript in front of them and/or they start asking about specific classes, you need to get more creative. In those cases you’re better off saying that you focused more on work experience / internships and pointing to the stellar recommendations you have.

Tough Question #5: Why were you a liberal arts major? Don’t you know that’s useless? Do you really think you know anything about math or finance?

What You DON’T Want to Say: Admit that you like reading/writing more, or get defensive and say that it’s still highly relevant.

Your Counter-Attack: You realize you’re not from the usual economics/finance background – but you were really interested in whatever you did study, and that gave you time to complete finance classes or do independent study on the side.

If you have a good reason for picking your major, you can also turn this into something “interesting” about your background.

Tough Question #6: Why are you interviewing for this IT/risk management/other back office position? Didn’t you have front office positions before? Are we just your backup plan?

What Really Happened: Yes, they are just your Plan B. Who on earth would want to go from front office to back office?

What You DON’T Want to Say: Say you want to learn more about what it’s like “behind the scenes” at a bank, or that you didn’t enjoy client work. No one will believe you.

Your Counter-Attack: Your only chance of spinning this is to say that you’re interested in working at a large bank rather than the smaller bank you were at before, or at a bank vs. whatever you worked at before.

This is one of the most difficult situations to spin and no matter what you do, you probably won’t convince them that they’re not just a backup plan.

But you have to try.

Getting Your Black Belt

Go through your resume, think about your previous interviews, and the group/bank/location you’re interviewing with and figure out what your toughest questions will be – the ones that make you want to shrivel up and hide in a corner.

Then, think about how you can acknowledge their objection and then spin it to turn your weakness into a strength.

Oh, and think about some martial arts classes while you’re at it.

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. Avatar
    Diego Bolton

    Hey ,

    I’m a junior transfer student at a semi target school but I couldn’t secure any summer internships so far but I’m waiting to hear back from a program called SEO on placement and interviews for BB banks. I currently accepted an offer at City National Bank in a structured finance role where they primarily do leveraged lending to PE groups in LA. Would it hurt me to go with this position for the summer or do you think I should continue searching for investment banking opportunities at botique banks in the area.

    The obvious advantage with CNB is that I have the offer and it’s a more well known name. What are your thoughts ?

    Thanks !

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      Yes I think this role can help you with IB. However, since you still have a few more months I’d network with boutique banks and see how that goes. And if you have another offer down the line, then I may renege on the previous offer.

  2. What would you say to a question asking why you’re taking a 5th year of university?

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      Perhaps its an increase in course load, or you may be dealing with family issues etc.

  3. Hi,
    What is the best way to defend the typecasting of an investment banking compliance officer (as boring and systematic) in a tactful and effective way?

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      If you’ve been involved in any deals (in compliance) talk about them

      1. Thanks Nicole. What if the involvement is very light and compliance based. Would you have any suggestions on a high level/broad defense against stereotyping?

        1. Avatar
          M&I - Nicole

          I don’t quite understand your question and I don’t think you can control how others think of you

  4. Since I am in finance field, my uncle ( age 50 plus) asked me if I can help him with his dilemma:

    He has worked in a field unrelated to Finance. He has always been good at finance especially in predicting long term trends. He has benefited a great deal personally from his insight. He is however not good at communicating his ideas in a corporate setting. He would like to use his skill in corporate setting and benefit from it on as larger scale:

    Some of his investments and ideas he benefited from:

    1. Did not buy into tech bubble instead bought as much gold as he could at that time for around $425 an oz.

    2. Predicted US credit rating down grade downgrade however did not figure out a way to benefit from it.

    3. Created a portfolio of equities which returned more than 8 percent annually over the last ten years except for refinancing his own house

    4. Stayed out of housing bubble

    Can you please advise him on how he can develop his acumen in to a career in finance

    1. If he’s already over 50 it will be nearly impossible – there’s a huge age/experience bias and they don’t want older people for the most part. I would recommend that he sticks with trading his own accounts rather than even attempting to work at a bank.

  5. I know this is a website for investment banking not martial arts but i figure id let you know that the martial art you were referring to is aikido not jiu jitsu. Jiu Jitsu is more concerned with locks and chokes and is incredibly useful for fighting and beating a larger opponent however aikido is the practice of using your opponents strength and momentum against him. And yes i know writing this makes me a douche for correcting something so trivial. cheers!

    1. I took the concept from another site so I blame him

  6. how to answer the interview question ” what is your weakness?”

    What answer is safe and will not be kick out of interview process?

    1. “Sometimes I focus too much on the details and don’t step back to see the larger picture” “Sometimes I try to handle too much on my own without delegating as much as I could”

  7. Thanks for the feedback:

    Uni of Chicago – No Harvard, but I think we did okay in terms of reps from the major BBs

    I agree and will try and work on 1 and 3 a little more to see how far they can be leveraged.

    To point 2), most of the ‘good’ headhunter organizations I am coming across focus on higher/more senior level recruitment and are quite ineffective/inept at recruiting at my level. Any good firms you could recommend?

    1. I’m not sure for IBD – however the PE recruiting article here lists a few firms that are good for buy-side recruiting.

      I would check with any other friends in finance and see what they can see in terms of banking headhunters – they are definitely hiring at the junior levels, but I am much more familiar with the PE/HF-focused ones.

      1. Just wanted to check if you have mentioned names of PE/HF related headhunters in any of your articles. I looked around but could not find this info. Thx:)

        1. Avatar
          M&I - Nicole

          Yes, we haven’t. Perhaps you can check out global firms like Global Sage, Heidrick & Struggles, Glocap etc. Plenty of names out there.

  8. If you have a phone interview for FT analyst and then get a rejection email from HR, is it ok to call the person that interviewed you to ask what your weakness was? I am curious why this happened. How do you phrase this?

    1. That’s fine – I would just call them and say, “Thanks for interviewing me, I appreciate the chance to speak with you. I’m always looking to improve my interview performance, so if you have a few minutes would you mind telling me your impressions and what I might improve on for next time?”

      1. Long time reader and just wanted to say thanks for another insightful article.

        Now I have to apologize for something totally off-topic:

        I go into my story (its a *touch* long, I apologize), but I’d REALLY appreciate your thoughts on the matter:

        If you could email me back, I’d appreciate your thoughts. Naturally, you get 10% of any job I get through your awesome advice!

        I know you cover general IB stuff, and have done so really well throughout this website, but if you had any thoughts on how I should get out of my funk, lemme know. The added layer of complication is that any job, anywhere worthwhile requires a work permit / making it harder to get. Please do give it a chance.


        1. I don’t know enough to answer every part of your question, but I would suggest the following plan:

          1) If you really want to a target school, start contacting alumni at larger banks ASAP, presenting your story, and being direct asking about hiring. You said alumni were not effective, so in addition be more creative and go through professional organizations, your old professors, friends/family, etc. etc.

          2) Contact headhunters! They will be huge with your background and almost a full year of work experience already, and they will have much more insight into who’s hiring and your other questions.

          3) On the work permit issue, I am not an expert but I would strongly consider moving beyond the US altogether and going to regions that aren’t as strict, like some of the ones you mentioned. I honestly do not know much about this issue so I can’t help much there.

          1. Is it very difficult to get job if you are not us resident? I am an Indian.

          2. Avatar
            M&I - Nicole

            Yes more challenging because companies will have to sponsor your visa

  9. When applying is it okay to apply to multiple positions within the same organization or will that make it less likely to get an interview?

    1. I think that’s fine as long as the positions are in different branches e.g. investment banking, equity research, sales & trading

  10. Avatar
    anonymous senior

    Do you think it is ever a good idea to preempt certain questions? For example, I worked at a somewhat no name boutique for sophomore summer and junior summer. I only went back junior summer because I didn’t get anything better. In my FT interviews do you think it would be a good idea to say in the opening walk me through your resume question that I accepted a return offer to the boutique after sophomore summer because I loved the people but it was hit by the financial crisis and now have no need for junior people (all true except the reason I went back). I would then say that I realized the benefits of working at a big bank after talking to Person X and Person Y. Good strategy?

    1. Yeah that’s a good idea in this case – that’s definitely something that can be preempted, vs. a GPA question which you probably shouldn’t bring up first. Pretend like you really liked the people, but then realized somewhere larger would be better after 2 summers there.

  11. Job postings for finance jobs on my school’s career services website often list a major in business as a requirement. Is this something to be ignored, or am I wasting my time investigating such postings as a social science major?

    1. Depends how strict they are – some schools care, some don’t. I would not immediately give up – at least look into it and/or ask your career center whether or not it’s an issue. If they still let you apply, I would do so.

  12. Avatar

    What’s the best answer as a senior trying to get IBD, if you’ve done other finance internships (equity research, and hedge fund) but haven’t had IB experience? I’ve gotten the question: “So did you only decide recently that you’re interested in investment banking, or did you not get an internship for the summer?”

    1. Say that you’ve always been interested in finance, but became interested in IB specifically over the summer as you realized the other fields weren’t for you. Never admit to not getting an internship before unless they actually know somehow.

      1. How should I answer this question during the interview: “We found through our companies records that you applied for IBD back then and didn’t receive an offer. What makes you think this time is different?”

        Should I answer, I didn’t understand enough of IDB at the time?

        1. Focus on how you’ve improved, so say you have more experience / studied more / improved something else since then.

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