How to Win an Investment Banking Offer from a Non-Target MBA Program – Without Any Full-Time Work Experience
A lot of people want to go to business school.
Some even want to do it without having any full-time work experience first.
And I always respond the same way:
“Nooooo! Don’t do it! Step back and re-think your life first.”
But sometimes I’m wrong.
While it’s difficult to win full-time offers or internships at large banks without pre-MBA work experience, it’s not impossible.
And in some regions – like Canada – you might even call it “do-able.”
Our interviewee today moved from an engineering background in undergrad straight into a non-target MBA program in Canada…
…but still managed to complete multiple co-ops and win a full-time offer in a rotational program at a large bank.
Here’s how she did it:
Q: Can you start by describing your background and what you accomplished?
A: Sure! I started out at one of the top engineering schools in Canada, where I completed a 14-month work term in a telecom internship – which ended up being pretty miserable (poor promotion opportunities, slow pace, etc.).
I started hearing more and more about finance and capital markets jobs from friends, and I decided that the pace and work style were more in-line with what I was after.
So I began thinking about MBA programs, and I found a few that accepted undergrads with no full-time work experience.
I enrolled in one that offered 3 co-op opportunities (4 months of work followed by 4 months of school) back-to-back until you finished the program.
Then, I won a full-time rotational role in the capital markets team at the same bank, where I’m planning to complete rotations in sales & trading, equity research, and something more transactional (ECM or DCM).
Q: So… why did you think you could enroll in an MBA program and get into investment banking without having full-time work experience?
A: After finishing most of my engineering degree, I knew that I needed to go to business school to make a career change… so I figured, “Why not right away?”
I honestly didn’t see how working at a telecom company for another 2-3 years would boost my profile, especially since the work was IT-related.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to do IB specifically, but I felt I could leverage the degree to win finance-related roles.
And in Canada, there are schools that accept students with no or minimal post-graduate full-time work experience (examples: the Laurier co-op MBA program and the McMaster co-op MBA program).
Q: And how did you apply and win acceptance to these programs?
A: High GMAT scores helped me the most. I had solid but not spectacular grades, which I explained by saying that I didn’t mesh well with engineering.
Also, the standards were quite different because I was being compared to other pre-experiential candidates.
So it came down to activities, essays, recommendations, and test scores rather than work experience.
Arriving On Campus
Q: OK, so you found programs that were willing to accept you, you applied and won admission, and then you arrived on campus.
What did you do next?
A: I started applying for capital markets co-ops, but I won exactly 0 interviews after sending out 40+ resumes and cover letters.
I didn’t have the experience they were looking for, I hadn’t done much networking, and I had less finance-related coursework than other people.
I accepted the marketing offer because:
- The back office IT role wouldn’t have helped me make a career change.
- The marketing team was very close to senior management.
- It was a 9-to-5 job, so I had time to network and meet with at least 3-4 people per week at all different levels of the bank.
Q: A lot of people want to “network with co-workers,” but they struggle with the execution.
How did you do it?
A: I went through the directory (the Outlook contact list), looked up entry-level people in different groups (S&T, IB, ER, etc.), and emailed each person with a suggestion to meet up for coffee.
Sometimes I contacted alumni from my undergrad or MBA programs, but mostly I just used the company directory and looked up contacts like that.
I met each person, asked about their role, explained my background, and asked for advice on making a career change.
When you’re already working at the same bank, response rates are dramatically higher because you have built-in credibility.
Q: And then…
I read up on valuation and financial modeling, prepared my pitch, and I joined a student group that offered scholarships to female MBA students at various schools.
I also reached out to all the connections I had made at the bank, and I started attending information sessions offered by other banks, even if they weren’t ER-related.
At a corporate banking information session, I met a Director, asked her about equity research positions, and then lined up an interview for a role that wasn’t advertised publicly… and later won that role.
I also applied for that scholarship for female MBA students, which provided an executive mentor, a paid summer co-op, and placement in advance of recruiting season (summer co-op offers in November).
Into Equity Research
Q: So let’s start with the equity research co-op. How did you make it successful?
A: You need to love your Analyst and love your sector in any equity research co-op or internship.
If you arrive and you know what you’re doing, you’ll quickly get responsibilities – I got the chance to initiate coverage on a new company in my industry within a few months.
Financial modeling skills are critical in equity research, arguably even more so than in investment banking, because you’ll be updating reports and models all the time.
If I hadn’t done all the self-study beforehand, I would have been lost.
Q: And then at the same time, you were going through this scholarship application process – what did you do for that?
A: There was a written application, followed by a selection of 2-3 candidates from each school, followed by Superday interviews at banks.
I participated in a huge number of extracurricular activities, which probably helped me the most.
I knew that other people would have more and better work experience, so I didn’t even try to compete there.
I said, “I have co-op experience in marketing and equity research, and I’ve done all these activities that no other candidate has.”
Most people approached it as a number-crunching test, but anyone can crunch numbers; fewer people can pass the “airport test.”
The Superday interviews were tough because you had to tell each bank upfront what you were interested in, and then they replied with what they could offer you.
So if you said “sales & trading” and the bank was only offering corporate banking roles, the interview ended right there.
Given the format, I mentioned at least 3-4 different roles to each bank (S&T, IB, ER, and corporate banking).
And I ended up with a corporate banking co-op for the summer.
Campaigns in Corporate Banking
Q: So you won this corporate banking co-op, but it still wasn’t investment banking.
What did you do when you first started?
A: It was only a 4-month co-op, so I focused on building credibility early on.
I got a handle on the credit approval process within the first month, and then got staffed on more and more high-profile deals toward the end.
The corporate banking team hires on an “as-needed” basis, so I knew it probably wasn’t the ideal long-term placement for me.
But I had impressed one of the MDs there, and he raised my profile and helped me get into a competitive recruiting process for a full-time capital markets rotational role…
…which led me into a final interview with 9 capital markets executives in a panel.
Q: I think that’s a record for the number of simultaneous interviewers.
A: I spent 10+ hours just working on my 2-3 minute pitch in the beginning.
I also had an advantage over other candidates because I had performed in musicals in undergrad (one of those many activities I mentioned), so I wasn’t worried about “stage fright.”
The main points of my pitch were:
- I’m able to crunch the numbers, get everything correct, and get along with everyone on the team, as evidenced by my previous co-ops.
- I have an engineering background, so I have the required quantitative mindset and I understand VBA, Excel, and the technical side.
- I’m adaptive and I can juggle multiple projects at once, such as when I completed mid-terms, my co-op, and my self-study / preparation all at the same time.
There were no brainteasers, but they did ask a lot of personal questions (“What is the most interesting thing about you?”) and a number of questions about the bank’s business model and profitability (“How do you sustain profitability despite all the new regulations?”).
I suggested up-selling / cross-selling more services to the most profitable customers, and going for steady streams of revenue such as corporate debt packages that renew each year rather than one-time M&A or IPO fees.
Finally, I spent a lot of time networking in advance because I wanted to know most of the executives on the panel before I stepped into the room.
I looked up people who were completing the rotational program, asked them who would be on this 9-executive panel, and then contacted entry and mid-level people in each executive’s group.
Each time I spoke with an entry or mid-level person, I would ask for a referral to a more senior team member until I finally reached the executive.
By the end, I had spoken with most of the executives 1-on-1 before the interview even took place.
Q: It seems like you leveraged your co-ops really well, which students tend to struggle with.
Any tips? For example, how did you impress that one corporate banking MD when your peers did not?
A: Never sacrifice quality of work for speed.
A lot of interns and co-ops join groups and mistakenly think that they need to take on 50 projects, meet everyone, and impress the entire team.
Inevitably, they do a poor job on each project and turn in sub-par work, so they quickly get a poor reputation.
Before I ever turned in anything, I spent an extra 30 minutes checking the numbers in a printed out copy (you catch things that you’ll never see on the computer screen).
Also, I said “no” plenty of times.
It is much better to let your team know in advance that you can’t take on anything new than to do poor work or to deliver your work very late.
Q: Great advice. What’s next for you?
A: Like I mentioned earlier, I’m planning to do a sales & trading stint, followed by one in equity research, and then one on the transactional side (ECM or DCM).
I’m not sure which one I’ll pick yet, but I plan to be there for the long-term.
And I’ll probably have to get my CFA at some point, so that’s on the horizon as well.
Q: Are you sure you have to?
A: Yes, it’s Canada.
Q: Point taken. Thanks for your time!
A: My pleasure.
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