From Investment Banking to Harvard Business School: How to Outshine Every Other Banker and Make the Leap
This is a guest post from Edward Fu (HBS, 2010) and Melinda Hwang (MIT Sloan, 2010). Edward and Melinda are authors of “The HBS Blueprint: A Proprietary Step-by-Step Action Plan,” which teaches you how to get into HBS and or any other top business school.
If you’re an investment banker interested in going to a top business school someday, I’ve got good news and bad news for you.
First, the good news: Most MBA classes at the top programs over-index in students from investment banking. Experience in investment banking shows a strong work ethic, quant skills, and ambition, and Adcoms love that.
But here’s the bad news: The number of investment banking applicants is also disproportionately high (yes, everyone wants that elusive “2-year vacation”), which means that there’s a lot of competition… and that you might just look the same as everyone else – not ideal for winning admission to the top programs.
But there are clear ways to stand out from the crowd of current and former bankers – even if you haven’t climbed mountains in Japan or starred in a reality TV show before.
1. Show Integrity and Authenticity
The stereotype is that investment bankers are very money-driven.
And, let’s be honest: you probably did join the field because you like money and want to make a lot of it. No one works on pitch books until 4 AM because it’s their passion.
But in your application, it’s all about perception rather than reality.
You have to write in a genuine voice and give a thoughtful rationale for why you went into investment banking and, perhaps more importantly, what you plan to do with it.
The most common mistake here is to assume that the reasons why you went into investment banking are self-explanatory – you don’t even need an explanation, right?
Yes, Adcoms are very familiar with banking… but if you don’t define your own reasons for why you went into it, they’ll do that for you.
So you need to re-think your approach here and focus on 3 key points:
- Why did you go into it in the first place? Were you interested in M&A deals? Did a family member in real estate or brokerage get you interested? Had you always had a passion for investing?
- What did you learn during your time in banking and how did it shape your career goals? For example, did you discover that you really like finance but are interested in making it more accessible to people? Or that you are more passionate about a specific area in the industry?
- How will you leverage this experience in the future? We go into more details on this below, but it’s important NOT to come across as a “Yeah, I did my 2-3 years of banking and now I want to forget all about it” type of candidate.
A good rule of thumb is to ask someone you know to read your application, and ask if the voice that comes through is someone you’d respect and trust. If it is, you’ve done your job.
If it isn’t, you need to rethink what you’ve written and make sure that your answers to those 3 questions above are unique to you and NOT generic.
2. It’s Not What You Did, But Who You Are
One of the biggest mistakes you can make in your application is assuming that since you came from a top bank, like Goldman Sachs, you have a golden ticket to admission at any of the top programs.
Yes, a top-tier firm will give you an edge, all else being equal… but the specific firm you worked at is only a small part of Adcom’s evaluation of you as a candidate.
Going back to the point above: a lot of people applying to the top schools have worked at these top firms.
Sure, you might stand out if you’re applying to 2nd tier programs, but there’s really no point in going to those anyway, at least if your goal is to advance within the finance industry.
Another common mistake is to develop a laundry list of accomplishments and make those the focus of your application. This is not your private equity resume where all they care about is deals and deal experience – the Adcoms want to know who you are as a person.
To be clear, here’s what they DON’T care about:
- How many deals you completed or what types of deals they were
- The dollar values of those deals, the relevant EBITDA multiples and what the valuation ranges were
- The super-advanced revenue model you built that incorporated 100 different business divisions across 2,000 separate worksheets
Adcoms want to see leadership – how did you influence the outcome of a deal or client engagement? What barriers did you overcome? What did you learn from those experiences, and how did you develop as a result?
Examples of what they DO care about:
- Did you influence a client CEO to avoid taking an unethical action just to make his company look better?
- Did you come up with an idea that could save employees or create new jobs, despite “cost-cutting” measures post-acquisition?
- Did you convince the Managing Director of your group to start looking at deals in emerging markets, or to move into other new and unexplored territory?
Look at the experiences you’ve had and use them to build a story about how you’ve grown and who you are.
3. Extracurriculars Matter – Even If You Have No Time for Them
Getting involved in extracurricular activities – whether inside or outside your firm – is a great way to show awareness, involvement, and concern beyond what directly impacts you.
No, you won’t have much free time as a banker… which is why activities inside your firm can also be an excellent way to “do work” and also appear more interesting at the same time.
Coming from an investment banking background, it’s especially critical to show empathy – and the examples you provide of how you did this are JUST AS important as what you did in your investment banking role.
Here are a few examples of things you can do within the firm to demonstrate leadership and involvement:
- Lead recruiting efforts
- Influence a compliance or HR policy
- Help shape and implement your firm’s mission statement
- Start a diversity program or women’s leadership group
- Develop a mentorship program
- Start a career development workshop series
If you’d prefer to be involved outside of work, choose activities that you can link to your career vision and that support the greater aspirations you’ve shared in your application.
Don’t simply join as a passive member to check off a box.
As with university admissions, it’s far better to be deeply involved with 1-2 activities where you actually made real contributions as opposed to creating a laundry list of 10-15 activities where you did almost nothing.
4. Communicate a Clear Career Vision
When crafting your vision, aim big, be specific, and tie it back to how XYZ MBA program is critical to helping you get there.
If you worked with companies in a particular industry, talk about how that experience shaped your aspiration to make an impact in that vertical.
For example, let’s say you worked in healthcare investment banking – you want to write about a “big career vision” such as:
- You want to change the way that healthcare is administered
- You believe the healthcare insurance industry is broken (actually, I think everyone believes that it’s broken…) and that it needs to be disrupted – and you have the plan to do it
- You want to use mobile phones to assist in tracking and improving healthcare by focusing more on preventative care and flipping the current paradigm on its head
None of these goals is “easy,” and that’s the point. Each one is big, scary and exceptionally difficult to achieve – but that’s what top business schools want to see.
They want visionaries that will become world-renowned and famous – and they’d rather admit an “Icarus” who flies too close to the sun and falls rather than someone who never dares to fly.
If you wanted to stay in the world of finance instead of focusing on a new industry, you can tell a number of stories about your career vision:
- Make consumer personal finance education more accessible by starting a new video content network on personal finance topics
- Create a tech startup that brings the insights of hedge funds to the general retail investor to democratize investing
- Create a better business model for retail banking that doesn’t rely on gouging consumers with fees
- Develop a better model for peer-to-peer lending that allows both institutional investors and individuals to participate
- Develop financial products to serve the “under-banked”
- Change the way small businesses gain access to capital
- Create an online membership site where anyone can learn about deals and financial modeling and get answers to their questions from the community and the instructors… whoops, Brian already did this one – pick a new vision!
Talk about a career vision that is both ambitious and a logical extension of the experiences you’ve already had, and don’t worry if you’re not sure if that’s what you REALLY want to do.
The key is to develop a logical story that will inspire them to believe in you and help you achieve your vision.
5. Build Senior Advocates
Developing close relationships with senior-level people in your firm is one of the most important things you can do to stand out from the crowd.
Getting a recommendation from someone at a high level demonstrates that you have the confidence to reach out to and engage with senior people; it also says a lot about your performance and results, since senior-level people tend to only notice and endorse people they perceive to be stars.
You’ll get big bonus points if they are able to talk about you and your accomplishments at a detailed level in their recommendation.
Senior-level people also often graduated from the top MBA programs, and frequently maintain connections to influential people at these programs. An informal word-of-mouth endorsement could be just enough to tip you into the “accept” pile.
Here are a few tips based on personal experience of how best to develop these relationships:
- Find out what projects they are working on, and ask to join the team (do your homework first so that it’s obvious that you bring value to the table).
- Proactively run an analysis and or put together a model that could benefit a project they are working on.
- Start a task force for something you believe in, and ask if they would be willing to sponsor it.
- Send out an invite for lunch, and ask about their career path and any advice that they might have for you. Senior-level people love talking about themselves and distilling advice to anyone who will listen.
All the tips above assume that you’re starting well in advance and have plenty of time to plan out your application – which is how it should be.
Knowing these tips ahead of time will help you stand out over all the other financiers applying and make sure you come out ahead – not only in the minds of the Adcoms, but also when acceptance letters are issued.
And to Learn Even More…
Note from Brian: I have read A LOT of business school admissions guides because I actually thought about applying to business school at one point back in ancient times.
If you’ve read my emails and newsletters for some time, you know that I rarely promote 3rd party products and services, because most of them suck and don’t deliver what you’re looking for.
This business school admissions guide is the complete opposite of the other junk out there on the market because it tells it like it is.
There is no politically correct BS or generic fluff about “coming across as a well-rounded applicant” and other such nonsense here.
Instead, the authors explain clearly, starting from the first few pages, what the ONLY goal of your applications should be:
“The one and only goal of your application should be to convince the admissions committee that you could potentially become the next Jack Welch.”
That’s the truth.
Top schools don’t give a crap how “interesting” you are or how much community service you’ve done… they care about whether by “investing” in you, they’ll improve their own image and prestige and produce an industry titan in the future.
In essence, they’re just venture capital firms that invest in people: they expect most of their investments to be “failures” or at least produce “mediocre” outcomes (regional director of a biotech company)…
But they’re looking for the next Google or Facebook to offset all those “under-performing portfolio companies” (alumni who get “normal” jobs).
Here’s my favorite quote from this guide:
“If your end goal is just to become an Associate Director at a CPG company or a Managing Director at an Investment Bank, why would any school take a chance and invest in you? It’s like buying a $4 stock that you know only has the potential to increase to $5 per share.”
And it’s absolutely true.
I love his approach because it’s the same approach I’ve always used here: if you have no chance at getting into finance, I tell you that and recommend alternatives… if your interview skills suck, I tell you that and explain what to do.
If I were a doctor (shudder), I’d have horrible “bedside manner”… but you read this site because I tell you what you don’t want to hear.
After this introductory section, the rest of the guide is a detailed blueprint for how to create a vision that excites the Adcoms and then tell your story in a way that convinces them that you can actually achieve it.
This is why the guide kicks ass: it acknowledges that business school admissions, like finance interviews, are all about your story and how well you tell it more than anything else.
Unless, of course, you have no interest in getting into the top MBA programs worldwide – in that case, roll the dice and good luck to you!
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