From Liberal Arts to Finance: Shakespeare with Swag, or Mission: Impossible?
“I’m writing in because I’d like to share with you my story of how I broke in against all odds.
I’m a liberal arts major at a non-target university, and I decided at the end of my 2nd year that I wanted to get into investment banking.
I won an internship at a local boutique last year, and now I’m in the midst of interviewing for full-time roles at bulge bracket banks – even as most places have sharply cut back on hiring. Would you like to interview me?”
And I did interview him. It was an incredible story of how you can defy the odds to get into investment banking.
Yes, even as a liberal arts major at a non-target school who decided relatively late in the process that he wanted to be in finance… in the worst of the recession years.
But his story raised another important point: you can’t just be any liberal arts major and get in.
You need to take the right angle, implement the right strategy, and avoid the biggest mistakes that sink your chances.
And above all else, you must answer the 3 key “objections” that bankers will inevitably raise – and then keep answering them on your resume, when you’re networking, and in interviews.
What You’re Up Against
To refresh your memory, here are the challenges that “career changers” in other fields face as they attempt to break into finance:
- Consultants: You can deal with crazy people and work long hours, but can you count? Do you know how to use Excel without the mouse?
- Accountants: You know accounting and you can crunch numbers, but can you put in the hours and give up your life?
- Engineers: You can stare at computer monitors without sleeping for days at a time, but can you talk to people? Are you really interested in finance?
- Lawyers: You can deal with psychotic people and work until you bleed, even tracking your time in 6-minute increments, but do you know how to value a company? And give up your career?
The challenges you’ll face as a liberal arts major are similar, but in some ways they’re even tougher:
- OK, so presumably you can write and communicate well… that’s good… BUT:
- Can you do math? Do spreadsheets scare you away, or do they bow before your Excel shortcut proficiency?
- Are you really interested in finance, or are you doing this just because you realized that you would make no money with a degree in Psychology or English Literature?
- Can you work the hours? After all, your major was “easy” – can you really cut it in investment banking, or even a moderately challenging normal job, for that matter?
To be clear, these objections are not my own personal views – they represent how most bankers think and what prejudices they’ll have as they review your application if you’re from this background.
To answer these objections, you’ll need to prove that:
1) Yes, you can do math, and in fact you’re quite good at it and very comfortable with it;
2) You’re genuinely interested in finance and have been for years; and
3) You can work long hours on a consistent basis, and you’ve done that in the past as well.
In Your Favor… Nothing?
Unlike some of the professionals above, you only have a few things going in your favor:
- Communication Skills: These are more important in some fields (banking, PE, and sales) and less important in others (quant hedge funds), but they can only help your chances if you pitch yourself the right away.
- You’re Not Already Working Full-Time: Unlike everyone else above, you’re still in school or you graduated recently. This sounds like a small point, but it’s actually a big deal because it gets much, much harder to break in the longer you’ve been out of university.
- “Interestingness”: Occasionally, if you’ve majored in something “unusual,” they might give you points on the basis of being “more interesting” than other candidates. This point might sound silly, but remember that many interviewees come across as extremely boring.
Pitching Yourself and Perfecting Your “Story”: What to Say and What to Avoid
Before you even begin networking, you need to plan out your story in advance.
While the same template as usual for the “Walk me through your resume” question still applies, there are a few differences:
- Establish Your Interest Early On: Even if it’s just a casual mention, you want to state this just after you give your “Beginning” point and before you move onto your “Spark” – otherwise, it’s too easy for them to assume that you’re doing this solely for the money.
- Use a “Steve Jobs” Spark: Your “spark” needs to be more specific and it should “tie together” liberal arts and finance, sort of like Apple “tied together” liberal arts and technology. We’ll go through examples of this one.
- Answer the 3 Objections with Your “Growing Interest”: In this part of your story, you must speak directly to your math skills, ability to pull all-nighters, and how you became more interested in finance / business over time.
Here’s the actual “story” outline that the liberal arts reader from the beginning of this article used:
- The Beginning: Grew up in “The South” (not naming the state to protect his identity), and got introduced to business early on with a family member who was involved in local politics and determined business and sales tax policy; went to “Non-Target School” because of its excellent program in a field he was interested in
- Finance “Spark”: Majored in Public Policy and worked at a non-profit one summer; while at the non-profit, another non-profit wanted to merge with it, which got him more interested in finance and prompted him to research the details of how that deal would work
- Growing Interest: Participated in an investment banking case competition, joined the investment club at school, and completed another internship at a local boutique bank, which required 80-hour weeks as he completed 4 classes and activities while working full-time at the bank at the same time. He also took several additional math and finance electives outside his major to hone his skills in those areas.
- Why You’re Here: He wanted to combine his public policy and non-profit background with his finance experience and contribute to deals and advisory assignments with companies and organizations in similar “unusual” situations (could also tie directly to public finance roles).
- The Future: Become a trusted adviser and focus on more unusual M&A scenarios like the one he originally worked on (you could position this as “special situations”).
Notice how he accomplishes everything I mentioned above with this “story” outline:
- Establish Your Interest Early On: He brings up how his family member was involved in a political role that blended policy and business / economics, so he developed an interest from an early age.
- Use a “Steve Jobs” Spark: This spark is a perfect blend of the liberal arts and finance: a merger at a non-profit (and yes, this is a true story in case you’re skeptical – mergers do happen from time to time in all industries).
- Answer the 3 Objections with Your “Growing Interest”: He talks about the long hours, the math and finance classes, and the boutique internship, all of which answer those 3 key objections that you’ll face from a liberal arts background.
The most common question at this point: “That’s great, but what if I don’t have anything like those examples? How can I tell my story without having experience that’s a proper fit?”
The short answer: if you don’t have anything that is at least somewhat relevant to the points above, you need to rethink your decision to recruit for the finance industry in the first place.
The longer answer: you can probably come up with something that at least “sort of works,” if you’re creative enough.
Idea Generation Mode
To spur your creativity, here are a few ideas for each of these points:
- Establish Your Interest Early On: Your parents or family and their jobs / businesses; early investing you did; a small “business” you started; an early teacher or mentor
- Use a “Steve Jobs” Spark: A internship in journalism / politics / marketing where you had to work with a finance company or cover a finance-related story; a law or history class where a finance-related topic interested you; a study abroad experience where you got good exposure
- Prove That You Can Work Long Hours: The best examples are times when you worked, did activities, and completed classes over an extended period (i.e. not just 1 week of craziness) – pick the most hectic period of at least 1-2 months that you can think of
- Demonstrate Your Quantitative Skills: Classes, self-study financial modeling programs, internship tasks, anything math-related or analytical you did for your activities, A-Level Math if you’re in the UK
- Show Your Interest in Business and Finance: Case competitions, your own investing, classes, self-study, internships (unpaid / part-time / full-time), study abroad experiences
Networking: Inspirational Informational Interviews?
The main difficulty you’ll face as a liberal arts major is getting (some) bankers to take you seriously in the first place. You handle that by following the instructions above to make sure your pitch is spot-on and addresses their objections in advance.
You are at a bit of a disadvantage next to career changers who have been working for several years because they have wider networks to draw on – on the other hand, though, you have closer connections to often-overlooked leads like professors, which can be extremely valuable.
The key point is that you should not discount someone just because he/she is not in finance – if you’ve done internships in politics or journalism, for example, it’s almost guaranteed that some of your contacts will know people in the industry.
Past that initial “lead generation” exercise, the networking process itself and the timeframe are the same as what any other undergraduate would face.
Your Resume / CV
Just as your pitch needs to answer those 3 main objections that bankers will have about your background (handling the hours, the quantitative skills, and your true interest in finance), your resume or CV must do the same thing.
Once again, the investment banking resume template for university students still applies and you should use that for your basic structure.
But you need to watch out for the common mistakes:
- Assuming that because you majored in something “fuzzy” that you “can’t” be quantitative at all on your resume. You still analyze things and use numbers (sometimes), so focus on those aspects of your classes and work experience.
- Assuming that you should devote equal amounts of space to all your experiences – focus on the most finance-related ones and spin them appropriately. Yes, maybe that 2-day stock competition should take up more space than your internship at the non-profit.
- Writing too much about classes and not enough about work/leadership experience outside of classes – this is a problem because liberal arts majors are often perceived as too “academic.”
Take a look at the template and tutorial for how to write your resume with no “real” finance work experience if you want to see good examples of how to get around all of the problems above.
Let’s say that you covered a finance-related story such as a major M&A deal – or even something more general like economic news – during your summer internship at a newspaper.
You could adjust the focus and spin that by writing about the extra work you did beyond the story to run the numbers yourself and determine your own opinion on the deal or policy… even if that’s a stretch.
You would focus less on qualitative issues and more on the analysis and quantitative side, even if you only spent 1% of your total time on that.
As with anyone else, 90% of your interview success will come down to your “story” and how you pitch yourself in the first few minutes – which is why I went into detail on it above.
If you have good examples to counter their objections (quantitative skills, genuine interest in finance, burning the midnight oil), you’ll get through that part without much difficulty.
Yes, you will still get technical questions in interviews and they will still expect you to know a fair amount, even if you have no background in accounting or finance.
Their expectations might be somewhat lower, but there’s no way that you could win offers these days without a solid amount of technical knowledge.
In some of the other “career changer” articles, I mentioned that the CFA and other rigorous certifications might actually help, if you have the time, to prove your interest in finance and your quantitative skills.
But those certifications are probably overkill for an undergrad looking to get in.
…But a Plan B Just In Case
Your “Plan B” options are similar to anyone else’s, but you arguably have a few more options if you’re attempting to move in at the undergraduate or recent graduate level.
There’s always the Master’s program that you can use to re-brand yourself, or business school if you want to work for a few years first.
And then there’s the possibility of going to work in a related field, like Big 4 accounting / valuation, going the financial journalism route, or moving to a normal company and transitioning into more of a corporate finance career path there first.
The only problem with these options is that they’re not necessarily “easier” because you’re still competing against people with more relevant majors and/or experiences.
The bottom-line is that, as always, it’s best to break in as early as you can because it only gets harder the more experience you gain.
Shakespeare to Second-Year Analyst?
I’ve already dispelled the myth that banks “only” want certain majors – but you are still at a disadvantage if you don’t have the right pitch, the right story, and the right experience.
And those are all common mistakes if you’re not a business/finance major like most other candidates.
But if you follow everything above, you’ll have a fighting chance at breaking in as a liberal arts major – even if your own story never quite makes it to Shakespearean levels.
Series: Career Transitions
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