From Non-Target School to Elite Boutique: How to Make the Cross-Country Leap
Can you get into a top bank from a university that’s completely off their radar?
But what if your university is also far away from New York and other financial centers?
And what if you realize you want to do investment banking fairly late in the game?
Then it might be a bit harder.
Our reader today did just this and used every ninja trick imaginable – and some you haven’t imagined – to win a summer internship at an elite boutique.
I spoke with him recently and got him to reveal how he did it, including:
- How to get banks to pay for you to come to New York so you can conduct informational interviews and practice real interviews.
- How to use LinkedIn effectively as a student.
- How far in advance you need to start networking for summer internships.
- How to turn “No, go away” email responses into interviews.
- And why elite boutiques might be a better bet if you’re from a non-target school.
Let’s get started:
Q: Can you summarize your background and what you accomplished?
A: Sure. Originally, I went to university on a sports scholarship and wanted to be a professional athlete, but an injury ended my career.
I then transferred to a more affordable university with a better business school, though it was still definitely in “non-target” territory.
I did a few finance internships there, got a mix of well-known names and relevant experience on my resume, and gained modeling and valuation skills by working at an independent valuation firm.
That valuation experience really sparked my interest in investment banking, but I had a late start on other students, and I was competing with candidates from target schools.
So I networked like crazy, starting 1.5 years in advance of the actual summer internship, and went through interviews at several bulge brackets and elite boutiques to win my offer.
The keys to my success were:
- I did a ton of LinkedIn and email networking (~2,200 emails sent) and figured out how to get a good response rate.
- I made 4 weekend trips to NYC, even though my school was far away.
- I never took “No” for an answer, and I often went back to bankers who rejected me at first and argued my case.
How to Send 2,200 Emails and Live to Tell the Tale
Q: Great. So let’s start with networking first.
Can you describe what you did?
A: I started reaching out to contacts in November for summer internships starting two years in the future (i.e., November 20X5 for summer 20X7 internships).
(NOTE: Ideally, you want to start networking even earlier than this because internship recruiting keeps moving up.)
To find names, I got LinkedIn Premium and used that to search for professionals at different banks.
To get a better rate, I called LinkedIn and explained I was a student, and they offered me a subscription for $20 / month (normally it’s $60 / month).
I found each person’s name on LinkedIn, Googled for the email format of the bank, and then contacted the person via email.
The only one that’s tricky is JP Morgan because their email addresses use middle initials, which people rarely include on LinkedIn; the rest are straightforward.
I spent about 1 hour per day searching for contacts in the beginning, and when I reached out to people, I always customized my message.
For example, I saw that one contact had a minor in Chinese from his LinkedIn profile. I had taken a beginning Chinese class one semester, so I mentioned that in my intro email.
Once I got the person on the phone, I always asked about their specific group, the deals they worked on, and how they got into the industry.
I requested an informational interview with each person, and at the end of the conversation I always asked them to pass my resume along to the recruiting team and for referrals to other bankers.
I also mentioned that I might be in NYC in the future and suggested meeting up in-person.
Q: Can you give us a sense of the numbers?
A: Sure. I sent ~2,200 emails total, received ~400 responses, and spoke with 178 people on the phone.
I tried to do 2-3 calls per week in addition to the 1 hour per day spent on finding bankers and sending the initial emails.
I had the most luck scheduling calls for later in the day and early in the morning.
Q: How did you get such a good response rate? Most students are lucky to get even a 5% response rate, but you received responses to nearly 20% of your emails.
A: I kept my messages very short! I wrote 3-5 sentences per message, and I always customized them for the person and group.
So if I contacted someone in a TMT group at a bank, I might send a message like this:
SUBJECT: [University Name] student seeking career advice
“Dear Mr. / Ms. [Name],
My name is [Name], and I’m a student at [University Name] who found your contact information via LinkedIn.
Over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in investment banking as a career choice, and I have been trying to learn as much as possible to break into the field.
Because my background has been at a tech-focused valuation firm, I am specifically interested in speaking with you because of your experience at [Bank Name] in their TMT group.
I know you are extremely busy, but if you have a few minutes to talk so I could learn more about your experience at [Bank Name / Group], it would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks, and I look forward to connecting with you soon.
Q: Thanks for sharing that. Maybe the “Five sentence rule” works!
You started networking months in advance of internship interviews, so how did you stay in touch with everyone?
A: I tried to speak with everyone twice: Once in the initial phone call, and then once again when I visited New York.
That didn’t always work due to scheduling conflicts and emergencies, but I met with at least a few dozen contacts in-person.
I made a total of 4 weekend trips, which proved I was serious; bankers often brush you off until they meet you in-person.
Q: But how were you able to do that as a student who lived far away from NY?
A: Some people might call this unethical, but I applied to a few back and middle-office roles at banks that I wasn’t especially interested in, for two reasons:
- I would get to practice my responses to the “fit” questions.
- I would get a free trip to NY if I made it to the final round. And I tried to make my trips start on Thursday and extend to Monday so I could meet senior bankers on weekdays and junior bankers on weekends.
Q: I’m not sure if it’s “unethical”; I guess it depends on how many times you did it.
A: I took 2 weekend trips out of 4 total using this strategy, so I thought it was reasonable.
And I wasn’t completely uninterested in the roles – I just saw them as “backup plans” in case I couldn’t win a front-office role for my sophomore summer and wanted to get a better name on my resume.
Q: Sure. So if you spoke with 178 people and met a few dozen, how many did you stay in touch with?
A: Around 20 of them turned into good contacts who were willing to answer questions and who could make a serious push to help me win interviews.
I dropped anyone who left their firm, and I often contacted multiple people in the same group and then focused on the person I connected with the best.
Q: You also mentioned that you ran into some challenges in winning interviews at banks.
What happened, and how did you respond?
A: One time, I emailed a senior banker at an elite boutique and sent my usual pitch.
He responded with: “We don’t recruit at your school, and you wouldn’t stand a chance even if we did.”
I replied, attached my resume, and wrote:
“Actually, I think I would be successful for three main reasons.
First, I’ve always added value in past internships and made management teams’ lives easier.
Second, although I’m from a non-target school, I’ve passed Level I of the CFA, which shows I have a decent understanding of finance.
Third, I’ve completed internships with a lot of valuation and analytical work, and I’ve gained corporate finance knowledge like that.”
That response convinced him to meet up with me in NY, and I later won an interview through him.
Q: When did you reach out to your contacts to ask about interviews, and what did you say?
I attached my resume to each email and wrote a message like:
SUBJECT: Follow-up – [University Name] Student – Summer Internships
I hope all is well. Just as a reminder, we spoke [XX] months/weeks ago, and you told me about your experience in the [XX] group at your firm. I’m currently seeking investment banking internships for next summer, and I just wanted to know if you’d be willing to pass along my resume (attached here).
I ended up focusing on elite boutiques, and most of my interviews were at EBs as well.
I focused on EBs because the work seemed more interesting, and I got along better with bankers at those firms.
Q: So do you think non-target students have an advantage at elite boutiques?
A: Potentially, yes.
Students from target schools still focus on the bulge brackets, despite the many disadvantages, so there is sometimes less competition at the EBs.
But you shouldn’t apply exclusively to the elite boutiques – I still went through the process at several bulge bracket firms because interviews can be incredibly random and EB analyst classes are still relatively small compared with those at larger banks.
I definitely recommend diversifying the banks that you network with. As with investing, if you put all your eggs in one basket, you could fail to get the job for reasons outside of your control.
Q: Speaking of interviews, what were the biggest challenges you faced?
Did you have to answer a lot of objections about your university?
A: Not really.
One person did ask the “Why you rather than everyone else?” question, but I answered that by using a response similar to my counter-email above: I’ve always saved management teams time and made their lives easier, and I’ve gained significant accounting and finance skills from past work experience and the CFA exam.
The bulge bracket interviews were very straightforward. They asked the usual questions on Depreciation, WACC and Cost of Equity, how to walk through a DCF, etc.
The elite boutiques asked technical questions that required far more thought – the kind that you wouldn’t find in most interview guides.
Q: Such as?
A: One interviewer asked me, “What’s the average Cost of Equity for a tech company in the S&P 500?”
You don’t have the data to answer that off the top of your head, but they want to see your thought process rather than the exact answer.
So I said, “The Risk-Free Rate is around 1.55% for 10-year U.S. Treasuries. A tech company like Salesforce is more volatile than the market as a whole, with a Beta of around 1.5. So if you assume an Equity Risk Premium of 8%, Cost of Equity might be 13.55%.”
Q: Great. Any other tips for interviews?
A: When you’re practicing technical questions, speak your answers out loud and record yourself.
You’ll often go into too much depth or stumble over your words, so it helps to record what you’re saying and listen to it afterward.
Even if your roommates think you are weird for always talking to yourself, it will greatly improve your confidence and make you a more polished candidate.
Also, don’t underestimate the importance of the bottom few lines of your resume.
I got more questions about one random hobby listed there than anything else – even more than on my previous sports career or internships.
Q: So what’s your advice to other students in your position who want to win offers at the top banks?
A: I would say:
- Start networking FAR in advance – ideally, close to 2 years before the internship begins.
- Use LinkedIn to find names, but short, personalized emails to contact everyone.
- Go to New York any way you can, even if you do it by applying to roles you’re less interested in.
- Never take “No” for an answer. If a banker responds to you, that means he/she is at least somewhat interested. Turn around the “No” and argue your case.
- Be prepared for technical questions even in your initial cold calls and informational interviews, and practice out loud to make sure you explain them effectively.
Q: Awesome. Thanks for your time!
A: My pleasure.
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