by Brian DeChesare Comments (22)

Don’t Overestimate the Competition: 2015 Edition

Overestimate Competition Investment BankingSo, you’ve fixed your LinkedIn profile.

You’re using my email templates to reach out to and follow-up with professionals in the industry.

And maybe you’re already seeing better response rates…

Next, you need to reset your psychology and realize that “other people” – your competitors in the recruiting process and on the job – are not so amazing.

This goes along with a broader point I made a few months ago: despite the wealth of interview prep materials, the overall candidate pool is less impressive than it was 5-10 years ago.

Today I’m going to share with you 5 stories from readers, customers, and yes, even a friend, that all illustrate a simple point: don’t overestimate the competition.

Why Do You Overestimate the Competition?

In the classic article on this topic, I wrote that 95%+ of the students I met at career fairs at “top schools” never bothered to send me even a 2-sentence follow-up email.

I speculated that it might happen because they assume that it’s unnecessary, or that it won’t make a difference, or that “everyone else” is doing it so it doesn’t matter.

Today, though, another factor explains this behavior: you take online discussions and commentary, social media, and baseless rumors too seriously.

I realize the irony in this statement (look at what you’re reading right now…), but I’m basing this article on “real people” interactions in-person or over the phone (and you know my real name and where to find me).

You can’t take online discussions too seriously because they tend to skew extreme in one direction or another, and they often gloss over or exclude important details:

  • “This person got 12 job offers without even going to a Superday once!” (Except it was only 2 job offers, 1 through a family friend and the other in a middle/back-office role)
  • “I set up 145 informational interviews but never heard back from anyone because my GPA was too low.” (Except you contacted all the wrong people and sent them emails containing typos)
  • “They asked me 45 minutes of difficult technical questions, and then had me to build an LBO model on a napkin!” (Yes, because you described yourself as a ‘math genius’ – yes, an interviewee actually said that to me once)

Sure, there are some very impressive candidates out there… but even smart and accomplished people make mistakes.

So if you are not as impressive “on paper,” you might want to sit back and read these stories first before panicking:

Story #1: How a Waterfall Schedule Might Sink Your Internship at the Bottom of a Lake

A few years ago, I started accepting requests for IB / PE mock interviews because I wanted examples for a private equity interview guide I was working on at the time.

A reader who landed an off-cycle internship at a well-known European PE firm signed up for a Q&A / coaching session, and he asked about covering:

  • How to prepare for the job itself.
  • How to maximize his chances of winning a full-time offer.
  • How to navigate office politics.

Then we started speaking, and things went downhill within the first 10 minutes.

I began answering all those questions, but he wanted to spend the entire session learning how to build a waterfall returns schedule in an LBO.

This schedule allows different investor groups to receive different percentages of the returns depending on the overall results (e.g., the PE firm gets 95% of the returns up to a 10% IRR, but then 85% of the returns above a 10% IRR).

While this can be useful, it’s not the type of thing to focus on if you’re preparing for an entry-level internship.

I told him repeatedly to skip that and focus on the actual points he wanted to cover originally, but he was insistent… and then he asked about it in follow-up emails as well.

When the internship began, he spent a lot of time mastering all the Excel files he could find, but comparatively little time getting to know the senior team members.

It was the classic STARR vs. TWAT mistake.

He ended up not receiving a full-time offer from the PE firm, but, in all fairness, he did win an investment banking offer from another firm afterward.

I’m willing to bet, though, that the IB offer had nothing to do with waterfall schedules.

Story #2: Why 46 Versions of Your Resume Will Result in… Fewer Than 46 Job Offers

Just like a waterfall schedule might sink your internship at the bottom of a lake, so too can an unhealthy obsession with editing your resume.

A few years back, a reader who was extremely eager for advice reached out.

I did a few mock interviews with him, after which he greatly improved his story / personal pitch and his answers to other common questions.

And then he actually won 5 legitimate IB internship offers (yes, I saw the emails), which happens very rarely.

But then a bit of a “deus ex machina” happened and he had to postpone his graduation date, which meant another round of applying for internships the next year – plus, he wanted to work in a different region.

In July of that year, I sent over a step-by-step action plan for how to network, how to reach out to alumni, and how to pitch himself and explain the postponed graduation date.

Then he went radio silent, but finally contacted me again in October.

I asked how he was progressing on the action plan, since summer internship recruiting would begin in December. His response:

“I’m still working on my resume and haven’t had much time to network yet. Could you please take a look at the latest version?”

He then sent me a version of his resume with “v46” at the end.

URGE TO KILL, RISING.

He had performed well in mock interviews and received more internship offers than almost anyone I’ve seen.

But he STILL made a key blunder that cost him 2-3 months of time.

He ended up winning an internship offer at a boutique bank, but he could have done much better if he had stopped at “v5” of his resume and used all that extra time to speak with contacts at bigger banks.

Story #3: Learn to Tie a Tie on YouTube – Not in a Mock Interview with Me

In the early days of M&I (2008 – 2009), I only offered mock interviews and resume editing.

So I was naturally eager to win new customers, especially ones who wanted to pay in advance for multiple services.

One day, a reader who wanted 5 mock interview sessions came along and immediately wanted to sign up, without even speaking to me first.

I said, “Sure! Click here to sign up.”

The first few sessions were legitimately useful for him.

I fixed his story, covered the most common qualitative questions, and did a review of the normal technical questions.

But then he started asking for more and more mock interviews.

I tried to tell him, “No, don’t do this; you’ll get diminishing returns,” but he didn’t take the hint.

If this had happened today, I would have refunded him the full amount he had paid from the start, and said that we could not provide further services.

We ended up doing close to 10 mock interviews… at which point I thought I was done.

But then he emailed me and asked about doing an in-person mock interview… mostly so I could show him how to tie a tie.

(Keep in mind, YouTube existed and was still a huge site back then.)

He ended up not winning a summer IB internship that year, all because he had rehearsed, written out answers, and prepared so well that everything sounded artificial.

Yes, you need to know your stuff… but you get hired because other people like you.

The next year, he finally won a full-time IB offer.

But if he had not rehearsed so much, he could have gotten even better results with less effort (an internship that converted into a full-time offer).

Story #4: If You Sign Up for a $2,000 Coaching Package, Please Use It

After re-introducing resume editing and mock interviews on the site, I started offering a $2,000 coaching package that provided LinkedIn profile creation, coaching sessions / mock interviews, unlimited email Q&A, multiple resume / cover letter edits, and more.

I honestly did not expect anyone to sign up for it.

But as usual, I was wrong and we had a few sign-ups within the first month.

Most sessions went off without a hitch, but I noticed a disturbing trend: some people were signing up and not fully utilizing the services.

One person signed up, went through resume and cover letter editing, but then cancelled a mock interview 10 minutes before it was set to begin.

Then we tried again, and he had to run within 5 minutes of starting the interview.

Then I followed up repeatedly, finally scheduled another time, had it cancelled, and stopped trying after that.

In another case, someone signed up for 3 PE mock interviews, only used 1 of them, and then failed to respond after I sent her ~5 follow-up emails to schedule the next 2 sessions.

If either of these individuals came back today and wanted to schedule another session, sure, I would be obligated to do it… but will they even come back?

This doesn’t happen most of the time… but in a surprisingly high percentage of cases it does.

The broader point is that many people fail to take full advantage of the resources available to them in any setting.

Simply by doing that, you can often outpace “the competition.”

Story #5: Ivy League Education + 10 Years of Work Experience = Inability to Write Emails

Believe it or not, some of my real life friends read this site occasionally.

One of them saw the article on effective emails, forwarded me an email he had recently used for networking purposes, and asked for my feedback on it.

I read the first 2 lines and almost jumped out of my window (but I live on the 17th floor, so I decided against it).

Here’s the start of his message:

“Hi [Person 1], [Person 2], [Person 3], and other relevant team members at [Company Name],

I got your names on LinkedIn and your contact info through the alumni directory. I wanted to reach out to you and introduce myself for consideration for the [Position Name] opportunity with your team in [Location Name].”

URGE TO KILL, RISING.

You should never email multiple people at once in an initial “outreach” message like this; I thought that point was so obvious I didn’t even mention it in the article.

And “got your names on LinkedIn”?

Not exactly the language you should be using in a professional networking email.

In all fairness, the rest of his email was fine and sounded quite reasonable… but when you make several big mistakes in the first few lines it may not even matter.

So just in case you think people with Ivy League degrees and 10+ years of work experience are more capable than you, you might want to reconsider – at least when it comes to effective communication.

Whither the Competition?

The next time you start fretting about “the competition” or “what everyone else is doing,” remember the following:

The competition often focuses on the wrong things (waterfall schedules, 46 iterations of a resume).

The competition often self-destructs (mock interviews to the point of sounding robotic).

The competition often fails to take full advantage of their resources (signing up for coaching services and then not using them).

And even with an Ivy League degree and 10+ years of work experience, the competition may not be able to write a professional email.

So before you start worrying about the competition, you might want to stop and reconsider.

You might just be overestimating them.

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. I completed your BIWS financial modeling courses and wanted to ask would it be beneficial to mention it on my resume. I’m a non-business-related major and I’m applying for an entry-level position at the financial advisory group at one of the big 4 accounting firms.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Yes, it is definitely beneficial to list the course on your resume, especially if you don’t have any finance experience.
      You can just include this at the bottom of your resume “Certifications: Financial Modeling Fundamentals [List course you completed] (Breaking Into Wall Street) training program; [List what you did here i.e. created 3-statement operating model for EasyJet, etc]. If you go to https://breakingintowallstreet.com/biws/breaking-into-wall-street-courses/ and login to the portal there’s a 14-page guide that explains to you how to list the course on your resume. Please let us know if you have other questions.

  2. It’s a shame about those stories. It’s a little cliche, but I think it’s still true, that phrase “paralysis by analysis.” Happens in business probably more often than other places.

    1. Yes. Plus, combine business with hyper-competitive and extremely detail-oriented people and you have a deadly recipe…

  3. The BEST !!!

  4. First of all, I just wanted to say: You are THE man! This website has proven to be a great resource that I continue to recommend to my friends.

    I am a firm believer that you should not let your insecurities get the best of you, and to play to your strengths even when the odds seem insurmountable.

    Keep up the great work, thanks!

    -Jason

    1. Thanks, glad to hear it, and thanks for the recommendations!

  5. I recently debated the use of “got” for a formal email/text. Good article!

    1. Thanks. Yes, “got” can sometimes be OK but it depends on the context… if you’re using it to mean “received” or “found” then you’re better off using “received” or “found.”

      1. Hey Brian, I am in the 3rd round of interview at a big African bank; all the candidates may be interviewed at once by the CEO. How do I stand out in this interview cum group session. Also, you mentioned that interviews with CEOs are usually qualitative. However, in the spirit of being ready for anything, how do I prep for and answer technical questions to stand out?

        1. Don’t try too hard to prepare if it’s the CEO. You’ll stand out by connecting on a more personal level with him; if anything, maybe research his background and find common ground / come up with good stories to share in the interview.

  6. Has anyone really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like?

    1. ??? Sorry, what is your question? Not sure I understand.

  7. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for the encouraging e-mail. I recently started working at Big4 advisory in Quantitative Analytic group (model validation, stress testing…). Would you encourage people in my position to pursue a ib position? It seems after reading your articles that I’m a bit too late in the game.

    1. Thanks! It’s hard to say because it depends on how much work experience you already have. If it’s under 5 years, you can probably make a reasonable attempt at IB roles. if it’s more than that, you may need business school or something else to help you re-brand.

      1. Thanks. It’s only been 5 months since I’ve started so maybe there is a shot. On a separately note, do you know anything about finance in Korea? I’d love to move and work there for a few years, but I’m not sure how developed the finance job market is over there. Do you think it is just as competitive?

        1. I would recommend against Korea unless you are from there / you’re a native speaker of the language / you otherwise have a really good reason to work there. It’s quite small, they’re mostly looking for Koreans who studied overseas, and it’s one of the more difficult markets to break into in Asia. If you really want to work there, the best bet is to push for an internal transfer or a temporary assignment where you work on a project there. They do hire foreigners, but mostly for specialized roles where it’s tough to find local talent.

  8. I didn’t realize it was ill advised to mention in a networking email that you found them through LinkedIn. If that is how you came across their information what would be the proper way to frame it?

    Thanks! This is a great article and something that I’ve started to realize as I’ve been going through the interview process.

    1. Thanks. It’s fine to say that you found them through LinkedIn, but you should write something like: “I recently came across your information on LinkedIn, and wanted to reach out…”.

      The word “got” just sounds weird to use in a professional email, at least in that context. But the main problem there was that he emailed multiple people at once.

  9. I needed some motivation, thank you.

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