How to Break into Investment Banking as a Pre-Med at a Non-Target School
We’ve covered quite a few different career transitions before, but one that escaped attention – until now – is how to get into banking from a pre-med background.
And to make things even more difficult, what if you’re also at a non-target university and you have a lower GPA?
Should you transfer universities?
Just network like crazy?
Focus on healthcare groups/firms or go beyond that?
And how do you prove that you know enough about accounting/finance to do the job?
I don’t have all the answers, but a reader who won a bulge-bracket IB offer has a lot of them:
From Pre-Med to Business
Q: Can you summarize your story for us?
A: Sure. I’m from the Midwest of the U.S., went to a non-target school, and started the pre-med track in my first year.
But after shadowing a few doctors, I realized it wasn’t for me, so I switched to the business school in my second year and began learning about finance.
My GPA had already taken a hit from the pre-med coursework (around a 3.3 cumulative), but I earned better grades in my business coursework (a 3.6 average).
I knew I’d need internships, so I networked extensively during my second year, did a boutique IB internship that summer, and then continued networking and interviewing for summer roles into my third year.
I made multiple weekend trips to NY, sent thousands of emails, spoke with hundreds of bankers, won multiple Superdays, and eventually accepted an offer at a bulge bracket.
Q: How much did your lower GPA hurt you, and how did you explain it?
A: It didn’t hurt me that much; I only received questions about my GPA in 2 / 12 interviews.
Bankers didn’t “interrogate” me – the questions were more like: “You’re smart, so what happened with your grades?”
And I gave a simple, honest explanation: “I didn’t know what I wanted to do in my first year, so I did a lot of activities, and my grades in the pre-med classes suffered.
But I’ve done much better in my business/finance classes, and that’s reflected in my recent results.”
To get over the hurdles of a lower GPA and a non-finance background, you have to get bankers on the phone or speak with them in-person.
If you understand the industry in-depth, their concerns and objections will often go away after 5-10 minutes.
Winning the Boutique IB Internship and Networking for More
Q: You mentioned that you networked a lot to win your first internship, but what did you do, exactly?
And how much did you focus on specific geographies and industries?
A: I started by Googling investment banks in my area, going to the “Team” page of each bank’s website, and emailing the most senior person there.
If I didn’t get a response, I emailed another person at the firm the next week.
I tried that with ~5 people at each firm, and if I didn’t get a response from anyone, I moved on.
I reached out to 20-25 firms total and got solid traction with 3-4 of them. I was not in a major financial center, so there were fewer banks to contact.
Even though I had a pre-med background, I did not target healthcare groups or firms exclusively because there were too few of them.
I always pointed out something I had in common with each person I contacted, even if it was trivial or a real stretch.
For example, one time I name-dropped another student at my school who had worked at one bank for a 3-week internship, and that led to a Director there responding to me.
Q: And then you started networking at bigger banks almost immediately.
A: Right. At first, I did focus on healthcare groups at the large banks, but there weren’t enough connections to make it work.
I started sending out ~100 emails every 2 weeks and usually received ~5 responses to each batch.
The non-target bankers were always more receptive, but sometimes bankers at target schools who were from my area or who had attended a mix of schools were helpful as well.
I focused on MDs, EDs, and VPs, and I contacted anyone I could find at elite boutiques and bulge brackets.
Q: You also mentioned that you made multiple weekend trips to NY.
How did you balance that with classes and improving your grades?
A: I combined a lot of trips and often used Superday interviews to spend the weekend in NY and continue networking with bankers.
My school also made a trip to NY at one point, so I combined that with more networking.
I set up my schedule so that I had no classes on Friday, and I reduced my credits from 15 to 12 so I would have more time for networking.
You do get diminishing returns after several trips. The first 2-3 were helpful, but there wasn’t necessarily a big gain past that.
Q: Can you give us a sense of the numbers regarding emails sent and phone calls made?
- Emails Sent: 2,000+, with ~100 every 2 weeks during networking season.
- Email Responses: ~200 people responded to me and exchanged emails or messages.
- Phone Calls: I spoke with 179 bankers over several months.
- Interviews: All of that led to 12 first-round interviews, 3 Superdays, and 2 summer internship offers.
But you shouldn’t focus too much on the numbers because a single solid connection is often much better than dozens of people who are just lukewarm.
For example, I networked with ~30 people at one bulge bracket, thought I had a good chance of winning interviews there… but then didn’t even get a first-round interview!
It’s far better to make a solid connection with one Managing Director than to get 20-30 Associates and VPs to “kind of like you.”
We’ve covered interviews quite a bit, so what new tips can you give us?
A: First, people focus far too much on the technical aspects of interview prep.
Yes, you need to know accounting and valuation, and the standards for technical knowledge have risen over time.
But at bulge-bracket firms, you will not get that many crazy/obscure/advanced questions.
Only about 1/3 of my Superday interviews were highly technical; technical questions were actually more common in first rounds and phone screens.
As you’ve said before, it’s more about fit and your story, at least for internships at large banks.
Also, you must be prepared for stress tests and “Good Cop” / “Medium Cop” / “Bad Cop” tests.
In almost every Superday at the large banks, they used the following routine:
- Person #1: Came in, acted receptive, and started talking about non-work topics. Sometimes we hit it off and went over the allotted time.
- Person #2: The person was much less receptive, acted very professional, and took a neutral tone with the questions.
- Person #3: This one acted totally uninterested, started texting or making phone calls during the interview, and sometimes stared at me for extended periods.
To do well with Person #3, your answers must be concise, and you have to go in expecting that behavior so you’re not caught off-guard.
Sometimes it was even more extreme. For example, in one Superday, the interviewer picked up the phone, started yelling and swearing, resumed with the questions, and then kept calling people randomly throughout the 30-minute time slot.
They’re testing your temperament and seeing how well you can deal with crazy people, stressful situations, and interruptions.
Q: Great, thanks for that description. Did you receive any case studies or modeling tests?
A: No, but I heard that one bulge bracket is starting to use case studies for summer interns – just the typical M&A case where you analyze 2-3 potential acquisitions and recommend the best one.
I believe case studies are also more common at elite boutiques.
Q: Great. Any final thoughts or advice for students in your position?
A: Networking is critical, but you should not start networking until you’ve invested significant time in learning the industry first.
Too many people set up informational interviews and end up shooting themselves in the foot when they can’t answer basic questions about investment banking.
Staying organized is also huge; you’ll never be able to track 2,000+ emails and 200+ calls and email exchanges without a spreadsheet and thorough notes.
Finally, you must REALLY LIKE the industry for this transition to make sense.
A student at Harvard or Princeton with perfect grades could get in just because he/she wants money and doesn’t know what else to do, but you’re in a very different position at a non-target school with a non-finance background.
Q: It seems crazy that you’d have to point that out, but I think it’s a good place to end. Thanks for your time!
A: My pleasure.
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