From Insurance Sales to Investment Banking: How to Make Up for an Unknown School, a Low GPA, and No Relevant Internships
What background makes it toughest to break into finance?
The back office?
Each of those careers presents different challenges.
But there’s one particular background that bankers do not like: insurance, and specifically insurance sales.
If you attend a university where “everyone” does it, though, you could easily end up doing it as well.
Our reader today had it even worse:
- He went to a school that was completely off the radar of large banks.
- He had a low GPA (3.4) below the minimum that most banks required.
- He had a total of 0 relevant internships.
- And he only made a serious effort after junior-year recruiting had finished up.
Despite all that, he recently won a full-time offer at a boutique bank.
And he has a few ideas on how to overcome all these challenges if you’re in a similar position:
Falling Into Insurance Sales
Q: Can you give us an overview of your story?
A: I grew up in the Chicago area and had a few family members involved in the banking industry, so I was interested in finance even before university. Unfortunately, I wasn’t thinking far enough ahead to attend a top school.
So I won admission to a few “good” undergraduate business programs in my area, but nothing that would help with IB.
At my school, one insurance company attempted to recruit almost everyone.
So I interned at that insurance firm and eventually rose to a management role in sales over three years, but that experience turned out to be a huge negative in interviews.
I liked sales, but over time I realized I wanted to work with large companies rather than individuals.
Unfortunately, I was so clueless and so far behind that I missed junior-year IB recruiting season (I applied to a few banks, but it was very late and I never heard back).
I did some networking, but got almost no responses.
So I took a different approach and attended a summer finance program offered at a top business school in the area, and spent three intensive weeks there learning financial accounting, corporate finance, and some financial modeling.
I still didn’t gain much traction after months of effort, but then I changed up my approach heading into December / January.
That led me to win multiple job offers within the span of a few weeks, including one that I accepted at a boutique investment bank.
Q: OK, so a couple questions there…
First off, why do bankers hate insurance firms so much?
A: Insurance salespeople are always calling bankers, pitching products, and annoying them.
I improved my interpersonal and presentation skills through the job, but otherwise it was a big hurdle to overcome.
Q: But you just said that your insurance firm was calling bankers all the time.
You must have had a few clients in the finance industry – why didn’t you network with them?
A: Yeah, that was an overlooked opportunity: I was an inexperienced student, and I didn’t know that networking with the firm’s clients was “allowed.”
Many clients told me to look into investment banking as a career (just as a random comment in passing)!
I did apply to 5-6 large banks in my junior year, but I completely ignored middle-market and boutique firms until much later.
Intensive Summer Finance Camp 101
Q: So you applied for internships too late, you didn’t have any real options, and as a result you ended up doing this “summer finance camp” instead.
What were the benefits?
A: For me, there were three distinct benefits:
- Better Brand Name – I could “hide” my lesser-known undergraduate institution by saying I was a “[Top Business School Name] Grad” instead.
- Network – The school had a built-in network, and I met a lot of professors and professionals during the program who were willing to help me.
- Academic Rigor – I partially made up for my 3.4 GPA by earning perfect grades in the program and pointing to the difficulty of the classes. This school had a reputation for being difficult, so that also helped my case.
Q: Yeah, agreed on all those points.
Can you explain how you networked after completing this intensive summer program?
A: I went to the LinkedIn page of the business school, found alumni and investment bankers who were in the group, and started messaging 10-20 contacts per day.
In total, I contacted ~500 bankers via LinkedIn.
I also looked up banks in my area each week and sent emails to everyone I could find.
Over the first four months, I got a fair number of responses, but nothing that led me to final round interviews at any firm.
A lot of people said they would “pass my name along,” but then never did anything.
Q: Why do you think this strategy didn’t work well?
A: It was a combination of factors:
- My GPA and academics were lackluster;
- I didn’t have relevant internships; and
- My email template was generic and poorly worded when I first started.
Q: Did you try anything else when you didn’t get great results via email?
A: I did some cold calling as well, but I felt more comfortable with email and received more responses via email.
I also attended other schools’ career fairs, but that didn’t work too well for me.
I went to four other fairs, but bankers lost interest once they found out I wasn’t a student at the school.
Also, the banks at those career fairs were all quite large – the smallest one was Lazard – and they had even less interest in me as a result.
In my opinion, email is the way to go for undergrads who are new to networking.
Bankers are in their inboxes all day, and if you send out enough messages you’re bound to get at least a few responses.
Q: But you weren’t getting helpful responses at first.
Why and how did you change your approach?
A: The low point came in early December of my senior year. I had just found the email address of the Chairman at a well-known boutique, and I emailed him with a variation of my usual template (also attaching my resume).
He responded with a personalized rejection email, writing:
“Thanks for your interest in [Bank Name]. Unfortunately, your email didn’t reflect much effort or initiative to tailor your efforts to [Bank Name]… [More explanation about how poor my email was]. Also, we require at least a 3.8 GPA.”
That harsh, but brutally honest, response convinced me to change my approach.
Effective Emails 101
Q: So what did you do?
A: I made three main changes:
- I customized my emails for each bank, even though this made my initial messages longer.
- I focused on firms where I knew someone or could spin some type of shared connection.
- I also stopped contacting large banks altogether and focused on smaller banks. But I also broadened my search and emailed commercial banks, different types of lending firms, and any company offering “financial analyst” jobs.
Q: To make this more concrete, can you give a “Before” and “After” email to show us what worked and what didn’t work?
A: Sure. Here’s an example of an email that did not work well:
“Greetings [Banker Name],
My name is [Name] and I am currently a student at [University Name] excited to get into investment banking. I am reaching out because I have searched for many investment banks, came across your website, and hope to hear back from you guys. Additionally, I saw you went to [Business School Name], and I recently finished [Summer Program at Business School].
I am willing to work in any group within the investment banking division, but I prefer to work in the middle market industry at this time. I have applied to many banks, interviewed at a few, and have not heard back from most.
I have some experience in I-banking from working with my colleagues at [Business School Summer Program], and I am a diligent, hard-working individual. I believe this would be a great opportunity if I am given the chance to interview, or if you could pass my resume along to anyone within your firm.
My resume is attached, and I hope to speak with you soon.
That’s not the worst email I’ve ever seen, but I’m still surprised you got any responses.
How did you modify this email to get a better response rate?
A: Here’s an example of an email that yielded a better response rate:
“Dear Mr. / Ms. [Banker Name],
I hope this email finds you well. I am currently a student at [University Name], and I completed the [Business School Summer Program Name] this past summer, with a focus on corporate finance, financial modeling, and investment banking. I have previous experience in insurance and equity research as well.
I am set to graduate in [Month Year], and I am very interested in your firm because of your focus on [Industry Name]. One of my contacts, [Name and Explain Who the Person is], also focuses on [Industry Name] at [Bank Name], and has discussed recent deals such as [Name 1-2 Examples] with me.
If you have any availability next week, I would greatly appreciate the chance to speak with you and learn more about your firm. I understand you are extremely busy, but even a few minutes would be helpful to my recruiting efforts.
So even if I didn’t know someone at the firm, I name-dropped someone else who worked in a similar group elsewhere.
It takes time to research deals in a specific industry, but I got a much better response rate when I mentioned that information.
Q: The name-dropping strategy helped, but there were also many problems with your first email.
How well did this new outreach effort work?
A: I saw better results within 1-2 months of using it – there was one week in February where I had five phone interviews, all via contacts I had emailed 2-3 weeks earlier.
A lot of smaller finance firms still had open positions, so the timing worked out.
Interviews: What’s Your Greatest Weakness?
Q: So tell us what happened in these interviews – what were your top three biggest challenges?
A: Most interviewers asked similar types of questions:
- Do you know what investment banking hours are like / what this job entails / what different groups do?
- Can you link the three financial statements and explain how changes to one line item impact everything else?
- Can you analyze a company’s Cash Flow Statement and draw conclusions about its business from that?
Those questions are not hard if you’ve done a lot of preparation.
But my preparation was only mediocre, so my three biggest challenges were:
1) My Insurance Sales Background – Most banks saw this as a huge negative, and they ripped apart my resume once they saw it.
To respond, I agreed with them on some of the negatives, but I also pointed out that I gained sales and interpersonal skills that I could leverage in other roles.
This experience also helped answer the “Where do you want to be in 3-5 years?” question.
Many other candidates saw banking solely as a path to PE or other exit opportunities, but I could tell a more credible story by saying, “I’ve already done sales, I like sales, and now I want to work my way up to a sales role in another industry by working with higher-end clients.”
2) My Low GPA – The Managing Directors were far more skeptical of my GPA than anyone else.
Analysts, Associates, VPs, and Directors were supportive once they saw my interview performance, but the MDs were very traditional and kept saying a 3.4 was too low.
I countered this objection by pointing to the intensive “mini-MBA” I had done at the business school, and I showed them how I had earned perfect grades in classes that were directly relevant to banking.
I also pointed out that I worked part-time while taking classes full-time for three years, and had done quite well in my finance classes.
3) My Lack of Accounting Knowledge – Looking back on it, I should have double majored in finance and accounting, or at least done a minor in accounting.
My economics classes weren’t helpful because the field is too theoretical and has nothing to do with financial statement analysis.
I relied on your interview guide and several others, which definitely helped, but my accounting knowledge was still spotty in initial interviews.
Q: But your approach must have worked since you won multiple offers.
A: A lot of places were still skeptical, but I ended up with several offers, including one at a distressed M&A-focused boutique bank, which I accepted.
It made sense to join that firm because they had the most interesting work; also, I had been interested in distressed M&A ever since the summer program I completed.
I also asked a few bulge bracket bankers for advice, and they all said I would gain more client interaction at a boutique bank.
The drawback is that my firm has no real training program or formalized instruction, but they did send me some materials to review and I’m sure I can pick up more on my own.
Q: Yeah, accepting that offer was the best move. I’m still amazed at your results, given how late you began recruiting.
Thanks for sharing your story with us!
A: My pleasure.
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