Why Private Equity?
So you’ve made it through your first 6 months in banking alive. Your waist is bigger from all those tiramisu desserts, but luckily your bank account has gotten even fatter than your stomach.
And your bank account is set to get even fatter in the future – if you can successfully break into private equity.
Which is a problem – because the last thing PE guys want is a banker or consultant who wants to do PE simply because he/she hates banking or consulting or because everyone else doing it.
Why Does This Matter?
While PE firms want people who are technically proficient (one reason why consultants face a more difficult time getting in, at least in the US), fit is even more important than in banking because firms are an order of magnitude smaller.
Whereas the top banks have tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of employees, the biggest PE firms in the world only have a few hundred – and there are thousands of PE firms with fewer than 10.
Unlike banks, private equity firms have no need to hire an army of analysts to do grunt work: they’re not creating pitch books and competing for sell-side, buy-side, and financing mandates all day, and if they’re understaffed they can say “no” to potential investments.
The interview process can also be much more of an extended affair in PE, with many firms below the mega-fund level conducting interviews over months rather than the days or weeks you see in banking (the mega-funds do it much more quickly).
As a result, fit is critical and if the Partners doubt your motivations for wanting to do PE, they won’t give you an offer.
What NOT to Say
As with some other interview questions, there’s a temptation to say something stupid in response to “Why private equity?”:
- “I don’t like the hours in banking, and I want a better lifestyle.”
- “You can make much more money in PE because you’re an investor rather than an advisor!”
- “Well… all my friends are doing it!”
- “I want to control companies rather than taking orders from my MD all day.”
I doubt you would say anything this bad in a real interview, but your actual answer may not be significantly better, either.
All the reasons above are bad answers, for different reasons:
- While the lifestyle may be a bit better at smaller firms, it’s still far from a 9-5 job. And at mega-funds it’s banking all over again.
- The pay is also not that much better, especially when you first start. Yes, Steve Schwarzman makes more than any MD in banking but he’s also the Co-Founder of the best-known and oldest PE firm in the world, with 30+ years of experience.
- If you want to become an investor, you want to demonstrate independent thought as opposed to following what all your friends are doing.
- You don’t “control” companies as an analyst or associate, you manipulate spreadsheets.
In short, any variant of “I don’t like my current job and PE would be better because [Insert Reason Here]” is bad because it’s too negative.
And anything where you sound like you expect to conquer the world and become a trillionaire also sounds bad because it shows that you don’t have a clue about how the industry works.
PE: The Promised Land? Fact and Fiction…
You might have had dreams of becoming a baller at KKR or Blackstone making $100 million per year, but you should pinch yourself and wake up since that will never happen.
I often group IB and PE together on this site because the work is not much different.
If you don’t like Excel, if you think EBITDA is boring, or if you have no interest in analyzing financial statements or reading about different companies, you should stop right now and do something more creative like advertising instead (I hear Don Draper is hiring…).
There are advantages and your role differs from what you do in banking, but if you fundamentally do not like analyzing and valuing companies, you’re going to hate it.
You do get more responsibility at certain firms, sometimes you’ll get to observe Boards of Directors and sit in on meetings, and you don’t get the stupid fix-the-printer-and-fetch-coffee tasks that you see in banking.
But please do not assume that it’s a night-and-day difference just because a bunch of 22-year old students in your finance club say it is.
Better Answers to “Why PE?”
To answer this question successfully, you need to avoid the clichés above and point out positive differences between PE and banking or between PE and whatever you’re moving in from (consulting, corporate development, etc.).
But you need to do that by highlighting what you’re looking for rather than what you don’t like about your current job.
Examples of solid reasons:
- You want to work with companies over the long-term instead of just on a single deal.
- You want to get exposed to the operations of companies and understand all aspects rather than just the financial ones (note: “exposed to,” not “control” or “improve”).
- You want to contribute to companies’ growth by looking at add-on acquisitions and other expansion opportunities that only an investor would be able to execute.
- You see yourself as an investor in the long-term, and want to learn all aspects of the process and how to evaluate whether a company can deliver solid returns.
It’s not “wrong” to make a direct comparison between PE and other fields (see the first 2 reasons) but you always want to downplay the negative part.
Ideally, you’ll tie the investments a PE firm makes to what you’ve done previously in school or work:
- The engineer-turned-banker has a much better story to tell if he recruits for a tech PE firm or growth equity firm and explains how he’s interested in applying his knowledge of IT and finance to investing in IT companies.
- If you’ve worked in Restructuring or Distressed M&A, you have a much better story if you recruit for a firm that specializes in turnarounds or distressed investments.
- If you’ve done consulting for restaurants or food chains, you’ll have a much better story to tell when you recruit for a PE firm that specializes in those types of investments, or even in the consumer sector as a whole.
- If you’ve done corporate development at a media or broadcasting company, you’ll have a much better story to tell when you interview with Bono at Elevation Partners.
The exact reasons depend on your background and where you’ve worked before, but you should combine these points – industry / company / deal focus + investing and working with companies in the long-term – to frame your answer:
- The banker would talk about how he wants to work with companies over the long-term and learn how to assess whether they can deliver solid returns so that he can become an investor in the future.
- The consultant would talk about how he wants to learn both the financial and the operational aspects of companies, and how he wants to be involved with decisions that a company implements rather than just recommendations.
- The corporate development guy/girl would talk about how he/she wants the opportunity to work with all different types of companies in the market rather than just one.
It’s not rocket science: highlight the positive differences between PE and your current field and why you’re interested in pursuing them as you transition into becoming an investor yourself.
If you’re coming from a banking or consulting background, you may get questions about PE vs. other exit opportunities:
Why PE Over VC?
If the PE firm you’re interviewing with asks you this one, say that VC is too far in the operational direction for you, and how you feel it’s more about predicting the next Google/Facebook/Zynga than analytical reasoning.
You prefer PE because it’s a blend of both operations and finance and because you can help Founders with well-established businesses make them even better via solid analysis and research rather than just guesswork.
And, of course, if you’re interviewing for VC you want to take the opposite position and say that PE is all about financial engineering with little value-add and that you can truly help early-stage companies take off because they’re more in need of help than established ones.
Why PE Over Hedge Funds?
This one is harder to answer because there are so many types of hedge funds and the strategies used and the fund sizes can make for completely different experiences.
But the main difference between most hedge funds and most PE firms is that in PE you invest in entire companies (at least, in developed markets) whereas at hedge funds you make much smaller investments and it’s often closer to trading.
You prefer PE because you want to understand how entire businesses work – at a hedge fund you would only get the financial aspect and your skill set would be more limited.
Why PE Over Corporate Development?
This one also has a more subtle distinction: the main difference is that in PE you look at all sorts of different investment opportunities and companies, whereas in corporate development the scope is more limited and you’re always looking at deals and partnerships for your own company.
So that’s exactly what you say in your answer: you want to gain a broader horizon and work in industries and sub-industries outside your own.
You’re more likely to get this type of question if you’re already in a corporate development role and you’re moving into PE – as a banker or consultant it’s not terribly likely unless you say you’re also interviewing for corporate development jobs (um, don’t do that).
Is Any of This True?
For all these “Why PE” examples I’ve been referencing the mix of operational and financial work and working with companies over the long-haul – so you might rightfully wonder if any of that is true.
It’s somewhere in between: some firms do focus more on add-on acquisitions and operational improvements, whereas others really are just about financial engineering and using as much debt as possible to boost returns.
Even if the firm you’re interviewing with is more focused on finance, though, you will still learn more about operations because you do a ton of due diligence before you actually invest (in banking you mostly just send these documents to other parties).
Unless you start or work at a real company, you’ll never learn the ins and outs of how it “really” works, but you will at least learn more than you would as a banker – so it’s more true than the bad “Why PE?” answers in the beginning.
Hopefully not because you have delusions of grandeur and you’re planning out which beach in Thailand you’ll buy with your first $10 million.
Focus on the positive differences, link your reasons to your background and long-term goals (just like with the “Why investment banking?” question), and don’t fall prey to any of the bad answers about pay or lifestyle.
For Further Reading
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Investment Banking Recruiting in the UK: All About Competency Questions, Assessment Centers and More
It would be easy to dismiss this and say, “Banking recruiting and interviews are the same everywhere!” – but that’s just not true.
There are huge differences in Europe and Australia compared to the US (Asia, the Middle East, South Africa, and so on are somewhere in between), and you’re going to learn how to approach everything from competency questions to assessment centers and numerical tests in this interview with a reader who just won an IB offer in London.
Q: Can you tell us about your background and how you broke into the industry?
A: Sure. I went to high school in a North African country, then graduated from a top undergraduate business school in Canada, and then earned an MSc in Finance at a top university in London.
I was 100% certain I would do investment banking, but I was never able to get an internship in the industry due to personal reasons. But while I was in school I did a lot of extracurricular activities and got exposed to financial modeling through my involvement in one of the biggest student funds in Canada.
Even though I hadn’t completed an internship, I did a lot of research beforehand and was well-prepared for the full-time recruiting process at my school.
I also speak 4 languages, which is very helpful in London as language skills are more highly valued here than in North America.
Your online courses also helped me a lot and allowed me to talk about M&A deals and LBOs nearly as well as someone who had completed many M&A internships.
Q: Great, glad to hear it. You’ve lived in so many different places that you must know how recruiting differs everywhere. Can you walk us through how recruiting in the UK differs from what you see in North America?
A: Sure. Here’s how I would summarize the process:
- You apply online by submitting your CV, cover letter, and competency questions, and then get selected for first-round interviews based on the strength of your application.
- If you do well, you advance to an assessment center (rather than the Superday interviews you see in the US) and you participate in group exercises, tests, interviews, and presentations there. If you do well, you receive an offer.
- In addition, you also have to complete aptitude tests (numerical, verbal, and reasoning) somewhere along the way in this application process.
You might have to take them before you apply (Barclays and Credit Suisse), after your online application is screened (Deutsche Bank and UBS), or after you pass the first round of interviews (Macquarie).
Some people underestimate these tests, but they’re extremely important – banks screen candidates based on the results, and often you get rejected not because of your CV, but rather because of your test results.
If you pass the tests, recruiters will review your entire application once again and then decide whether or not they’ll invite you to interviews – the one exception is Macquarie, where you need to be successful in the first round to be invited to the exams in the first place.
Q: Awesome, thanks for the overview and for mentioning the importance of these tests. I want to jump back into that, but one other question on recruiting at a high-level: it seems there are mixed opinions on whether or not you can just apply online in Europe and get interviews without networking.
What do you think? Does that only work if you go to a top school or you get lucky?
A: Networking is important, but not as important as it is in North America – in London students apply from all over Europe and also from other places like Asia. Networking at information sessions is incredibly difficult because 20+ students surround each banker and it’s almost impossible for them to remember each student.
Unlike presentations in the US, information sessions here are aimed at students applying to full-time, internship, and spring programs (which allow 1st year students to spend 1 week at a specific bank) – since everyone goes to the presentations, the applicant pool is very large and it’s hard to stand out via networking.
It’s still important to attend the sessions because some banks ask students who came to fill in an online form – that way they can see who’s serious about working at the bank.
Q: You mentioned “competency questions” before – I’m sure UK readers are familiar with them, but for everyone else reading, what are they and how important are they?
A: Essentially they are written versions of the standard “fit” questions you receive in all interviews, but they have a word limit and you must complete them along with your online application, CV, and cover letter. Examples of competency questions for banks:
- “What is the personal achievement you are most proud of? What did you learn from this experience and how does it set you apart from others? Please do not exceed 200 words in your answer.”
- “One of our core values is client focus. If you were to win a new client for our firm, who would they be and how would our bank help them achieve their goals? Please do not exceed 200 words in your answer.”
- “Describe a recent situation where you had to set extremely high standards for yourself. What did you do to achieve these standards and exceed expectations? Please do not exceed 250 words.”
An individual bank might ask between 5 and 10 of these questions and the total word count for your answers might be around 1,000 words (perhaps more if they ask more questions).
Sometimes the word count limits are much shorter as well – 50-75 words – which actually makes the questions more difficult because you must be concise.
The questions themselves are as important as the rest of your application. Since the applicant pool in London is larger and more diverse than in the US, recruiters are more selective – or at least more willing to reject someone because of small problems in their application.
Q: Do you have any tips on successfully answering competency questions? Let’s say you get a question on how well you’ve performed under pressure or with a strict deadline. How would you answer it concisely?
A: I’ve always used the techniques you recommended when answering these questions – they’re the same as normal “fit” interview questions, but in written form instead. Normally I use the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) approach:
- Situation: We only had a few weeks left in our internship to deliver the project that the client wanted, and we were well-behind schedule.
- Task: Finish the remaining 50% of the project, when we only had 2 weeks left and the first 50% of the project took us 8 weeks.
- Action: I spoke to the rest of our team and decided which features were the most important to include and which ones would be time-consuming but not as useful to the client; we also leveraged the company’s resources and we found a lot of what we needed via contacts in other departments, saving us time and reducing the need to add more members to our team at the last minute.
- Result: Despite being behind schedule, we delivered 90% of what the client wanted by the end of the internship – it wasn’t the 100% we had set out to deliver, but they were very happy with the end result and ended up giving more business to the company.
That’s just an example – in real-life you might add more details for the type of work you did, the company you worked at, and so on. But you must be concise or they won’t read your answer.
The #1 mistake applicants make is trying to sound “creative” or original when answering these questions.
Just be honest and give a genuine answer, based on a structure like the one I recommended above – they’re not testing your creativity with these questions, but rather how much you’ve learned from your experiences over time and how well you can articulate the key points.
Q: Right, so it sounds like these competency questions are not much different from the normal “fit” questions you would get in an interview. What about the aptitude tests you mentioned earlier? Any tips on what you might see on those and how to prepare?
A: They’re very similar to what you see on standardized tests such as the GMAT – the key is to practice as much as possible beforehand so that nothing surprises you.
The biggest mistake you can make with these is “dramatizing” and over-thinking the answers – on timed standardized tests that is a blunder you can’t afford to make.
They’re just like any other standardized exam: move as quickly as you can, skip anything you don’t know, and come back later to answer anything you skipped the first time. And make sure you go through at least a few practice tests before the real exam, as it’s easy to forget how to take standardized exams well if you haven’t practiced since high school.
If you want the best practice around, sign up for the online aptitude tests and package deals offered on Job Test Prep.
They have a bunch of free tests and their full courses are top-notch, with full score reports and detailed explanations.
Interviews and Assessment Centers
Q: How do you think interviews themselves in the UK differ? Do you still start by walking through your CV and answering the usual “fit” and technical questions?
A: Yes, 99% of the time interviews still start with the famous “Walk me through your CV” question. But many of the interviews here are more “fit”-focused and do not go as in-depth on the technical side. Unlike the US or Canada, most of the interview questions in London are competency-based.
In addition to your guides, I also went through every single behavioral question on this list and made sure that I could answer everything reasonably well.
M&I Note: Before someone leaves a comment saying that you received a plethora of technical questions, your experiences may vary – I’m sure that some offices and groups ask more technical questions than others, and you’ll certainly have to demonstrate technical knowledge at assessment centers (see below).
Q: So let’s say you get past the first round of interviews – what’s a typical assessment center like? How long does it last, how many people are there, and what types of exercises do you complete?
A: I thought assessment centers were more “fun” and diverse than the standard interviews you go through. Usually everything is conducted in small groups (10-20 people) and the assessment center itself lasts an entire day, similar to a Superday in the US.
You might get asked to participate in the following activities:
- Aptitude Tests (numerical, verbal, and reasoning): They do this to see whether or not applicants cheated in the first round with these tests – since they’re online many people get friends to help or look for answers on the Internet, which are both bad ideas.
- Individual Case Study: Sometimes you’re given a case study and are asked to analyze it and make a recommendation or decision within a fixed timeframe. Afterward you’ll have to discuss it with the recruiters.
- Group Presentations: Here, you’re split into groups of 4-6 people and the entire group gets a case study to complete. Recruiters observe you while you work on it, and then you must present your recommendations to bankers at the end.
- Interviews: Generally you go through 3-5 interviews, one of which is related to the group presentations and the individual case study – the other interviews are a mix of competency-based and technical questions.
Some banks like to be more creative and will ask applicants to “role-play” – for example, interviewees might be asked to act as investment bankers representing the bank, while the interviewers pretend to be potential clients.
Banks use assessment centers because traditional 1-on-1 interviews are not the best way to assess candidates – many people can sound impressive in a 30-minute interview, but fail to perform once they actually receive an offer.
The exercises at an assessment center let them assess how well you’d work in a team, present to clients, and complete other tasks as a banker.
M&I Note: I think assessment centers are a great idea and that banks in the US should use them as well. Many senior bankers wish they could give candidates a 1-week trial on the job before giving them an offer, and assessment centers would be a good proxy for that.
Q: That sounds more fun than standard final round interviews, though I can see how it could also turn into a bad reality TV show. What mistakes do candidates make at assessment centers that prevent them from getting offers?
A: The main mistake is to act like a “leader” during group work and presentations. You might assume that banks only give offers to leaders, or at least to people who are giving orders – but that’s completely wrong.
In fact, it can backfire and hurt everyone else if you try to do that.
Recruiters notice this and won’t give out offers to anyone who keeps giving orders and trying to “show off” – that means you lack leadership skills.
Meanwhile, other applicants try to talk a lot to stand out – but they don’t say anything meaningful or relevant. Rather than trying to dominate the group presentation and discussion, you should respect everyone else, listen to contributions from others, make good suggestions, and come up with solid solutions. You also want to show that you’re having fun and enjoying the experience rather than being extremely serious.
I’ve seen applicants who have remained more quiet receive offers because they’ve respected everyone else and made solid contributions when needed – those who attempt to “show off” or do all the talking generally do not receive offers.
Q: So let’s say you get a group exercise where you’re asked to analyze a company’s options – sell, acquire another company, or continue to operate as-is – and make a recommendation on what they should do. You have a few hours to prepare, and 30 minutes to present your findings.
How would you approach that question at an assessment center?
A: I had to work on a similar individual case study at an assessment center, but it was a bit shorter and they gave me the numbers, valuation, and a few DCF models.
I started by giving a brief presentation of the company – their industry, history, and most well-known products – and then I walked the recruiters through the company’s past and current strategies. I mentioned a few relevant figures such as the EBITDA and P/E multiples as well.
They had already given me the valuation and important figures such as the P/E multiple of the combined company post-acquisition, so all I had to do was show that the acquisitions in question were accretive.
I concluded by benchmarking the strategies of each potential target company against those of the acquirer – in my case each acquisition was accretive, so it was more about the strategic fit with the acquirer and which one would produce the best combined company.
The key factors in handling these exercises:
- Be logical – There are no correct answers most of the time, as the recruiters are just assessing how well you think and analyze problems. Focus on explaining your reasoning in detail rather than finding the “right” answer.
- Do not overcomplicate your presentation – Forget about fancy formatting, going through hypothetical scenarios, or adding complexities to the question. You are under extreme time pressure and do not have time to go into unnecessary detail.
- Be extremely structured in your response – Again, it’s better to be “boring” and follow a structure rather than showing off your creativity and confusing your interviewers. See the articles here on case studies and private equity case studies for examples.
Overall, relax and don’t dwell on every little detail – they’re also testing your ability to improvise and discuss topics you’ve recently learned about because you do that all the time as a banker.
Q: Great, thanks for all these tips and for sharing your experiences!
A: No problem – happy to contribute.
For Even More Practice…
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They have our highest recommendation for online tests and assessment center prep – and their courses are the single best way around to prepare for EMEA recruiting.
From Non-Target School and Unpaid Wealth Management Internship to Full-Time Bulge Bracket Investment Banking Offer: How to Make the Leap
In this interview we’ll speak with a reader who landed a full-time bulge bracket investment banking offer with 0 banking internships and a non-target school on his resume.
There have been a few interviews with readers from similar backgrounds – but I thought this one was great because he shares unique insights and unusual networking strategies – including surprising conclusions on what worked and what failed miserably.
So let’s jump in and see how this reader went from no connections and no experience to a full-time investment banking offer – and how you can do the same.
Background & Last-Minute Networking
Q: Tell us about yourself.
A: Sure. I went to an unknown state school that was off the radar of major banks, and which had very few alumni in finance. My family was involved in the retail industry so they knew almost nothing about it, and I had no connections.
I started getting interested in finance my sophomore year, but I knew almost nothing about it so I had to look online to get started, using your site and others.
The summer after my sophomore year I did an internship selling life insurance. It was commission-based and absolutely brutal – they just throw you out there and say, “Find clients and sell insurance ASAP.”
After that, I did an unpaid private wealth management internship at a large bank, which I leveraged into a full-time investment banking offer at a bulge bracket bank.
Q: Impressive. So let’s go back to that internship selling life insurance – most people would discount this experience because it has nothing to do with investment banking or private equity. Was it helpful at all in securing your PWM internship or your full-time offer?
A: Yes – in fact, my internship selling life insurance was my #1 talking point during interviews.
It sounds crazy, but bankers spent more time asking me about that experience than anything else on my resume – including my PWM internship at a brand-name bank.
In one bulge bracket interview, they spent 30 minutes having me pitch them an insurance policy.
I think they focused on it so much because it was extremely tough and I had almost no direction – it wasn’t much different from what you do at the top levels in banking, although obviously MDs work on much larger deals and with more sophisticated clients.
Q: I’m still surprised they focused so much on that internship. How did you make the transition from selling insurance to private wealth management?
A: It was pretty much a last-minute networking effort on my part – I knew I needed an internship for my junior year summer, but I assumed I had no chance at investment banking, so I didn’t even try.
I did contact a few friends and alumni from my school who were in the industry, but most of those leads didn’t go anywhere.
I got the internship itself by going through a friend who had recently graduated from my school and who was working in New York – he passed my name along to a recruiter at his bank.
Then I followed up and sent 20 emails over the next month before the recruiter agreed to discuss an internship.
Q: Let me stop you right there – why did you send so many emails? I usually say that calling and meeting in-person are more effective. Did you try cold-calling at all?
A: Yes – but it didn’t work at all for me. I could never get past the gatekeepers no matter what I did.
I know it works since I’ve had friends who pulled it off successfully – but overall I didn’t have much luck with it. You need to be really good at sweet-talking secretaries and finding the right people to begin with, and I wasn’t great at that.
M&I Note: In addition, location seems to matter a lot with cold-calling. A lot of readers have used it successfully in California, for example, but other regions are more hit-or-miss.
Q: Yeah, people do tend to have mixed results with cold-calling. Going back to that internship, though, I’m curious – most bulge bracket banks don’t do unpaid internships. How did you arrange that?
A: It worked because this was in the midst of the financial crisis / recession and everything was chaotic at the time. They actually gave me a choice of 2 internships: a paid, back-office position in New Jersey or an unpaid, front-office private wealth management position in New York – I wisely selected the second one.
A lot of students would have chosen the paid internship, but I knew it was a bad move because banks want to know that you can live and work in New York – and as you’ve pointed out before, the back office to front office transition is difficult.
Going back to your original question, the bank itself and the industry as a whole were in such trouble around this time that everyone was running around frantically trying to cut costs – so they decided to give large groups of us unpaid internships.
The “interview process” itself was really informal, and all it took was 1 interview to get the offer.
Q: Ok, so it was more of a firm-wide policy than a special exception for you – which makes sense. So how did you keep networking with bankers once you started? Were the people in your PWM group helpful?
A: From day 1 I walked in there thinking, “How can I turn this into investment banking?”
Most people in PWM were completely useless for investment banking recruiting – a lot of times they’d give me contact information for recruiters, but then the recruiters would ignore me or lie about the process.
People in PWM were fine if you wanted to do Sales & Trading, but they hated investment bankers – if you mentioned that you wanted to do that, they would instantly start looking down on you.
The only good contact I got through the PWM group was actually in private equity – my boss had the interns go around to visit key clients in-person one day, and I met the head of a PE firm like that.
I made a good impression on him, and then ran it by my boss before I contacted him for networking purposes – he was fine with it, so the PE guy referred me to a lot of people and forwarded my resume to all his contacts, which was huge.
Q: Nice – I guess we can call that one “door-to-door networking.” So aside from that one PE guy, did you do most of your networking outside the bank?
A: Yes. I did an extensive search and left no stone unturned – which was key, because my most random strategies ended up working really well.
I reached out to alumni via our database as well as LinkedIn – I often found names on LinkedIn, and then plugged them into the alumni database to get contact information. I didn’t limit myself to investment banking, either – as long as the person did something in finance, that was close enough for me.
I ended up getting my full-time offer via an alum that no one from my school had ever contacted before – he worked in a Restructuring group and had good friends at bulge bracket banks, so I got the referral through him.
No one had contacted him in the past because he went to a top business school and was detached from his undergrad institution – so others wrongly assumed he was “off limits.”
I also met alumni via my finance classes, and I directly asked a lot of professors for referrals – teachers are severely under-utilized for networking purposes.
It was really important to be the first person to contact an alumnus – the same alum is unlikely to help more than few people with referrals, so getting in early is crucial.
Q: Right, that makes a lot of sense. But those strategies don’t sound that much different from what you’d expect – you mentioned some “random strategies” before. Could you give a few examples?
A: Sure – here are 2 specific examples of more unusual strategies:
Example #1: I found out that someone very high-up at an investment bank a few years ago (C-level executive) was an alumnus from my school from many years ago. I couldn’t find his contact information anywhere, so I went through my Dean to get it instead.
I met with my Dean, told him about myself, and then he sent the resume along to the C-level executive because he knew him personally. A few days later the executive called me personally and I would have gotten an interview at his bank had I not already accepted an offer elsewhere by that point.
Example #2: Many people didn’t respond to emails, so I tried a more creative strategy instead – I went through the Bloomberg terminals available at my school.
You can look people up there if you know their names – rather than calling or emailing, I instant messaged them via Bloomberg. It worked really well, especially for people in Sales & Trading and Equity Research that were on Bloomberg all day.
Q: That’s a great way to use Bloomberg, though you do have to be careful not to go overboard with IM. Once you contacted these people, what did you say to them? Was it just the typical informational interview?
A: For most of the interviews I just said, “I’m interested in your industry and want to learn more about how I can get there.”
I did this because I knew that industries like private equity and portfolio management require another job first – and I wanted my contacts to give me referrals to other industries.
So if I called up a PE contact I would say, “I’m interested in private equity – how can I get there after I graduate?” and he would say, “Well, you have to do investment banking first,” and I would say, “Oh, ok, do you happen to know anyone in the industry?” and then I would get contact information like that.
I found that feigning ignorance – to a certain point – was more effective than acting like I knew everything from the get-go.
Q: I think that one should answer all the “Which industry should I tell them I’m interested in?” questions I get. Did you do anything else to prepare for full-time recruiting?
A: Not really – I read the usual sites online, interview guides, message boards, etc. but I focused on my networking efforts through the summer and fall. I’d say I spent around 40 hours per week networking and interviewing until I had my offer lined up.
It’s important to be persistent even when it’s the last minute and interview slots are being announced.
Quick example: A couple people from one class of mine got interviews at this one bank, and I noticed that my friends all had interviews lined up but I didn’t.
So I contacted the recruiter directly and said, “I noticed some classmates of mine had interviews lined up with your firm. I’d really appreciate the opportunity to interview with you as well.”
And just like that, she set up the interview and I got through first rounds there.
This might seem obvious, but 90% of people are too afraid to ask for what they want so they sit there and get no results.
Q: Another bold but effective move there. So what were interviews like? Did you have to address a lot of “objections” because you had no banking experience and because you were coming in from a non-target school?
A: Not really. They didn’t care much about the lack of banking experience, and hardly anyone raised my school as an issue.
However, that may have been because I interviewed fairly late in the process – after most full-time recruiting was finished. A friend who interviewed at the same firms earlier than me got grilled on why he wasn’t from a big city and why he didn’t go to a better-known school.
I had a low GPA (3.2 / 4.0) so that came up in interviews a few times. I gave the usual defense and explained that I didn’t feel it was low given my work experience, and hardly anyone asked about it past the first round.
I know a lot of people complain about their GPA, but I think those concerns are overblown – especially if you’re from a lesser-known school, networking is far more important than boosting your GPA by a small amount.
Interviews were actually easier and less technical than I expected – even though I was a finance major and had the PWM internship, I received only a few technical questions throughout the entire process.
Thinking on your feet and being good at making up stuff on the spot was critical, because I got some curve-ball “fit” questions that I hadn’t thought about before.
Q: Any interview tips that we haven’t heard before?
A: A few points:
- Interviewers often drifted if I went beyond a minute or two when telling my “story” – I know some people say that 3-5 minutes is ok, but I’d aim for 60 seconds instead.
- I tried to keep all my “fit” answers to a max of 3 sentences, or people would start to lose interest – be concise and let them ask for more detail if they want.
- Be confident but not cocky – cocky gets you obscure technical questions, while confidence makes them like you.
On the last point: a friend and I were interviewing for the same bank on the same day, and I got 0 technical questions while the interviewers asked him to build a 3-statement model on a piece of paper (!).
It was all because he walked in and acted like he was a finance guru, which was a huge mistake.
Q: Yeah, definitely. People try way too hard to impress and it always backfires. So now that you got this offer, what are you planning to do in the future?
A: I want to do PE and get an MBA in the future, but those are both quite a ways away. In the short-term I’m definitely looking forward to joining my group, but I’m also interested in the distressed debt side and possibly doing something there.
Q: Awesome, thanks for your time.
A: No problem. Later!