Can You Really Use Business School to Re-Brand Yourself and Break Into Finance?
“Just go to business school.”
“Go to a top MBA program.”
“With HBS on your resume you can do anything you want.”
It’s one of the most common pieces of advice given to anyone interested in consulting or finance: get into a top MBA program.
Even if you went to a no-name undergraduate, did nothing finance-related since then, and you don’t know anyone in the industry, a top MBA program will let you break in.
Or will it?
The Short Answer
Getting into a top MBA program may narrow the gap between you and former bulge bracket investment bankers.
But it won’t level the playing field.
Business school is often thought of as a magic bullet – a way to break into finance when all else has failed or when you have no shot normally.
There’s some truth to that – but there are also a lot of problems with it.
Ranking banks, schools, and anything else is a massive waste of time and brain cells – which is why there will never be “rankings” of any kind on this site.
But the relative “prestige” of your business school is important, even if the specific “rank” doesn’t matter: if you don’t go to a school that banks recruit at, you’re wasting your time and $150K.
So even if something seems prestigious on paper or it’s in “The Top 10” you need to go there in-person and ask students how recruiting really works.
There’s a less obvious conclusion as well: if you have a very small chance of getting into the top programs, then you’re better off pounding the pavement to get in.
Start with informal and unpaid internships and temporary positions at smaller places, and then leverage that to move up.
Cold-calling may not be fun, but it’s a far better use of time than going to a school where no banks recruit and where no alumni are in finance.
Part-Time vs. Full-Time
Until recently, there wasn’t much respect for part-time programs.
This is starting to change, but they’re still not on-par with the most well-known full-time programs.
If you can’t afford to go back full-time and are only looking at part-time options, you need to visit the school in-person, walk around and ask students and faculty how many banks actually recruit there – otherwise you’ll end up with $150K in debt and access to 0 recruiters.
Running Away From Your Past
If you’re coming from an unknown school, you have a lower GPA, or you have less “prestigious” schools or companies on your resume, you might feel like The Fugitive: you didn’t do anything wrong, but you’re always running away from your past anyway.
But here’s the problem that often gets overlooked: your past will still come back to haunt you, even if you get into a top program.
There are some people in finance who just don’t understand anyone who’s not from a wealthy, blue-chip background, and you’ll always have to deal with it if you have the misfortune of running into them.
Getting into a top business school may reduce your sentence, but it won’t clear you of all the false charges.
“What about top MBA programs in Europe / Asia? Are they as recognizable as ones in the US?”
The short answer: the best programs are still well-known, but no, they are not viewed the same as Harvard/Wharton/Stanford etc. if you want to work in the US afterward.
It’s not because they’re “worse” – it’s just that most US positions are taken by people who go to US business schools. Recruiting is a lot easier when you don’t have to cross multiple oceans for an interview.
If you can get into top schools in Europe / Asia, but can’t get into the top US programs, then sure, go abroad.
You might be motivated to go to business school if you don’t have a great network and don’t feel like cold-calling dozens of firms each week to get into a local boutique and then working your way up.
On-campus recruiting is convenient, but it’s almost too convenient. The temptation is to sit around and wait for companies to come to you – but that doesn’t work when everyone else at your school is also impressive.
So you need to start building your network even before you even get there. Start calling alumni, say you’re going to attend XYZ school next year and wanted some advice, and take it from there.
Experience: Too Much vs. Too Little
Another dilemma: you might have too little experience or too much.
Going straight for an MBA right after undergraduate is a losing proposition (yes, there’s Harvard 2+2 but that is new and unproven) – you need at least a few years of experience and often more than that to be competitive.
I get emails every week from students asking, “Should I go for a top MBA program right after I graduate?”
No. Bad idea.
Many Associate-level resumes have 5 or more years of work experience – even if you get into a top school, it’s tough to compete with that.
You can also have “too much” experience to make business school useful, but this is less of a problem than having too little.
If you’ve been working for, say, 15 years, it’s almost easier to work your way to the top in another field and then move into finance at a much higher level.
All these pitfalls go back to the original point made in the beginning, and something that Kevin and Jerry brought up on Management Consulted (Why Harvard Business School Does NOT Equal McKinsey):
Going to a top MBA program helps, but that alone will not solve all your problems.
It’s Just Like Breaking In As an Undergraduate
I still get a lot of questions on the CFA and other certifications, despite repeatedly bashing them in the past.
Many students think that adding these lines to their resume will seriously boost their chances, forgetting that they’re just small pieces of the big picture.
And yes, business school is different and much more than just another certification, but the same principle applies: a top school and access to recruiting there will improve your chances, but you need to do more than just go to a good school and drop $150K to break in.
What to Do?
Let’s say you are committed to going to a top MBA program to re-brand yourself and then using that to break into finance – what should you do to make sure it’s not a waste of $150K and 2 years of your life?
- First, make sure that banks actually recruit anywhere you’re seriously considering. Visit in-person, meet with students and career services, and see what the real story is.
- If you come from a more “random” background then start addressing “objections” to your background even before you arrive at school.
- You also need to start networking long before you ever get to business school – all the former bankers will have a big advantage over you otherwise.
Think about pre-MBA programs in finance – if you can, take time off to do an unpaid or part-time job related to finance.
Think about activities and professional organizations that might take you closer to business, or at least ones that let you spin your resume more aggressively.
And start contacting alumni and going through referrals in the months before you arrive so that they know who you are when it’s summer recruiting season.
But Sometimes You Have to Go
Business school is not a magic-bullet solution, but sometimes you pretty much have to go just to have any shot of breaking into finance.
Recent graduates would be better served by going to boutiques and then working their way up to larger banks – but if you have 5-10 or more years of experience, banks only take you seriously if you’re coming from an MBA program.
And if you had a completely random background that had nothing to do with business – like a traveling bard – then you might have to go just to have more than a 0.000001% chance of getting in.
There’s always a temptation to buy more degrees, certifications, or anything else that gets you more “prestige” and makes you seem more qualified.
But not only does HBS not equal McKinsey, it also doesn’t equal Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, or any other top bank.
Think of recruiting as a court case, with your key witness representing business school: a great testimony can push the odds in your favor, but you need plenty of “supporting evidence” as well.
That might be informal work experience, anything that can be spun into sounding like business, or a solid network.
So make sure you have both the supporting evidence and the key witness – otherwise, you’ll end up with a hung jury and no offers.
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Investment Banking: Italy Edition
Continuing our series on finance in different regions of the world, today we go to Italy and hear from a reader who completed an MBA program there and then had an internship this past summer at a local Italian investment bank.
We cover a broad set of topics, including how he decided to study in Europe, how he applied and got into a top MBA program there, and then how he used that experience to land his banking internship.
He also had some very interesting thoughts on networking, especially when you’re going for international positions – something on many of your minds these days.
This interview turned out to be quite long (over 3,000 words), but it’s full of insight so I decided to keep the entire transcript intact.
1. Walk us through your resume.
I grew up in the Midwest of the US and completed a Bachelor’s degree in Finance from a state university there.
When I was an undergraduate, I studied abroad in Rome and became very interested in eventually working/living there. Rome wasn’t a great place to find investment banking jobs, but it was a great place to live – plus I was half-Italian, so I already had a connection to the country.
After I graduated, though, I put my plans to work abroad on hold and spent 1 year as a credit analyst at an automotive financial services company.
That was ok, but I eventually found myself bored and wanted to be closer to the markets – so I moved to an asset management firm, where I spent 1.5 years as an Associate.
That was better, but it was a very sales-oriented job (you better enjoy cold-calling) and not exactly my cup of tea.
I wanted to move into something more analytical within finance – and I felt 2.5 years experience was “enough” – so I decided to apply to MBA programs.
Completing an MBA in Italy
How do you go from thinking about an MBA to getting into a top program? Let’s find out:
2. Right, I think a lot of readers are in that same position right now. But most of them are probably thinking about going to business school in their own countries rather than moving overseas – what prompted you to consider and apply to programs in Italy?
I was interested in getting an MBA from a non-Anglo-Saxon culture. I felt having that experience and getting to know another language and culture would be a strong selling point and an amazing opportunity on its own merits.
I was admitted to one of the top business schools in Italy – whereas in the US I got into good, but not top schools, so I figured going abroad might be a wise idea.
And I had already lived in Italy, loved the country, and was interested in working in Europe in the future, so it seemed like a wise decision to go to business school there.
3. How did you find out about and apply for your MBA program? Was the process any different from applying to US or UK business schools?
I learned about this specific program by going to events like the World MBA Tour in Chicago. They can be a great way to learn about foreign universities, meet people who know about the different programs, and decide which international schools might be a good fit.
It was really helpful meeting representatives at booths and exchanging contact information – sometimes those relationships even became early points of reference for the admissions office.
Another takeaway I had from going to these events was that my school was very well regarded and had a great reputation in Europe. Some Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Swiss schools were also quite strong, even though we don’t hear much about them in the US.
The application process itself was the same as for US/UK schools – it’s more focused on the qualitative aspects such as essays and recommendations, compared to something like law school which relies mostly on GPA and LSAT scores.
4. Ok, so you were set on going to Italy and applied both to programs in the US and Europe – were there any language requirements for studying at a European business school?
No, the top MBA programs in Europe are taught in both the country’s native language and English. The most “prestigious” programs are actually 100% in English, and the trend is toward all English.
5. What about paying for school? Business school is an expensive proposition, so did you get loans or did you also work while attending school?
First off, note that while the standard US MBA program is 2 years, in Europe it is 1 – 1.5 years tops. That automatically reduces the price because you’re paying for fewer credit hours, and you get back into the market more quickly.
Just like most other students, I had to borrow to go to school – there is some financial aid, but not enough to cover everything at the MBA level.
There was no time to work or even be a bar-tender – most days in my program I was working or studying from 8 AM to 10 PM.
Business schools have developed the reputation of having easy curricula and not requiring much work, but at least at my school it was like drinking from the fire hose.
6. What is the perception of an MBA from a non-US/UK university? Do banks and other firms still respect it, or is it “less prestigious”?
The degree is not as “portable” as a degree from a top US school would be. In Europe there’s no problem because the top business schools are widely recognized and respected – but outside this continent my school is unknown, so it doesn’t help me too much unless I’m interviewing with someone from Europe.
However, my overseas investment banking internship helps make up for this lack of transferability by giving me a unique selling point.
Recruiting & Networking, Italian Style
Got into a top MBA program… check. Now, how do you go about recruiting and networking into finance in a different country?
7. Ok, so you’re studying in Italy at a top MBA program there – how does the recruiting process work for local banks? Did you have to do a lot of networking?
I relied on on-campus recruiting. All the banks and consulting firms came to my school to recruit, so I didn’t have to be too proactive.
Overall, the recruiting process was less rigorous, at least for internships. My interviews were less focused on technical questions and more case study-oriented. I only had to pass one step before they made me the offer, but that might have been unique to my bank.
The case study itself was based more on the “strategy” and logic behind the deal rather than modeling or technical details – it was almost like a consulting case interview rather than a typical investment banking interview.
8. You didn’t have to use much networking to secure your internship, but these days many readers are thinking of going abroad to network, or using networking to find international positions – any tips for doing that?
Yes, leave no stone unturned. Think of friends, relatives, former co-workers, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, and in particular think of anyone with an international background.
Did you meet someone from a different country while studying abroad? Does your friend have a dad who works at a bank in Switzerland?
Don’t be shy about why you’re contacting people – the common thought process is that you have to dance around with someone, go to coffee, and get to know them before you can ask for help.
In my experience, though, people are too busy with their own lives just to “get to know” someone better before they’ll help them. I have tried both approaches before, but have found it very difficult to develop a relationship with a complete stranger.
If you have an uncle who knows a guy in London that he used to work with, then ask your uncle to make the introduction via email or to just give you the contact information straight-away.
Then go right after the guy: “Hi, my name is X, I’m a friend of your colleague X, I applied for a position at your company and I was wondering if you could do me the favor of getting my CV in front of the hiring manager. Attached is my CV for your consideration, thank you… etc etc”
In Europe in particular, if you know someone, he/she will DIE to get you in touch with people who might be able to help you. It is very “family-oriented” and friends and acquaintances are much more willing to help you than those in the US would be, at least in my experience.
One final tip: you really need to go there if you’re serious about working in whatever country you’re interested in. I’ve found that networking via phone/email is only minimally effective when trying to find a job overseas, so studying abroad can be a great way to begin networking.
9. Those are some great tips. Let’s say that you’re going to be in a country for only a few weeks – you’re visiting family, “on vacation,” or doing something else that is not officially sponsored by work/school. What’s the best way to network if you don’t have any immediate connections upon getting there?
Use the Internet to find relevant business/networking groups, then go to their meetings. Don’t be shy about “not being a member” – just find the groups and meeting times, get out there and start introducing yourself.
You can also get referrals from anyone you know there, but these days it’s pretty easy to find groups on social networks and even through random Google searches.
M&I Note: I used the same tactic when traveling to Asia – posting a simple announcement on this site resulted in meeting with 20+ readers throughout my trip. The Internet is amazing.
10. What about the logistical and legal side of recruiting and working abroad? As a US citizen, was it difficult to get the appropriate work visas?
Yes, work permits can definitely be an issue. If you’re just going for an internship, it’s not too much of a hassle since you’re only there for a few months – but anything longer than that and you run into problems.
I’m looking for full-time work here now, and as a US citizen I’m having a difficult time convincing local companies in Italy to sponsor me. The bureaucracy is very difficult to navigate and not worth the time and trouble.
To get around that, you need to be creative and try strategies like working for American companies with Italian subsidiaries, or for a US company that just bought an Italian company.
If you’re not from the US you’ll probably have an easier time getting sponsorship in Europe, but there are no guarantees.
11. What is the typical “path” that someone in finance in Italy follows? Does it differ at all from elsewhere in Europe, the UK, or the US?
The “path” is very similar in all those places – a business/finance/economics degree, finance internships, then full-time work.
However, keep in mind that in Europe most undergraduate programs are 3 years, and most people do 2-year Master’s programs afterward – they’re the equivalent of 4-year programs in the US, but on paper it looks like banks hire primarily Master’s students.
Everyone at top schools goes for internships – they might be a bit less common than in the US, but it’s not as if everyone spends their summers sitting on yachts in the Mediterranean sipping wine.
Now that we know how he became interested in Italy, got into a top MBA program there, and went about recruiting, let’s move into what the Italian banking experience was actually like:
12. What was your banking internship like? Structured? Informal?
My internship was very unstructured. I was anticipating getting crushed with work and staying until at least 11pm every night – instead I found myself reading my Corporate Finance book half the time and waiting for the boss of the “execution” (modeling) department to leave at 9/10pm every night.
I did the same stuff they do at bulge bracket banks, just not as much of it – modeling, valuations, pitch books, multiples, info memorandum’s, the whole 9 yards.
The upside to having a somewhat “random” and unstructured internship was that I got exposure to many different deals and industries.
Also, none of the summer Associates did any marketing work (pitch books) – they just used us for execution (working with clients).
The undergraduate interns (Analysts) handled most of the pitch book and marketing-related work.
13. Everywhere in the world has been hit hard by the recession – were there any differences in Italy in terms of deal activity or overall economic impact? Did you get to work on many live deals?
I don’t know anywhere where deal activity didn’t drop off at least a little bit. Italian banks tend to be very conservative, so they didn’t get tangled up in the CDO mess or anything.
However, the overall economic conditions and credit availability have forced them to cut back on lending, slowing their business model just like at any other bank.
When I was there last summer, most of us hadn’t realized yet how bad the economy was – but when I speak with my former co-workers there now, they constantly bring up how bad things are and how little M&A activity there is.
Hiring is definitely down and they did not give out too many full-time offers this year.
14. What was the culture of your bank like? Did it have more to do with the bank itself, or was it because you were in Italy?
The culture of the bank was amazing. It was a very flat organization with almost none of the traditional investment banking hierarchy – Analysts were working side-by-side with VPs to get deals done and they were fixing models together.
I think this just reflects the culture of local Italian banks – international banks here are better organized with a more rigid hierarchy.
Overall, I really enjoyed that type of environment – people were not overly aggressive or climbing over each other to impress their superiors.
In terms of hours, most people showed up between 9 AM and 10 AM and the office was busy until around 9 PM at night.
We had occasional weekend work, mostly when we were swamped with live deals.
As an intern, the latest I stayed was 11:30 – and that happened just a few times over 2.5 months. I only came in once on Saturday.
15. What about your bottom-line?
Pay was modest compared to international banks, but still very good for southern Europe.
16. Models and bottles?
All you do in Milan is models and bottles.
That’s just the night life – it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re a banker. You get a table, overpay for everything, and try to hang out with models.
We didn’t exactly go to Club Armani every Thursday night, though – it was more about casual happy hours.
We also had many, many coffee breaks during the day as well.
M&I Note: I’m sure their coffee was better than the Starbucks blend that US-based Analysts live on.
Future & “Plan B” Options
So, what do you do after spending a summer in Milan banking by day and bottling by night?
17. Back when you were getting interested in finance, what other options were you considering besides banking?
I’m also really interested in renewable energy, especially in southern Europe.
German companies, in particular, have been expanding rapidly in southern Europe with renewable energy projects and it’s a big growth area.
If I can’t get into private equity right now, I’m thinking about getting some experience in the renewable energy sector and then joining a PE firm focused on those types of investments.
18. What’s next? How will you leverage your experience in Italy?
I’m still in Milan, looking for a job in Europe. I want to gain experience in a non-Anglo Saxon culture, develop additional language skills (which I still believe are important, even if everyone knows English), and take advantage of my location to travel.
The sponsorship issue and the recession have made things more difficult, so my backup plan is to return to the US and do a lot of networking. These days you don’t get noticed by blindly sending out applications, unless you’re at the top of your class from Harvard/Yale.
For anyone curious, I’ve found that where you got your MBA from matters less than having it in the first place, at least for networking purposes.
M&I Note: These days, even if you are at the top of your class from Harvard/Yale you still won’t get noticed with blind applications…
19. Any parting words of advice for someone looking to complete an MBA program or finance internship abroad?
For the MBA, start doing your research early and start preparing for the GMAT today if you’re even considering it – schools like to see the GMAT score together with the application.
For finance internships, you really need to be in Europe if you want to work in Europe – and the same goes for any other region. You need to go to events or school in the country of your choosing, or find other in-person channels to have a good shot at getting in.
I would recommend doing a Master’s or MBA in the country or continent where you would like to work – then you have the resources and network of the school to leverage, not to mention an amazing experience. And once you start making contacts and talking to people, the size of your network will grow quickly.
The job/internship search process will take a minimum of 6 months end-to-end. There’s some type of career fair happening in almost any city worldwide, so you should seek those out – especially anything sponsored by a bank, by recruiters, or by professional associations.
One final word of caution: As I mentioned above, Americans require sponsorship from the company to work almost anywhere in Europe – and this is usually the deal-breaker for US citizens. Sponsorship is a time cost to the employer and a potential liability, so you need to find a company willing to sponsor you or be more “creative” with your efforts (as explained above).
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