Why You Can’t Break Into Private Equity as a Foreigner in China
Despite my repeated warnings that emerging markets don’t care about you – only people who know the language, have connections, and are qualified to work there – this question won’t go away:
“I really want to work in China! How can I break into finance there? I’ve studied Mandarin for 5 years and I can read faster than Chinese people now! Show me how to get into PE!”
I’ve gotten tired of answering that one, so today you’ll hear from someone much better qualified to answer it than me: a reader who works in private equity in China.
He’ll tell you all about:
- How to network your way into the industry and how it’s different from PE in the US/Europe.
- Why foreigners are getting pushed out of the industry and why you’d have to be “crazy” to go work there these days.
- What you should do instead if you want to do business in China.
- How the pay and work culture differ from other parts of the world.
How It All Began
Q: Can you walk us through your background and how you broke into private equity in China?
A: Sure. I was a newly minted MBA, and back in 2005-2006, China’s PE market was much less developed.
I went to AVCJ’s annual conference in Hong Kong, networked like mad there, and got an internship helping a small fund with a capital raise. That fund later went on to become the #1 PE fund in China, and I rode their coattails to success.
I still believe that conference, among others, is the best way to break in but today it would be almost impossible to follow the same path if you’re a foreigner.
There are way too many local Chinese who work or study abroad and then return home, and too many bankers eager to move into PE.
And even though I’ve been here for years, even I have been getting pushed out of the industry – just like all other foreigners.
To be frank, I wish I had heeded the warnings of others and had spent the time breaking in to PE in the US/EU instead. Now, nearly six years later, I don’t think I’ve had the experience and training I would have had in the more developed markets.
So, if you’re a foreigner, be kind to yourself – don’t try to get into PE in China. If you absolutely must have your China experience, feel free to come over, but focus more on “bridging” roles, like investment banking, sales & trading, and so on.
PE is a local market, and in China, it is hyper-local. Five years of Mandarin won’t cut it; heck, near-native-fluent Chinese won’t cut it.
Even foreign-born Chinese, Taiwanese, Singaporeans, and people from Hong Kong have a tough time finding roles here because they’re also too foreign. You were either born and raised here, or you weren’t – and if you weren’t, you’ll always be an outsider no matter how much baijiu you can drink.
Now, if you are from mainland China, then there’s still a lot of opportunity.
I would recommend coming here in that case, because there’s more going on and if you can hack the local game you can get some great deal exposure and you might even make a fortune in the process.
Q: OK, let me stop you right there because I want to return to that topic of how you actually break in at the end.
So most foreigners would face a near-impossible battle to get in, but what is the private equity industry in China like?
What types of deals and companies do you focus on, and is it mostly local firms or international ones that make investments?
A: The industries themselves are diversified – you see manufacturing, state-owned-enterprise commercialization, consumer/retail, clean-tech, software and IT, energy, construction, infrastructure, healthcare and so on.
Many firms are still generalists with certain sectors of expertise / focus, but a few sector funds have sprung up as the market has matured – there are a few healthcare funds, a few clean-tech funds, a few technology funds, and a few consumer / retail funds.
Local funds and international funds are completely, 100% different animals.
The local funds staff huge teams – sometimes up to 100 investment professionals in a firm – and the pay therefore is lower, there’s often little formal training. You may struggle to get noticed and find a mentor, and it’s tough to navigate the political environment.
But the local firms do most of the deals, whereas international firms are having trouble closing anything.
Some of the regional funds (such as Barings, HSBCPE, Actis, etc.) are able to get some good deals done, but PE firms such as Carlyle, TPG, and so on, don’t see much action here.
- Local PE Firm: More deal exposure, but no structured training, and lower compensation.
- International PE Firm: Brand, better pay and training, but lower chance of closing deals – which will hurt your CV.
Friends here have been frustrated at both types of firms – those at local firms feel underpaid and under-appreciated, and those at international firms complain about never closing deals.
Q: Right, so you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place there.
What’s your average day like in terms of responsibilities and work? Is it mostly due diligence and modeling, or do you get more “random” tasks?
A: So far I’ve focused more on fundraising and investor relations than anything else. When I first joined this firm I started out as a deal guy, but once there were more skilled locals in the market, my role was shifted to fundraising.
I actually don’t mind that since I enjoy fundraising more than deals – analysis and due diligence can get repetitive, and you see companies at such a high-level that everything starts to look the same after awhile.
The good part about fundraising is that I get a lot more exposure to Limited Partners than if I were in the US or EU – there’s a lot of potential there for future networking since they all know who I am now.
Sometimes it does get repetitive telling the same story to potential investors, but that’s true of any sales job or even if you’re the CEO of a company.
Q: So they’re pretty much limiting the investment/deal work to locals?
A: Yes. Again, I would actively discourage foreigners from trying, unless you really have native-level Mandarin (beyond just “fluency”).
The nature of the job for locals or returnees, however, is compelling.
The deal professionals get to explore very interesting companies across a whole spectrum of industries, and the work includes due diligence and business analysis, which involves researching an industry by speaking with experts, interviewing the company’s management, and speaking with competitors.
You do some financial modeling, but it’s not really meaningful – at least not in the traditional sense.
Most businesses are growing so quickly that standard models are meaningless. With 50-100% revenue growth rates, analyses like the DCF break down and even valuation multiples don’t tell you much if the company is growing at that rate.
Investors spend their time on industry and management team analysis, and most of their time is spent deciding which industry is best to invest in, whether the target company can become a market leader, and whether or not they can trust the management team.
Trust is still a major issue in China, and you can’t depend on legal documents to be truly binding – they are a framework, but interpretation and enforceability are questionable.
So half of your due diligence time might be spent understanding the psychology of the management team – particularly the founder. If you’re depending on your closing documents to protect you, then you’re already in trouble before the ink is dry.
What about the pay and work culture there? I’m assuming that pay is lower on an absolute basis, but higher relative to the cost of living?
A: Pay varies greatly between local and international firms. Foreign firms here pay about average global pay for PE – so between $150K and $250K USD all-in for associates.
Local PE firms pay less – maybe around $90K USD for new associates.
In 1990 or 2000 those figures might have been a ton of money in China, but over the past 10 years the cost of living here has skyrocketed and places like Beijing and Shanghai aren’t as cheap as they used to be.
They are still less expensive than New York, and so you won’t starve on $90k per year. But it just isn’t the bargain it used to be. The tax rate is also higher than in Hong Kong – up to 30-40% vs. about 15% in HK – so that also eats up a good chunk of your pay.
Bottom-line: you will make less in PE here compared to the US / Europe, and you’ll make significantly less working at a local firm. You have to decide if it’s worth it, and that trade-off makes little sense unless you’re truly committed to staying in this market for the long-term.
Q: What about carry? Since the market is less developed do they give that to associates or anyone less senior than MDs?
A: Carry is almost always restricted to the senior MDs here.
There is a very patriarchal/monarchical feeling at many of the firms – you’re either a rain-making MD who brings in deals, or you’re commoditized execution.
This may sound just like the US and EU, and to a certain extent it is – just a more extreme version of the usual investment banking hierarchy.
It’s not unheard of for just a few guys at the top to get all the carry and for everyone else to get nothing. That creates a situation where the guys at the top are making literally millions (or billions) and everyone else below them is making base pay, keeping their fingers crossed for bonuses, and hoping to climb up the pyramid for a shot at some equity… hopefully… someday… maybe.
That said, those who did manage to get a slice of the carry are probably looking at returns that could easily fund a comfortable retirement in just a few years’ time. Many of the funds have returned 3-5x, and have had IRRs of over 100%, so the carry really is making some people incredibly wealthy.
Again though, carry is not awarded to the non-MD investment professionals. Yes, it can be similarly lopsided in the US/Europe, but at least as you move up you’ll earn progressively closer to what MDs and Partners make, and eventually you will get carry even if you’re not the top person at the firm. In China, carry is just shared among a small number of hands.
Foreigners, Abandon All Hope?
Q: Let’s go back to why it’s so tough for foreigners in the China PE market. Do you have any foreign co-workers, or are they all locals from mainland China who worked or studied abroad and returned home?
A: There are fewer than 10-15 foreigners working full-time in the entire PE industry in China, and we all know each other.
Most of us have been pushed out from deal work and, like me, focus more on fundraising and investor relations.
Q: OK, but I’m sure there must be a few foreigners there in high-up positions? One of our other interviewees mentioned that the MD at her firm was foreign.
A: There are some exceptions. For example, a few foreigners got in 5-10 years ago as founding MDs of their firms, so they have unique positions.
But the rest of us – other investment professionals – have been mostly pushed out. There was one other guy who was relocated to Asia by a major international PE shop, but he was then axed to free up the position so that a local could be brought in instead. And he was a senior officer with 10 years+ of PE experience and fluent Mandarin.
Q: OK, point taken – but wouldn’t knowing the language give you a big advantage and let you compete more effectively with people from mainland China?
Becoming 100% fluent in written and spoken Mandarin has about a 1% chance of helping you break into private equity here.
These “exceptions” I’ve referenced were already 100% fluent in the language and could read and write extremely well, and they were still pushed out.
Most of the foreigners here are now in fundraising roles, even if they worked at bulge bracket investment banks before and earned MBAs from top schools.
No one is interested in foreign professionals anymore, and it’s not even about the language – it’s that the work culture and deal environment here are so local.
It’s not like some countries (the US and UK) where anyone who can learn the language can advance to the top. They heavily favor locals and will tolerate foreigners, but will never fully accept them.
That’s why I’m making such a strong recommendation against coming here to work in PE – it’s just not realistic with the current state of the market.
You could spend years studying and learning the language, then more years struggling to break in, only to find yourself sidelined and underutilized because they don’t care how good you are or how much experience you have, only that you’re not a mainland Chinese who can bring in deals and charm the local entrepreneur.
Q: Not exactly the rosiest picture there…
Let’s say that someone is really interested in doing business in China – would you tell them to just give up altogether, or just to forget about PE?
A: If you’re from here originally, have family/connections, and want to go back home, China is great. There are opportunities in PE, banking, consulting, and entrepreneurship – you name it. The rapid growth engenders opportunity.
But if you’re a foreigner, and you absolutely, positively can’t get China out of your mind, then you can take your best shot.
However, if you want to make the leap I would steer clear of PE and focus on other areas like investment banking, investor relations, consulting, or being the CFO of a company.
In those areas, international experience/exposure is more valued and you don’t actually have to be Chinese to fulfill the role.
Oh, yes, and make sure you get to 100% fluency in Chinese – reading, writing, speaking, and listening; obviously reading and writing are the hardest parts and will consume 95% of your time.
Q: Out of curiosity, why do you think there is such a strong bias against foreigners in PE?
A: Similar to venture capital in the US, Europe, and other markets, private equity is a hyper-local business here. You need to be here on the ground communicating directly with management teams to have any chance of winning good deals.
They favor locals because they know that they have connections and are better able to reach local businesses; plus, they understand the culture implicitly and won’t get “rejected” by entrepreneurs nearly as much as foreigners.
Also, both the local and international firms must project an image of being local from a marketing standpoint – whether they are showing their local chops to entrepreneurs, the government, and especially their own LP investors.
Q: So we’ve established why you don’t want to work in PE as a foreigner in China.
But let’s say that someone reading this is from mainland China, has studied or worked abroad, and is returning home – how would he or she go about breaking into private equity?
A: It’s all about networking and conferences here. You need to go to the AVCJ conference in Hong Kong and the SuperReturn China conference, and then do a lot of networking with people you meet there. Bring 300 or so business cards, meet everyone, and try to set up side-line meetings in advance.
You should also connect with friends who work at the firm you’re interested in and who can help you get in touch with the senior staff (MDs or CEOs). Business school classmates and alumni can also help.
Some of the larger domestic firms have also been going to business schools lately to recruit there, so that’s another option as well.
If you’re returning home and want to be here long-term it’s still a great time to get into the industry, since you can join a fast-growing firm and rise to leadership. The competition is tough, but it’s possible to break in and advance, and the rewards are certainly there.
It definitely gets more competitive each year, but since most PE firms are looking for people with very specific profiles you have a much better shot of getting into PE here than you would by competing with the broader market in the US or Europe.
Q: Are there any differences they should be aware of with recruiting, CVs/resumes, and interviews?
A: The main difference is that you don’t need investment banking experience to get into private equity here.
Technically this is not true in developed countries, either, but let’s be honest: the majority of people who break into PE have done banking or something similar like management consulting or Big 4 Transaction Advisory Services.
But in China, most PE professionals are not from an investment banking background, so they don’t expect you to have that experience either.
It’s really about networking, meeting the right people at conferences, following up with them and being persistent until they give you interviews.
CVs/resumes are not much different, and in interviews they’ll ask similar questions though there’s obviously less focus on modeling and deal experience; it’s more about “fit” and your general knowledge of how to analyze businesses.
Q: Great, thanks for your time. And I hope your situation improves and that you can find a better role in the future.
A: No problem – enjoyed sharing my story even if it sounded a bit pessimistic at times. And yes, I’m working on other roles right now….
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Degrees and Certifications: Got CFA + JD + MBA + MD?
Despite my best efforts to bash certifications and give snarky responses to related questions, there’s still confusion on what banks care about, what you can do with different degrees, and the meaning of life.
While I can’t help with the meaning of life (42?), I can tell you which degrees and certifications mean something and help you break into finance – and which will not.
Why the Hate? You’re Already Biased!
I’ve seen lots of aspiring bankers use degrees and certifications as a distraction from more important goals, like getting solid internships, networking, and even getting leadership roles in groups.
You may also think that degrees and certifications are a magic bullet: sure, you have a 2.1 GPA from an unknown school and you’ve worked in telemarketing for 5 years, but if you get that Bloomberg certification, Goldman Sachs will give you an offer right away, right?
Maybe I should get into the business of selling certifications with logic like this…
The Usefulness Of Qualifications Varies By Field
The usefulness of degrees and certifications varies widely by the field of finance you’re interested in.
For example, if you want to be in risk management then the FRM exam is essential; if you’re doing portfolio management or equity research, the CFA is viewed as a requirement. And bankers, of course, don’t care about either of those.
I’m focusing on investment banking and private equity here because that’s what this site is about and what you’re interested in if you’re reading this right now.
For more on other fields and where certifications might be useful, check out these articles from Bionic Turtle:
5 Degrees Above Zero
Let’s start with degrees since they’re less painful to write about.
The only degrees that banks care about are Bachelor’s, Master’s, and MBA degrees, and only for very specific reasons.
But just for fun, let’s jump through the entire list and learn why – and what to do if you’ve taken the plunge into JD/PhD/MD land.
High School / Secondary School
Please, no more questions from 16-year olds who want to get an investment banking internship. Go outside and play in the sun, you’re probably Vitamin D-deficient anyway.
This one is just a check-the-box requirement at banks, and if you’ve only graduated high school you won’t be able to do anything real – you need at least an undergraduate degree (maybe you could work as an assistant but is that what you want to do?).
Your actual performance in secondary school matters more in countries like the UK where A-Levels are huge – in the US, listing high school grades or AP scores on your resume when applying to banking jobs is silly. And where you went to school only matters if it’s somewhere prestigious, like Exeter or Andover, where you might get some networking benefit.
This is the bare minimum you’ll need to actually work at an investment bank, and most other finance firms.
Every week I get comments asking, “I’m 38 and never graduated from college – do you think I can become an investment banking analyst?”
No, you can’t.
- Supply and Demand – Banks have so many university graduates who’d give up a kidney to work for them that they can afford to reject 99% of applicants and still have more people than they know what to do with.
- Work Ethic – If you can’t finish a university degree then banks will assume that you cannot finish any project, which is a problem when you have a 100-page pitch book due in 3 hours.
Yes, I know there are good reasons you didn’t get a degree – you dropped out to start your own multi-billion dollar company, you couldn’t afford college, or you became a pop star and you’re still on leave.
That’s lovely, but life is not fair and if you don’t have a degree you’re not getting into investment banking or private equity.
Maybe you could trade for a small prop trading firm if you’re a baller trader without a degree, but even there it’s tough – they care less about pedigree than banks, but everyone else there will have the degree.
It’s approximately 100x more difficult to get into banking coming from a “non-target” school (one where banks don’t recruit) compared to a “target” school (the Ivy League, LSE, Oxbridge, and so on), so go to the best school possible.
What you major in doesn’t matter too much as long as you get decent grades and internships, but you can review your options right here.
- You need the prestige because your undergraduate school was unknown.
- You had poor grades and need to press Ctrl + Z on your transcript.
- You didn’t get an offer and want to try again, with better access to recruiters.
- You’re in Europe and 5-year programs that include both the Bachelor’s and Master’s degree are common.
The most common question on Master’s degrees:
“So, if I go for a Master’s in Finance program I can start as an Associate, right?”
No, you can’t, because:
- You would need at least 3-5 years of previous work experience or 2 years as an IB analyst first.
- Master’s programs are less of a time and money commitment compared to MBA programs.
I must have heard this question 500 times at career fairs and the answer is always the same: “You’ll still be an Analyst.”
This is the only advanced degree that allows you to “level-up” when you start working.
IF you have had enough experience (usually 3-5 years in a normal industry, or 2 years as a former IB analyst), then you’ll start out one rung above the Analyst: you’ll be an Associate instead.
Which means you get paid a bit more, have more responsibility, and you get to sleep 6 hours per night instead of 4.
But do not assume that just because you get an MBA, banks will automatically interview you or think that you can be an Associate.
There are plenty of ways to screw it up, including going to a non-top-tier school, not having enough work experience, or not showing a clear progression toward being interested in banking.
While Damages the TV series is awesome, most law firms are not even close to that interesting in real life: the Partners at your firm might be sadistic, but they’re still far from Patty Hewes.
So many lawyers get the bright idea that they could go into finance instead and make bank while abusing their former co-workers.
Just one small problem: banks don’t give a crap about law school.
OK, that’s not 100% true and it’s viewed a little more favorably than the MD or PhD – but there’s no added bonus for going to law school and it’s a much more indirect path to banking.
You have to graduate from law school, work in corporate law for a few years without going insane, and then network your way into banking from there.
Having the law background may benefit you in areas like Restructuring and Distressed Investing where there’s legal overlap, but it’s a stretch to say that you should go to law school specifically to get into those fields.
If you’ve already taken the plunge, you can’t exactly abort midway through – so finish, do corporate or securities law, and then network into banking after working for a few years.
You may actually start as an Associate if you do law school and then corporate law before banking, so the JD can be another way to level-up.
If you thought bankers looked down on lawyers, you’ve never seen their reaction to PhDs – ouch.
You might be the next Stephen Hawking, but that doesn’t matter because you don’t need to understand wormholes to be a banker – you just need to understand how to change the font size in pitch books.
Most bankers think that PhDs are too well-educated to go back to fixing printers and scouring through SEC filings, so there’s a significant bias against hiring them.
Sometimes you can still get into finance if you have the degree, but usually you have to:
- Target a boutique that fits your background exactly – like an industrials-focused firm if you have a PhD in materials engineering, or a healthcare-focused firm if you completed an advanced degree in biochemistry.
- Go for equity research instead. They actually care about the degree because they want people who understand an industry in-depth – again, you would focus on groups that match your background.
- Go the quant route (works best with physics/math/related degrees). Sure, trading will never be what it once was, but firms always need quants and smart math people to build their models.
You face a similar problem here: you’re over-educated and banks will assume that you have no interest in spreading comps if you’ve qualified to perform open heart surgery.
They may also assume that you’re unable to commit to anything and stick with it: how could you have made it through years of med school without realizing you wanted to do business earlier?
In this situation you’d have to follow the PhD advice above and go after boutique banks in the healthcare/biotech/pharmaceutical space and/or look into equity research. You don’t have the ideal background to be a quant, so that’s not the best idea here.
You’ll also need a really good story about why you’re making this move – not just “I realized business was so much cooler!”
You need a specific incident or person that made you interested, and a perfect explanation of how you realized that medicine was not for you after years of doing it, but how you’re simultaneously certain that finance is for you with 0 years of experience.
Combo Degrees – JD + MBA?
Combo degrees get another “thumbs down” from me.
We already learned that adding a Master’s degree on top of a normal bachelor’s degree, for example, won’t let you start as an Associate.
But what about that famed JD + MBA combination – surely that must open up more exit opportunities, right?
No, not really. Most jobs are geared toward law or finance, but not both.
It would be most useful in areas like Restructuring, Distressed Investing, or arguably Real Estate / Project Finance where there’s overlap with the law and legal codes.
But even there, it’s a stretch to say that the JD would add much: even the MBA might not be terribly helpful if you’ve had previous, relevant experience.
You may also face a branding problem if you have a law degree and a business degree: business people will think you’re a lawyer, and lawyers will think you’re in business.
There’s always a temptation to think that more = better when it comes to degrees or certifications, but that’s just not true.
You want the minimum investment required for maximal gain – anything more than that reduces your ROI.
What about other combinations like JD + PhD + MBA, or JD + MD + MBA? Please, don’t even waste your time and money – it’s just silly.
Adding more advanced degrees like this will hurt you and make you look like more and more of an academic and less and less like someone who can actually make money in the real world.
This part will be shorter because certifications matter far less in banking and PE than degrees.
The main one that generates debate is the CFA and whether or not it’s helpful for breaking in – others are either completely useless or marginally helpful at best.
Series 7 / 63 / 65 / 66 / 79 / 84563X2
If you have a ton of free time, you’ve already networked extensively, and you already have great internships and/or a full-time job lined up, then sure, knock yourself out.
Just be aware that if your bank requires them, you’ll complete the exams during training anyway.
If you really want to set yourself apart before you start working, you’d be better off moving to another country for a few months and doing something interesting there.
I’m not going to rehash all the arguments for and against the CFA here – go consult this article if you want to go down that path again.
The short version is that it’s not the best use of your time for investment banking or private equity in developed countries, but it may be more useful in emerging markets or in fields like equity research, portfolio management, or some types of hedge funds.
And do not think that it will cover up an unknown school, low grades, or no work experience – it won’t.
Think of it as an added bonus and something to look into if you already have top schools, high grades, and great work experience.
CPA / FRM / Other Certifications with C and F in the Names
Look, if you want to be an accountant or a risk manager or perhaps other things outside of IB/PE, then sure, go ahead and pursue these.
There’s an alphabet soup of other certifications out there, and David from Bionic Turtle does a great job of summarizing them here.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these – it’s just that they will not help you much with IB/PE, because getting in is based almost entirely on practical experience.
In the future, who knows, there may be an exam to get “certified” in investment banking – but for now no one takes anything like that seriously (yes, I’m talking to you, “Certified M&A Advisor”).
There’s another critical reason why such certifications don’t apply to IB and PE: at the top levels these fields are based on sales, relationships, and negotiation skills – skills that can’t be tested on a written exam.
Bloomberg / FactSet / Other
Don’t even bother – you’ll learn everything you need to know (which is not much) when you start working, and you don’t even use the complex features in banking.
These may actually hurt you because you do not want to be known as “The Bloomberg Guy” or “The VBA Guy” or anything else that results in annoying requests to fix other peoples’ broken-beyond-repair spreadsheets.
Standardized Tests: SAT, GMAT, GRE, A-Levels…
These aren’t quite “certifications” but why not throw them in here anyway?
None of these is as important as grades in university, but in the US most banks will still ask for your SAT scores, and GMAT scores can be helpful if you have low SAT scores (under 2100 in the new system). No, don’t bother going back and re-taking them if they’re low: not worth the effort.
As with grades, these tests are more about whether or not you meet the minimum score they’re looking for rather than “standing out” – so please do not re-take the GMAT if you got a 720.
Got Degrees or Certifications?
I hope not – unless you mean a university, Master’s, or MBA degree (or one of our highly-practical investment banking courses).
Otherwise, save your time and money and if you’re already too far down a path to turn back now, cut your losses and change direction as soon as you can.
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Why You Didn’t Land an Offer in Your Final Round Interviews at Morgan Stanley
“Help! I went to my final round interviews but the interviewer didn’t like me from the start and kept harassing me with irrelevant questions. I asked for feedback afterward and they said, “Improve your technical skills.” How can I do that? They didn’t even ask me any technical questions.”
Final rounds are over.
Banks are done giving out offers.
While most of the articles on this site teach you how to improve yourself and land offers, this one has a different message: interviews are random.
Sometimes it’s not your fault if you don’t get an offer.
Really Beyond Your Control?
There are some things you can always control: your answer to the “Walk me through your resume” question, your “why investment banking?” answer and the 2-3 mini-stories you can use to answer most “fit” questions.
And you can always improve your technical knowledge.
But sometimes, no matter how many interview guides you’ve read or how many finance classes you’ve taken or how many internships at Goldman Sachs you’ve had, you won’t get an offer.
Problem #1: The Interviewer is Having a Bad Hair Day
Maybe your interviewer just got chewed out by his MD – or maybe a nightmare client ruined his weekend by calling him into work on a Saturday night.
Maybe he broke up with his fiancée right before his planned wedding, or maybe he saw your CV, realized that you’re from a rival school, and decided to hate you as a result.
If you walk into the room and the interviewer is hostile from the start, you won’t overcome that.
What To Do About It: In this scenario you can’t do anything to change the interviewer’s mood – all you can do is control your own emotions.
Always assume the worst when walking into an interview – expect that it will be horribly stressful and that your interviewer will antagonize you the whole time.
And then if it’s better than what you expected, you’ll have it easy – and if it’s as bad as you expected, at least you were prepared.
If it was so horrible that you know you have no chance of landing an offer, you can also ask directly at the end what you could have done to improve your performance.
Not everyone has the guts to do that, and you should only consider it if it was a train wreck of an interview – but that type of question lets you see whether you actually messed up or if it was the interviewer.
Problem #2: The Interviewer is Wrong About a Technical Question
Here are just a few of the incorrect technical questions I’ve seen before:
- The interviewer has the wrong formula for the terminal value in a DCF and claims that he’s right and you’re wrong.
- The interviewer claims that 1 valuation methodology “always” gives a higher value than all the others or that there’s always an exact ranking (there isn’t – it depends on the assumptions).
- The interviewer claims that Depreciation “always” shows up as a separate line item on the income statement (it doesn’t, sometimes it’s partially or fully embedded in other expenses).
There are 3 possibilities when the interviewer has his facts wrong:
- The interviewer genuinely thinks he’s right, even though he’s not.
- He’s testing you to see whether or not you’ll call him on his mistake.
- It’s an advanced or industry-specific topic and his group does things differently from everyone else.
#3 is not terribly likely unless he’s asking extremely advanced technical questions or something where there’s no universally correct answer (e.g. how to project revenue and expenses, which depends on the company and the industry).
#2 is also unlikely because it’s silly to play mind games like that in an interview, but it does happen.
#1 is the most likely scenario – remember, not all investment bankers know finance perfectly.
Some groups get limited exposure to modeling, and banks hire plenty of people without finance backgrounds – so you could always run into an interviewer with weak technical skills.
What To Do About It: If it’s a basic question – e.g. standard formulas in a DCF or how to link the statements together – don’t immediately give in if the interviewer claims that you’re wrong.
Say that you understand what he/she is saying, but that you said something different because [Explain Your Reasoning] – that handles the case where he/she is “testing” you.
Do not do this unless you are 100% certain and it’s a standard question or formula that you’ve seen in books, guides, and other resources before.
But if the interviewer cuts you off or it’s clear that he’s not just testing you after you explain your reasoning, don’t get into an extended argument: sometimes interviewers are just wrong.
But hey, would you want to work somewhere where bankers don’t even have basic technical knowledge?
Problem #3: The Interviewer Keeps Asking Why Your Grades are Low / Why You Didn’t Go to a Top School
So you thought grades and school prestige would only matter for interview selection – but your interviewer disagrees:
- “Why do you have a 3.2 GPA? Are you lazy or just stupid?”
- “Why didn’t you go to Harvard, LSE, or Oxford? I’ve never even heard of your school.”
Unlike problems #1 and #2 above, you can actually prepare for these questions ahead of time – just don’t get blindsided by them in an interview without a plan or you won’t be able to do much.
What To Do About It: You can’t do anything to change your GPA or where you went to school – you only have 2 options:
- Have a good story explaining why you have lower grades or why you didn’t go to a top school.
- Apply for Master’s in Finance programs (or MBA programs in the longer-term) and use those to get a brand name and higher grades.
To explain a low GPA, emphasize improvement over time rather than making excuses (you think they haven’t heard the “family emergency” line before?): acknowledge that you screwed up in your first year but then improved and took classes more seriously.
To explain a less prestige school, say that your family could not afford an expensive option and that you made the most of it to get where you are – remind them what a challenge it was to even get an interview at this bank.
If GPA and school name are a repeated problem in every single interview and they prevent you from getting offers everywhere, then a top Master’s program is your best bet (click here to read all about them).
Problem #4: You’re Put On Hold
You finished your final round interviews and performed well – but a few people were better than you.
You can improve your own performance, but there’s no way to tell what the competition will be like – so this one is out of your control as well.
So you’re on hold, either officially (they tell you) or unofficially (you don’t hear back from them).
You’re tempted to follow-up to “sell yourself” once again and boost your chances…
…but please, don’t do that – at least, don’t do a “hard sell” immediately after.
Persistence is good, but there’s a thin line between persistence and desperation.
Sell yourself before and during the interview, but resist the urge to do so after the fact: it looks desperate and interview decisions are made almost immediately afterward anyway.
What To Do About It: Instead of moving to an immediate “hard sell,” follow-up with everyone within a few days to express your continued interest in the firm.
If they don’t give you a direct answer and time keeps dragging on, call one of them and ask directly what you can do to improve or become a more attractive candidate.
And if it’s something you can fix (e.g., technical skills, communication skills, etc.), do so by submitting evidence of your improvement.
Beyond this, all you can do to accelerate the process is get an offer from another bank, bring it to the first bank, and tell them that you need a decision ASAP due to this pending deadline.
Just make sure you don’t make up an imaginary offer elsewhere and lie about it.
No Offers – What to Do?
Sometimes your offer status is beyond your control – just think about how random the interview selection process is, and now add in all the additional irrationality that comes from meeting bankers in person.
So you need to figure out why you didn’t get an offer and whether you can actually do something about it.
If not, chalk it up to bad luck and move on with life, continue networking, spread your net wider, and follow the advice here if you end up with no offers as recruiting is wrapping up.
And remember: it was the interviewer – not you.
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