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How to Break Into Investment Banking as a Career-Changer in a Part-Time, Non-Target MBA Program

How to Break Into Investment Banking as a Career-Changer in a Part-Time, Non-Target MBA Program

No clever introductions for this one because this story already has more twists and turns than 24 or Lost – so let’s get right into it.

Background

Q: Walk us through your resume.

A: I came from a liberal arts background as an undergraduate, and worked in commercial property management after I graduated.

After a few years I got interested in investment banking, but by that point I had already been out of school for awhile and I didn’t have much of a quantitative background, so I decided that going back to business school was my best bet.

I went to a well-known, though not “target,” program – you would know the school if I mentioned it here, but not many large banks actively recruited there.

To make things even worse, I was enrolled in the part-time program there – so I only had access to the career center and its resources in my last few terms.

Q: So I’m guessing you had to do a lot of networking. Can you tell us about what your overall approach was?

A: Sure. Before I even started networking, I wanted to make sure I had my “story” right, so I spent a lot of time on that.

My basic “story”: I came from a background where I had to work with tenants constantly and develop relationships with lots of different people – which is a critical skill if you want to make it to the top in investment banking.

I said that in the long-term, I wanted to be a trusted advisor to CEOs and other executives, and that I saw investment banking as a way to leverage my previous background to get there.

This story worked very well for Associate-level interviews – they want to see more evidence of leadership and client relationship skills because they’re grooming you to make it to the top one day.

In terms of networking, I ignored bulge bracket banks for the most part and focused on middle-market and boutique banks because they were much more receptive to someone like me.

I didn’t focus that much on the “results” per se – I was genuinely interested in getting to know people in the industry and learning more all the time, which made a huge difference.

Too many people go into the process only looking forward to the outcome, which makes it hard to stay motivated and actually make a good impression on everyone you meet.

Overcoming Roadblocks

Q: Ok, so you have your “story” laid out and you’re in the right mindset. How did you decide who to contact each week? What did you say, and to whom did you say it?

A: I focused on 2nd and 3rd year Associates, as well as some 1st Year VPs – I wanted people who had been there long enough to actually have influence over the hiring process.

These types of people were also more likely to be staffers – and to therefore have even more influence on hiring decisions.

I sent around 2-3 emails per day, pretty much every single day – I was pretty direct and told them explicitly I was interested in moving into investment banking or moving to their firm specifically, and that I wanted to get their thoughts on how best to position myself.

I would always request either a call or a meeting in the initial email, and would then spend most of the time asking about the other person’s background.

Q: What kind of resistance did you face because of your background? Was the part-time MBA program an issue, or was your non-finance background a bigger problem?

A: I was always very upfront about attending the part-time MBA program, and it was never an issue. When it came time for full-time recruiting, I already had an internship by then so no one looked at me differently.

My non-finance background was more of a problem – in every meeting I had they always said, “So why do you want to move into finance, and why now?”

By this point I had gotten really, really good at telling my “story” and answering these objections before they even came up, so that wasn’t much trouble after the first few informational interviews.

Q: What tactics were most effective in going from meetings and phone calls to actual interviews? Did you have to do anything differently at the MBA-level?

A: Not really – it was mostly just continuous pressure that led to interviews at most places. I kept emailing people and saying, “Just wanted to reiterate my interest in your firm, and re-visit our conversation.”

You can’t take it personally when you don’t get a response – a lot of people purposely ignore you just to assess how serious you are.

The (Partial) Results

Q: Ok, so you’re networking extensively… how did you end up with an internship?

A: Continuous pressure – I was speaking with a local bank and kept contacting them to say I was interested. I could tell they wanted an intern but weren’t 100% certain they actually wanted to hire one – those types of leads are often better to go after vs. places that have no clue what they want.

Q: And how well did you do in full-time recruiting with this internship under your belt?

A: I mentioned it was a really, really bad year, right? I interviewed with a lot of banks but came away with no full-time offers at well-known banks that year – even though I had done a ton of networking and actually had an investment banking internship.

Q: A lot of people would have probably given up or set their sights on a different field at this point. What did you do?

A: I decided to postpone my official graduation date by a year – just to keep myself “in school” – and I kept networking and ended up with an offer at a local boutique.

But it was quite a bit different from a large bank, and the learning opportunities were uneven – we spent a lot of time chasing after lower-probability deals.

The other problem was that it was unpaid – I received no base salary, and was paid only when deals closed.

That’s fine if you’re an MD with millions of dollars in savings, dozens of different clients, and you expect deals to close – but it was a huge issue when you’re just starting out and need to pay the bills.

M&I Note: One of the advantages of a part-time MBA program is that you can more easily move around your graduation date.

Moving Into Industry?

Q: Ok, so you’re at this small firm where the work you’re doing is not quite what you expected and where you’re not getting paid. What then?

A: I had to leave because of the lack of any base salary. I had worked on several deals and at least had something substantial to talk about in interviews now, so I felt that it had served its purpose.

One of the MDs was from a larger firm, and brought in a lot of deals – I worked with him a few times, so I got decent experience in the time I was there.

After leaving, I went to a local company “in industry” and became Director of Finance there.

Q: Most people would say that going FROM investment banking back TO industry is the kiss of death and that you can’t move back into finance if you’ve done that. What were you thinking?

A: I took the job because it was a management-level role and because it allowed me to interact with the CEO pretty much every day.

I knew I could leverage it for investment banking interviews in the future because now I could say, “I understand both finance AND how company executives in a particular industry think.”

It allowed me to go into investment banking interviews and say 2 things:

  1. I can get inside the heads of CEOs in this industry because I know exactly how they think.
  2. Other people are coming in from the Ivory Tower, but I have real-world experience related to investment banking.

Q: Right, but did banks actually take you seriously? Most people in finance view “industry” in a very negative way.

A: You need to get creative. Any experience is better than sitting on your butt doing nothing.

Believe it or not, this industry experience actually helped me more than my investment banking internships because I applied to matching industry groups, and it helped me stand out vs. everyone else.

Sure, in a perfect world we’d all work at Goldman Sachs – but things rarely go as planned, and you need to improvise and spin what you have into sounding relevant when that happens.

Back Into Banking?

Q: Ok, so you’re at this local company as Director of Finance for a few months now. How did you move back into banking after you had already left for industry?

A: It’s not as difficult as you might think, at least if you do it the right way. Here’s what I did:

  1. I considered A LOT of other options, like startup banks, public finance firms, and more – if nothing worked out in banking, I wanted a Plan B, C, and D.
  2. I never stopped networking – I continued talking to everyone and browsing my business school’s job board even after I had been through 2 other jobs by this point.
  3. I focused on highly relevant groups – investment banking industry groups that matched my background when I was Director of Finance at the local company. I made sure I wasn’t just applying for the sake of applying – I knew that I’d have to be more targeted given my history.

Q: How did you change around your resume in light of everything you had done – and how did you get it in the hands of bankers?

A: I re-wrote my entire resume to “bankify” it and to add more meaty material, focusing on what I had done at the boutique and also as Director of Finance at the local firm. It looked significantly better than when I had only had the internship from the year before.

I got interviews at a bulge bracket bank and at a well-known middle-market / boutique firm by applying to off-campus postings on my school’s job board.

I also noticed that I had spoken with a guy at the middle market / boutique firm a year ago when he was at a different bank, so I called him up again, told him I was interested in interviewing there, and got his thoughts on the company.

Q: Had you had any contact with him since you spoke with him a year ago?

A: Nope. I contacted lots of others I had last spoken with 2-3 years ago as well – obviously after that length of time you can’t go and request an in-depth conversation, but if you’re friendly and casually reach out to people, good things will happen.

A lot of people think you need to stay in touch with 500 industry contacts 24/7 and that the sky will fall if you don’t – but so few people ever bother networking that simply by reaching out at all you put yourself in an elite group.

Don’t obsess over details and individual words in emails… as long as you’re networking at all, you’re well ahead of most people.

M&I Note: Never, ever, ever overestimate the competition

Associate-Level Interviews

Q: Ok, so you have 2 solid leads and interviews lined up at both the bulge bracket and the boutique / middle-market bank. What were interviews like, and how were they different from what an Analyst might face?

A: The interviews themselves were not dramatically different – it was the usual set of phone interviews, followed by in-person rounds later on, with technical and “fit” questions similar to what you normally see.

The bulge bracket featured a case study in their interview process, where I had to talk about how to analyze a company in a dying industry and how to establish what kind of cash flows they might achieve should they expand into more lucrative markets.

Overall the interviews were no more technical than what anyone else interviewing for entry-level positions might get, but they do expect you to be more polished at the MBA-level.

There was also more thought required – a lot of the questions were not standard “Walk me through a DCF”-type questions, but were about specific companies or more unusual scenarios.

Q: So how did the interviews go?

A: With the well-known boutique / middle-market bank, everything just clicked and I fit in with the team from the start, so I got an offer there. I came very close at the bulge bracket bank, but lost out to other candidates in the final round.

Q: Did you try to negotiate your salary or bonus at all?

A: No, because I felt the offer they gave me was in-line with the market as a whole, and that negotiating it might have damaged some of the goodwill – the relationship kind, not the accounting kind – that I had built up throughout the interview process.

I’m not even sure that it’s possible to negotiate much with well-established banks, at least for Analyst or Associate positions.

Future Plans & Final Thoughts

Q: You went through quite an ordeal to get into a well-known investment bank. Are you planning to stay there, or will you try to hop into PE as soon as you can?

A: At this point, I’m planning to stay here – for two reasons:

  1. My whole pitch was that I wanted to be a trusted advisor to companies and executives. I had to believe that for it to be believable, and I still do want to do that.
  2. Getting into PE is a fairly well-defined path, and it’s hard for anyone who hasn’t been an investment banking analyst.

If I got tired of banking at some point, I would probably look at opportunities within industry instead – I already have the experience and could easily go back to that.

While the life of an MD may not be all peachy, it would also be hard to leave if I got there one day.

For Associate-level interviews, you need to show that you’re committed to the industry for the long-term or else no one will take you seriously.

Q: You were very successful breaking into investment banking, even though your story had more than its fair share of twists and turns. Looking back on it, is there anything you would have done differently? Any advice for readers?

A: I made two main mistakes with networking:

  1. My tracking tool was very poor. I should have tracked the “temperature” of each lead to see whether each person was “warm” and to properly prioritize my efforts. I also should have included an agenda for each person with an idea of how he/she could be helpful – Referrals? Advice? Interviews?
  2. I failed to explore all avenues for networking – I completely neglected undergraduate alumni, professors, and people at my church, for example. While you could argue those are lower probability to begin with, all it takes is one.

My only other advice is to enjoy the networking process itself. If you don’t like talking to people, you’re never going to make it in the industry – as an investment banker you spend a lot of time emailing and calling people, even as an Analyst.

Have fun with it, and keep in mind that no matter how screwed you seem or how many “fatal” moves you make, you never lose unless you give up – just re-read my own story if you want a reminder of that.

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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Positioning Yourself for Business School, Part 2: The Non-Financier

Positioning Yourself for Business School, Part 2: The Non-FinancierI was tempted to label this one “The Vagabond” or “The Average Joe,” but those didn’t sound very… flattering.

Last time, we looked at how to set yourself apart in MBA admissions if you’re coming from a finance background.

The main challenge there is “being interesting” – defined as not looking exactly the same as every other person who took the “2 years of banking followed by 2 years of PE” route.

If you’re coming from a non-finance background, though, you face a different set of challenges.

Obstacles for Non-Financiers

If you’re coming from a non-finance background – anything from a political campaign volunteer to a nonprofit worker to an entrepreneur to anyone in fields like accounting and IT consulting – your biggest challenge will be proving that you can do the work.

Remember, we’re assuming that you’re using business school to get into a field like finance or consulting. You still need to “be interesting” to get into business school in the first place before using it for recruiting purposes.

If you’ve been an accountant for 4 years but haven’t done anything else outside work, you’ll face an uphill battle getting into top schools.

But getting these “extracurricular activities” is easier for anyone with a non-finance background, because you actually have the time to do things outside of pitch books and Excel. So you probably don’t need to make any dramatic moves, and you can follow the tips given in our first article.

And if you’re coming from more of a “vagabond” background – you decided to leave the country and head to a monastery for a year, or you founded a nonprofit in Guatemala – your work experience by itself is already “interesting.”

But no matter what your background is, the #1 question any bank will have for you is simple:

Can you do the work?

After all, you’ve never done finance before.

Proving That You Can Do the Work

Sometimes this is just a matter of positioning. A lot of MBA students get interested in finance from exposure they’ve had before – so if you’ve been a healthcare policy analyst but had a chance to do some modeling work when consulting with the federal government, then you know what to do: play that up as much as possible.

The same is true if you were at a nonprofit when it was merging with another nonprofit, or if you helped out with due diligence on M&A transactions when you were at a Big 4 firm.

In other cases, “proving” that you can do the work is more difficult. I’ve received quite a few questions from former Hollywood writers and producers who want to move into finance – if you’re in a creative profession like that, you need to get some exposure to finance before you arrive at business school.

That could be in the form of a part-time or unpaid internship, and your best chance might be in the summer before school starts.

You should get actual work experience rather than “shadowing” someone or doing an “independent research project.” Banks don’t take any of that too seriously for anyone at the MBA level.

It’s a matter of risk management on their part – hiring the wrong person can cost three times the person’s annual salary. Given that finance salaries are (still) higher than almost anything else, firms need to attract “low-risk” individuals.

The bottom line: you’ll be at a big disadvantage if you don’t have anything finance-related on your resume and you’re planning to use business school recruiting – especially if the economy remains poor or gets even worse.

Finding Proof

So how do you actually get this “proof” if you’re working or have some other full-time obligation?

Logically speaking, you have 2 options:

  1. Quit whatever you’re doing now and find something finance-related in the meantime.
  2. Take advantage of that summer window before school starts and do something finance-related then.

In either case, do not jump into anything unless you’ve actually been accepted to school(s) first.

You get these opportunities the same way you get internships or jobs at smaller firms in the first place: a combination of networking, cold-calling, and persistence.

Don’t even try to arrange something informal at a bulge bracket bank – they won’t be open to it, and they’re less flexible with “creating” new positions.

One exception is if you go through a pre-MBA program that gives you real work experience. I’m not an expert on this topic, but that could also be a potential way to demonstrate “proof” as long as you work full-time in finance over an extended period (e.g. not 2 weeks).

Other Factors – Grades and GMAT Scores

Some people make a big fuss over undergraduate GPA and GMAT scores, but if you’re applying to top schools, they don’t matter that much – past a certain point.

Why?

Almost everyone applying to these schools has relatively good grades (3.5 range or over) and GMAT scores (over 700). The average is already quite high, so having perfect grades and GMAT scores is not enough to set you apart.

It’s like technical questions in investment banking interviews – getting them right puts you in the running, but you’ll never get an offer based solely on your technical know-how. They’re used to weed out applicants rather than to decide who gets offers.

As long as you have grades and scores that put you on par with everyone else applying, your admission chances come down to essays, recommendations, and your “story” – not specific numbers.

So the only way scores and grades matter is if yours are not on par with everyone else’s – in which case you do have a problem.

Aiming Lower Than the Top

We’ve been focused on the top schools, where competition is tough and where admissions rates are likely to be at all-time lows in the near future.

And if you’re interested only in finance or consulting, there’s no point in aiming lower than the top: most firms don’t recruit much at programs outside the top 10.

But that doesn’t apply to everyone – maybe you’re older and more experienced, and you’re interested in changing careers or going back for other purposes. If you’re after the experience rather than the recruiting opportunities, you don’t need to get into the top programs in the world.

In that case, you might be better off saving yourself time, effort, and money and going for a less “prestigious” option.

It goes back to your motivations for going in the first place – not everyone is interested in going back to school primarily for recruiting purposes.

It’s All About the Story

As with investment banking interviews and any other type of application, positioning yourself for business school comes down to your “story,” AKA your answer to the “Walk me through your resume” question.

But the challenge is that you often need 2 different stories: one to get into school in the first place, and one to use when you’re recruiting at school.

And you need to start developing both, even before you think about applying anywhere.

Coming Up: How to successfully “spin” your story and make yourself sound more interesting (if I can get anyone to go on-the-record with this…).

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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Free Exclusive Report: 57-page guide with the action plan you need to break into investment banking - how to tell your story, network, craft a winning resume, and dominate your interviews

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by Brian DeChesare Comments (161)

Positioning Yourself for Business School, Part 1: The Financier

Positioning Yourself for Business School, Part 1: The FinancierIt’s a question on everyone’s minds these days:

“How can I get into the Harvard, Stanford, or Wharton MBA programs?”

“If I don’t get into finance or consulting right now, should I go back to business school instead?”

“How can I stand out from everyone else who’s applying?”

With the markets still in turmoil, more and more people are thinking of heading to business school. Even those who actually have jobs are thinking of going back to school to insulate themselves from layoffs and get a 2-year vacation while they’re at it.

Regardless of your background, though, you’ll face a unique challenge getting into business school and then using it to get into finance:

The criteria to get into business school is different than the criteria to get into finance coming from business school, and the two often contradict each other.

So here’s how you solve that problem…

The False Promise of Re-Branding?

Here’s the paradox that crops up when you apply to business school and then try to leverage it to get into finance:

  1. Top schools like a diverse student body – they don’t want everyone to have done two years of banking followed by two years of private equity. Especially in recent years, these schools have become biased against students with pure finance backgrounds.
  2. Banks and financial firms, on the other hand, don’t care nearly as much about diversity and would love to recruit only students with previous finance experience. Someone with previous experience represents reduced risk, and is more likely to stick around past their first all-nighter creating a pitch book.

In late 2007, recruiters were still trying to convince me that two years of banking followed by two years of private equity was a “guaranteed” ticket into top MBA programs. It’s funny how quickly things can change.

One of the key selling points of MBA programs is a chance to “re-brand” yourself. And when banks desperately need people (see: 2004-2006), they’ll open up to your story of personal transformation from traveling bard to the next Gordon Gekko.

But when they’re not so desperate (now), they start to consider only those who have done finance before.

So this selling point is highly dependent on market conditions and often turns into disappointment for MBA-level applicants without some type of finance experience.

Curious Conclusion

This past recruiting season, I spoke with many talented business school students who had started companies, nonprofits, and had all sorts of other impressive accomplishments. But even with those credentials, each one faced an uphill battle getting interviews and job offers if he or she had not done finance previously.

This brings us to a curious conclusion when looking at both of these points together:

If you’re already in finance, you need to find a way to stand out from the crowd and tell an interesting story if you want to get into business school. And if you’re from a different background, you still need to worry about that – but more importantly, you need to find a way to show banks that you can do the work.

In this article, we’ll address anyone in the first category: anyone from a finance background thinking of business school.

Standing Out From a Finance Background: Got Prestige?

I received an email from a reader the other day asking, “I thought it was basically the prestige of your firm that set you apart in MBA admissions?”

My response: While brand-name recognition matters, admissions committees don’t view you dramatically differently based on where you worked within a specific industry. They’re not going to look at someone and say, “Aha! He worked at Morgan Stanley so he should definitely get in, but that guy only worked at Houlihan Lokey so he is obviously unqualified to join us!”

You do gain an advantage by working somewhere well-known, but keep in mind that people from all sorts of different backgrounds apply to business school – so the “prestige” arguments people often get in on message boards become even more pointless in this context.

After reading thousands of applications, anyone in admissions starts to view most banker types as… pretty much the same.

So basing your entire application on the “prestige” of wherever you worked is a losing proposition, especially these days when tons of laid-off financiers are applying to business school.

The Real Way to Stand Out

Alex from MBA Apply hits the nail on the head with the real way to stand out in admissions:

“Build a life, not a resume.”

This is not a new concept for anyone who’s been reading this site over the past year. Regardless of whether you’re applying for business school, university, or even going through investment banking interviews, your chances of success depend largely on your “story.”

One small problem: if you work full-time in finance, it may be almost impossible to find the time to do anything outside work.

How to Develop an Interesting Story Even If You Have No Time

You don’t need to spend 20-40 hours per week on something to make yourself stand out.

But if you’re in banking or at a large PE firm, you probably don’t even have five hours per week to spend on other activities.

If you’re still thinking about business school and have absolutely no time for outside interests currently (Wait, how are you reading this article then? Hmm…), here’s what I’d recommend:

  1. First, decide if you’re actually interested for the right reasons. If you’re planning to stay in finance for the long-term and you’re already in it, an MBA usually doesn’t make a big difference (exceptions apply). Being “interesting” therefore matters far less.
  2. If you are interest is sincere, reduce your work commitment by moving into a different firm, group, or industry. A word of caution: in most cases the only move that “guarantees” a better schedule is leaving finance and moving into “industry” in a business development or corporate finance role.
  3. Once you have the time, develop some of those forgotten interests and hobbies… or find new ones. Even something that only takes up a few hours per week can be spun into a good story on your applications.

Before exiting or entering different industries, you really need to weigh why you want to go to business school in the first place. My own personal view is that the “2-year vacation” plan is a bit silly given the expense, opportunity cost, and the fact that you’ll actually be quite busy (programs have become more rigorous).

That’s especially true these days, when everyone has the exact same plan and admissions are more competitive than ever before – you need better motivation than just wanting to take a break.

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

Break Into Investment Banking

Free Exclusive Report: 57-page guide with the action plan you need to break into investment banking - how to tell your story, network, craft a winning resume, and dominate your interviews

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