by Brian DeChesare Comments (118)

From Non-Target School and Unpaid Wealth Management Internship to Full-Time Bulge Bracket Investment Banking Offer: How to Make the Leap

Private Wealth Management to Investment BankingIn this interview we’ll speak with a reader who landed a full-time bulge bracket investment banking offer with 0 banking internships and a non-target school on his resume.

There have been a few interviews with readers from similar backgrounds – but I thought this one was great because he shares unique insights and unusual networking strategies – including surprising conclusions on what worked and what failed miserably.

So let’s jump in and see how this reader went from no connections and no experience to a full-time investment banking offer – and how you can do the same.

Background & Last-Minute Networking

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: Sure. I went to an unknown state school that was off the radar of major banks, and which had very few alumni in finance. My family was involved in the retail industry so they knew almost nothing about it, and I had no connections.

I started getting interested in finance my sophomore year, but I knew almost nothing about it so I had to look online to get started, using your site and others.

The summer after my sophomore year I did an internship selling life insurance. It was commission-based and absolutely brutal – they just throw you out there and say, “Find clients and sell insurance ASAP.”

After that, I did an unpaid private wealth management internship at a large bank, which I leveraged into a full-time investment banking offer at a bulge bracket bank.

Q: Impressive. So let’s go back to that internship selling life insurance – most people would discount this experience because it has nothing to do with investment banking or private equity. Was it helpful at all in securing your PWM internship or your full-time offer?

A: Yes – in fact, my internship selling life insurance was my #1 talking point during interviews.

It sounds crazy, but bankers spent more time asking me about that experience than anything else on my resume – including my PWM internship at a brand-name bank.

In one bulge bracket interview, they spent 30 minutes having me pitch them an insurance policy.

I think they focused on it so much because it was extremely tough and I had almost no direction – it wasn’t much different from what you do at the top levels in banking, although obviously MDs work on much larger deals and with more sophisticated clients.

Q: I’m still surprised they focused so much on that internship. How did you make the transition from selling insurance to private wealth management?

A: It was pretty much a last-minute networking effort on my part – I knew I needed an internship for my junior year summer, but I assumed I had no chance at investment banking, so I didn’t even try.

I did contact a few friends and alumni from my school who were in the industry, but most of those leads didn’t go anywhere.

I got the internship itself by going through a friend who had recently graduated from my school and who was working in New York – he passed my name along to a recruiter at his bank.

Then I followed up and sent 20 emails over the next month before the recruiter agreed to discuss an internship.

Q: Let me stop you right there – why did you send so many emails? I usually say that calling and meeting in-person are more effective. Did you try cold-calling at all?

A: Yes – but it didn’t work at all for me. I could never get past the gatekeepers no matter what I did.

I know it works since I’ve had friends who pulled it off successfully – but overall I didn’t have much luck with it. You need to be really good at sweet-talking secretaries and finding the right people to begin with, and I wasn’t great at that.

M&I Note: In addition, location seems to matter a lot with cold-calling. A lot of readers have used it successfully in California, for example, but other regions are more hit-or-miss.

Q: Yeah, people do tend to have mixed results with cold-calling. Going back to that internship, though, I’m curious – most bulge bracket banks don’t do unpaid internships. How did you arrange that?

A: It worked because this was in the midst of the financial crisis / recession and everything was chaotic at the time. They actually gave me a choice of 2 internships: a paid, back-office position in New Jersey or an unpaid, front-office private wealth management position in New York – I wisely selected the second one.

A lot of students would have chosen the paid internship, but I knew it was a bad move because banks want to know that you can live and work in New York – and as you’ve pointed out before, the back office to front office transition is difficult.

Going back to your original question, the bank itself and the industry as a whole were in such trouble around this time that everyone was running around frantically trying to cut costs – so they decided to give large groups of us unpaid internships.

The “interview process” itself was really informal, and all it took was 1 interview to get the offer.

Door-to-Door Networking

Q: Ok, so it was more of a firm-wide policy than a special exception for you – which makes sense. So how did you keep networking with bankers once you started? Were the people in your PWM group helpful?

A: From day 1 I walked in there thinking, “How can I turn this into investment banking?”

Most people in PWM were completely useless for investment banking recruiting – a lot of times they’d give me contact information for recruiters, but then the recruiters would ignore me or lie about the process.

People in PWM were fine if you wanted to do Sales & Trading, but they hated investment bankers – if you mentioned that you wanted to do that, they would instantly start looking down on you.

The only good contact I got through the PWM group was actually in private equity – my boss had the interns go around to visit key clients in-person one day, and I met the head of a PE firm like that.

I made a good impression on him, and then ran it by my boss before I contacted him for networking purposes – he was fine with it, so the PE guy referred me to a lot of people and forwarded my resume to all his contacts, which was huge.

Q: Nice – I guess we can call that one “door-to-door networking.” So aside from that one PE guy, did you do most of your networking outside the bank?

A: Yes. I did an extensive search and left no stone unturned – which was key, because my most random strategies ended up working really well.

I reached out to alumni via our database as well as LinkedIn – I often found names on LinkedIn, and then plugged them into the alumni database to get contact information. I didn’t limit myself to investment banking, either – as long as the person did something in finance, that was close enough for me.

I ended up getting my full-time offer via an alum that no one from my school had ever contacted before – he worked in a Restructuring group and had good friends at bulge bracket banks, so I got the referral through him.

No one had contacted him in the past because he went to a top business school and was detached from his undergrad institution – so others wrongly assumed he was “off limits.”

I also met alumni via my finance classes, and I directly asked a lot of professors for referrals – teachers are severely under-utilized for networking purposes.

It was really important to be the first person to contact an alumnus – the same alum is unlikely to help more than few people with referrals, so getting in early is crucial.

Q: Right, that makes a lot of sense. But those strategies don’t sound that much different from what you’d expect – you mentioned some “random strategies” before. Could you give a few examples?

A: Sure – here are 2 specific examples of more unusual strategies:

Example #1: I found out that someone very high-up at an investment bank a few years ago (C-level executive) was an alumnus from my school from many years ago. I couldn’t find his contact information anywhere, so I went through my Dean to get it instead.

I met with my Dean, told him about myself, and then he sent the resume along to the C-level executive because he knew him personally. A few days later the executive called me personally and I would have gotten an interview at his bank had I not already accepted an offer elsewhere by that point.

Example #2: Many people didn’t respond to emails, so I tried a more creative strategy instead – I went through the Bloomberg terminals available at my school.

You can look people up there if you know their names – rather than calling or emailing, I instant messaged them via Bloomberg. It worked really well, especially for people in Sales & Trading and Equity Research that were on Bloomberg all day.

Q: That’s a great way to use Bloomberg, though you do have to be careful not to go overboard with IM. Once you contacted these people, what did you say to them? Was it just the typical informational interview?

A: For most of the interviews I just said, “I’m interested in your industry and want to learn more about how I can get there.”

I did this because I knew that industries like private equity and portfolio management require another job first – and I wanted my contacts to give me referrals to other industries.

So if I called up a PE contact I would say, “I’m interested in private equity – how can I get there after I graduate?” and he would say, “Well, you have to do investment banking first,” and I would say, “Oh, ok, do you happen to know anyone in the industry?” and then I would get contact information like that.

I found that feigning ignorance – to a certain point – was more effective than acting like I knew everything from the get-go.

Full-Time Recruiting

Q: I think that one should answer all the “Which industry should I tell them I’m interested in?” questions I get. Did you do anything else to prepare for full-time recruiting?

A: Not really – I read the usual sites online, interview guides, message boards, etc. but I focused on my networking efforts through the summer and fall. I’d say I spent around 40 hours per week networking and interviewing until I had my offer lined up.

It’s important to be persistent even when it’s the last minute and interview slots are being announced.

Quick example: A couple people from one class of mine got interviews at this one bank, and I noticed that my friends all had interviews lined up but I didn’t.

So I contacted the recruiter directly and said, “I noticed some classmates of mine had interviews lined up with your firm. I’d really appreciate the opportunity to interview with you as well.”

And just like that, she set up the interview and I got through first rounds there.

This might seem obvious, but 90% of people are too afraid to ask for what they want so they sit there and get no results.

Q: Another bold but effective move there. So what were interviews like? Did you have to address a lot of “objections” because you had no banking experience and because you were coming in from a non-target school?

A: Not really. They didn’t care much about the lack of banking experience, and hardly anyone raised my school as an issue.

However, that may have been because I interviewed fairly late in the process – after most full-time recruiting was finished. A friend who interviewed at the same firms earlier than me got grilled on why he wasn’t from a big city and why he didn’t go to a better-known school.

I had a low GPA (3.2 / 4.0) so that came up in interviews a few times. I gave the usual defense and explained that I didn’t feel it was low given my work experience, and hardly anyone asked about it past the first round.

I know a lot of people complain about their GPA, but I think those concerns are overblown – especially if you’re from a lesser-known school, networking is far more important than boosting your GPA by a small amount.

Interviews were actually easier and less technical than I expected – even though I was a finance major and had the PWM internship, I received only a few technical questions throughout the entire process.

Thinking on your feet and being good at making up stuff on the spot was critical, because I got some curve-ball “fit” questions that I hadn’t thought about before.

Q: Any interview tips that we haven’t heard before?

A: A few points:

  1. Interviewers often drifted if I went beyond a minute or two when telling my “story” – I know some people say that 3-5 minutes is ok, but I’d aim for 60 seconds instead.
  2. I tried to keep all my “fit” answers to a max of 3 sentences, or people would start to lose interest – be concise and let them ask for more detail if they want.
  3. Be confident but not cocky – cocky gets you obscure technical questions, while confidence makes them like you.

On the last point: a friend and I were interviewing for the same bank on the same day, and I got 0 technical questions while the interviewers asked him to build a 3-statement model on a piece of paper (!).

It was all because he walked in and acted like he was a finance guru, which was a huge mistake.

Q: Yeah, definitely. People try way too hard to impress and it always backfires. So now that you got this offer, what are you planning to do in the future?

A: I want to do PE and get an MBA in the future, but those are both quite a ways away. In the short-term I’m definitely looking forward to joining my group, but I’m also interested in the distressed debt side and possibly doing something there.

Q: Awesome, thanks for your time.

A: No problem. Later!

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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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.

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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by Brian DeChesare Comments (381)

Can You Really Use Business School to Re-Brand Yourself and Break Into Finance?

rebranding“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.

“Non-Target” Programs

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.

Geography

“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.

No Network

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.

The Solution?

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?

  1. 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.
  2. If you come from a more “random” background then start addressing “objections” to your background even before you arrive at school.
  3. 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.

Got Brand?

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.

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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