by Brian DeChesare Comments (154)

From Big 4 Restructuring to Investment Banking: How to Make the Leap

“Help! I hate my accounting job and want to move into banking, what do I do?”

From Big 4 Restructuring to Investment Banking: How to Make the Leap

“What group should I transfer to if I want to get into finance?”

“My Big 4 salary doesn’t give me enough cash for bottles!”

If you’re at a Big 4 firm right now, you’ve had one of the thoughts above before – maybe multiple times.

We covered how to move from accounting to investment banking before, but this time around there’s a different twist – an interview with a reader who moved from a Big 4 restructuring group to investment banking.

Here’s how he made the leap, and how you can do the same:

Background & Culture

Q: Let’s start with your background – how’d you end up at the Big 4 firm, and what did you do before that?

A: Sure. I actually started out as an athlete, and played at the college level for a few years before I got a serious injury that ended my career.

Then, I transferred to a smaller and lesser-known school in the Midwest, and got more interested in finance once I knew that being a professional athlete was no longer an option.

The investment banking industry is smaller in the Midwest, but there are still a few local banks there and they were doing a lot of distressed M&A deals for the auto industry, so I started contacting them and asking about internships each week.

After a ton of networking, one bank finally caved in and decided that they needed an intern – so I joined and got to help out with a few live deals there.

As graduation approached, I continued networking and found a few guys who used to work at a very well-known PE firm.

They had just started a lower middle-market fund just for family/small-business investments, and they needed some analysis done on Project Finance-type investments (power plants and such). I volunteered to do the modeling for that, and they were impressed with my work and turned it into a full-time internship.

Since I had so much experience in restructuring, I went to a restructuring group at a Big 4 firm after my internship at the middle-market PE fund. I stayed there for around a year, and then recently moved to a bulge bracket bank.

Q: That’s a great story – before we jump into it in more detail, I think a lot of readers might wonder what it’s like working at a Big 4 firm in their restructuring group.

We’ve covered the work and culture in IB and PE before, so how would you say the Big 4 firm compared to those?

A: There was definitely a skill set overlap – we did lots of cash flow modeling, presentations to lenders, and distressed M&A deals where we advised the company on selling, restructuring, or bankruptcy options. We also worked with the big auto companies, so you got good exposure to their finance teams.

The financial modeling and deal skills were similar, but there was a big cultural difference because we only worked on 1-2 projects at once and the hours were very, very tame. I only worked on one weekend, and a “late night” was staying to 8 or 9 PM.

So it was quite a bit different from the “work hard, play hard” culture of banking where everyone works to the point of exhaustion, and then drinks to the point of passing out.

Q: Why do you think there’s that cultural difference? Deals are still deals, so I don’t understand how you could “choose” to be less busy if you’re working with Fortune 500 clients all the time.

A: It’s mostly because financial advisory services were a very small part of what the firm did. At an M&A boutique bank, 100% of revenue comes from advisory, but at this Big 4 firm advisory accounted for maybe 2% of revenue.

Their focus was accounting/audit and consulting – they had investment banking and restructuring services, but they were an afterthought next to everything else there.

Q: OK, so it sounds like they consciously chose not to take on as much business as they could have since it wasn’t their core focus.

Obviously you did well moving into banking from restructuring, but what other groups would be good if you wanted to make the Big 4 to IB move?

A: As you’ve mentioned before, Transaction Advisory Services (TAS) can be good since you get exposed to bankers in some scenarios.

But I don’t think it’s necessarily the best group all the time because many TAS groups focus on accounting and due diligence, and you may not get exposed to valuation, financial modeling, or other aspects of the deal. They may also spend a lot of time on tasks that bankers don’t care about, such as making sure that working capital requirements are met when a deal closes.

So I would recommend looking at the internal middle-market banks that all Big 4 firms have – they do mostly sell-side advisory, and while it’s not comparable to the experience you’d get at a real bank, it’s closer than most other groups at the Big 4. Here are links to each firm’s internal bank:

And then anything transaction-related – like the restructuring group I was in – could work as well.

Networking & Interviews

Q: Can you talk about the networking you did to get the bulge bracket offer? What was the best source for finding contacts and meeting bankers?

A: Keep in mind that I had been networking all along, ever since I got my original internship via aggressive cold-calling.

So it was just continuing what I had already started – I took the Big 4 offer knowing that I still wanted to move into banking and would have to continue networking.

It was difficult to find bankers at first because few alumni worked in finance, I didn’t have co-workers I could reliably ask, and headhunters were useless unless you had at least some full-time work experience.

Q: So where did you find bankers if not through the usual sources like your alumni database?

A: A couple ways:

  1. High School Contacts – Even though my university had few alumni in finance, there were quite a lot from my high school who worked in the industry.
  2. Random Online Contact – I would just go through LinkedIn and look up bankers in the Midwest and start reaching out them like that.
  3. Cold-Calling/Emailing – This is how I got my first internship. It’s time-consuming and has a low hit rate, but it does work.
  4. Upscale Gyms – I joined a few higher-end gyms in my area and ran into a bunch of financiers there. I met a few bankers, people in private wealth management, management and turnaround consultants, and even a PE Partner like that.

All of that helped, but the most helpful thing for me was always asking, “I’m interviewing with this group / interested in this area – do you know anyone else I could speak with?”

I got tons of referrals with that line at the end of each call or meeting. It sounds very simple, but you’d be surprised at how many people are too afraid to make simple requests in a conversation.

Q: I really like the tip about upscale gyms; it reminds me of Gordon Gekko playing racquetball.

So it sounds like your networking was pretty similar to what we’ve covered here before with getting names and contact information, setting up informational interviews, and then following up aggressively.

How did you spin your resume when you were applying, since the Big 4 firm was your only full-time experience?

A: I actually downplayed the Big 4 experience, because I felt my banking internship and my work at the middle-market PE fund were both more relevant. So I focused on those and described my transaction experience using the template you’ve suggested before.

For my Big 4 experience, I focused on the valuation and modeling work and left out anything that was closer to accounting/audit.

Even though I had worked in restructuring there, I was interested in moving to industry or M&A groups in investment banking, so I didn’t want to make myself look too specialized by writing 100% about restructuring or distressed deals.

Q: That makes sense, and it’s great advice for anyone who has worked in a more specialized group and wants to move elsewhere.

What about the interviews themselves? Were they mostly technical or deal experience-focused?

A: They focused a lot on my deal experience – and more my experience at the bank and PE firm rather than in my restructuring group.

There were technical questions, but they were more curious about why certain deals happened, potential complications, and what I thought of the valuation and the process for different companies.

For some of the industry groups, a key question was “Why this industry?” They get a lot of people who don’t know why they want to work with financial institutions or industrial companies or whatever they cover.

Q: We covered a few possible answers to that one before, but what did you say?

A: In my final year of university I had completed a finance course where we valued companies in different industries, so I used that as my “spark” to show them how I got interested at first.

It didn’t work for every industry group, but by using that I could at least talk about my interest in the more common ones, like energy, financial institutions, and industrials.

I also used a few of your industry-specific modeling courses to demonstrate my interest and they were really impressed with that, since hardly anyone else had gone to the effort of completing entire case studies on these companies.

Q: I’m surprised by that one, because we generally tell customers that the industry-specific courses are more helpful once you’re already working – but you found them useful for interviews as well?

A: Yes – even just seeing real examples of NAV or dividend discount models for different types of companies was very helpful, because then I could walk through them in interviews.

And these were lateral interviews at the top bulge bracket banks – even there most other interviewees still hadn’t done as much as preparation as you might expect.

Q: Well, glad to hear the courses were helpful!

It seems like the interview process was straightforward for you, but I’m sure bankers had at least a few “objections” to your background. What were the key issues, and how did you overcome them?

A: Their main concern was that my academic experience looked very spotty.

I had taken a year off after I got my injury back in college, and then had to enroll in another school and ended up missing another semester, so it looked like I had taken forever to graduate and had been to school twice.

Some bankers just focused on that for 100% of the interview – they asked about all my gaps in education and why I had gone to schools they never heard of.

I answered those questions by explaining that for my first 2 years in university, I was practicing constantly, still doing well in school, and working 1-2 part-time jobs at the same time. So I spun a negative into a positive, and pointed out that I was working crazy hours a good portion of the time and could therefore handle the hours of a bulge bracket bank.

And then I also had my previous IB and PE internships, so they weren’t too concerned by the end.

What If? And the Future

Q: Since you had those internships, you had 100% relevant experience when applying to larger banks.

But what advice would you give someone who’s at a Big 4 firm in some other role, like audit? What should they do if they have no transaction experience and want to get into IB?

A: First, get out of audit immediately. Do something – anything – more stimulating.

People make fun of investment banking for being mindless work, but in my opinion audit is even worse because it’s so mundane.

At least with deals, you witness drama as different buyers and sellers express interest, back out, make different proposals, and negotiate. In audit you’re staring at numbers all day unless you happen to uncover the next Enron.

Most Big 4 firms are fine with internal transfers – it’s often easier than it is at a bank. Sometimes the Partner you’re working for may take it personally, but that depends on your group.

You should reach out to the other group you’re interested in first, contact people there, and make sure they know what you’re interested in doing before you even run the idea by your current boss.

The Big 4 firms all have lots of events and internal mixers where professionals in different areas can meet each other, so it’s easier to get to know other groups than it would be in IB – most people don’t work more than 50-60 hours per week, so they have the time to help you.

You really have no excuse not to move to a group that’s more closely related to banking – I would recommend restructuring, valuation, internal M&A, and TAS as your best options.

Q: It’s interesting to hear that the internal transfer may be easier at Big 4 firms, but I guess the culture is just more relaxed across the board.

So now that you’ve won this bulge bracket offer, what’s next for you? Will you stay at your new bank for some time, or are you thinking about moving to the buy-side?

A: Unlike most other bankers, I’m actually interested in staying in IB for the long-term.

Back when I was interviewing for this role, a number of distressed investment funds also approached me, but I wasn’t interested in PE back then and I’m not interested now, either.

My key issue is that you must put your own money to work to progress in PE.

It’s not just Partners investing the fund’s capital – they also put in their own funds, so a poor investment could wipe out a good chunk of your personal savings.

Yes, the pay ceiling is higher and you could make mind-boggling money – but let’s be honest, at the MD/Partner-level, the average is about the same in both industries. The outliers in PE make far more, but for me the risk isn’t worth it.

The other issue is that private equity is much less of a team environment than banking, and coming from an athletic background I enjoy working in teams more than the solo work that you see in PE.

Q: That makes a lot of sense, and that point you raised about putting your own money to work is a great one that often goes overlooked. Thanks again for taking the time out to chat, I learned a lot!

A: You’re welcome, it was my pleasure.

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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Money, Hours, Models, Bottles: Investment Banking in New York, California, and Everywhere In Between

Money, Hours, Models, Bottles: Investment Banking in New York, California, and Everywhere In Between

“Are you guys even in the office past 8 PM? Whenever I call no one’s there.”

“New York is hella lame, people are so much better out here.”

“If you say ‘hella’ again I’m going to make you pay for the bottles next time – and maybe the models too.”

“Fine, I’ll do some research and see what I can send over. NY is still overhyped, though.”

No, it’s not a short story or a new TV show about bankers – it’s a banker from NYC and one from San Francisco talking to each other.

And you read that headline correctly: today you’ll learn how banking differs in different regions of the US rather than going off on adventures to distant lands.

As one reader pointed out a while back, “Hearing about all these different countries is great, but what about how banking is different on the east coast vs. west coast of the US and everywhere in between?”

The Most Common – and Wrong – Arguments

Many people claim that the pay and hours differ significantly and that New York is more “hardcore” than other regions.

That makes sense intuitively: New York is the biggest financial center and the biggest deals tend to happen there.

But in practice, these differences are greatly exaggerated – pay is standardized at the junior levels in finance and bonuses depend more on your bank and group rather than the city you’re in.

At the senior levels, geographic differences become more important because certain offices have better deal flow and clients, and senior bankers’ bonuses depend 100% on performance.

New York bankers like to argue that they work way more than people in other regions, but there are no scientifically controlled surveys to support these claims.

Yes, maybe the hours are somewhat worse since more deals happen there – but we’re talking a difference of 85 hours per week vs. 90 hours per week: you still won’t have a life.

So the more substantial differences have nothing to do with pay or hours, but rather the industries covered, the cost of living, and the exit opportunities.

And yes, I’ll address the ever-popular models/bottles, networking, and a few other points as well.

Industries Covered

This is the main difference – banks in the top 5 cities for finance in the US focus on a different industry:

There is no “best” because it depends on what you want to do in the future and how certain you are of your career.

Some of these fields are more specialized than others; something like oil & gas requires more specific knowledge than tech or healthcare since energy companies play by different rules and require different valuation methodologies.

So if you’re already interested in a specific industry, it may be a good idea to start out in the region that focuses on that industry – but if you have no idea yet, New York is the safest bet.

Just as actors get typecast, you will get more and more pigeonholed as you move up the ladder, so you need to consider these options carefully.

One friend worked on a telecom deal at a small VC firm, then got placed into the telecom group at a boutique bank, and was then placed into the telecom group at a bulge bracket bank.

Effectively, he became “the telecom guy” all because of one small deal he worked on ages ago.

And it’s even worse once you move beyond banking: good luck interviewing for that hedge fund that wants people with European telecom merger arbitrage experience if you don’t have any.

But What About Deal Flow?

“But,” you rightly point out, “There’s a difference between deal flow, hours, and industries covered – even if you’re working a lot, you might just be building pitch books all day. And what if your industry isn’t ‘hot’ at the moment?”

I don’t disagree with you there, but it’s almost impossible to determine deal flow of specific offices without talking to real people.

So if you’re such an overachiever that you’re going to pick your bank and group based on deal flow and exit opportunities, go talk to people at the different offices you’re considering and see what they say – but keep a critical eye open because they’re likely to oversell you on everything.

And no, I’m not going to rank cities and groups by deal flow here since that changes quite frequently and since you’re likely an obsessive-compulsive person already if you’re reading this.

Cost of Living

In ancient times, New York was the most expensive city in terms of real estate, taxes, food, and so on.

Now, however, San Francisco is actually more expensive, or at least as expensive, due to the tech boom and the number of high-paid startup employees there (as of 2015).

So you are not likely to save much money during the year in either place; it’s also a bad idea to live in New Jersey or another location outside the main city to save money, since you might go insane in what little free time you have.

The “cost of living” ranking looks something like this:

  • NYC ~= SF > LA > Chicago > Houston

You will save the most money working in Houston because Texas has no state income tax, rent is ridiculously cheap, bottles are less pricey, and even the models are less demanding and will give your wallet less of a workout.

Cost of living shouldn’t be your top concern, but you should be aware of it.

Finance people are notorious for making millions of dollars and then blowing it all on luxury spending – so pay attention if you want to retire on more than $50K in that savings account you forgot about.

One other note: driving will be required in most of these places, especially in a city like LA where there is no public viable transportation.

So if you hate driving and owning a car, your best bet is New York.

NOTE: Ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft are actually changing this dynamic.

If you live relatively close to the office, you might be able to take one of those to and from work every day and gain some peace of mind in the process.

Exit Opportunities

The main problem with exit opportunities is that it’s hard to interview when you’re far away.

You need to take time off work by using questionable excuses, hope people don’t notice your repeated absences, and then visit the firm enough times to seal the deal.

Since New York to SF or LA is a 5-6 hour trek, it’s not easy to hop from banking on one coast to the buy-side on the other coast. Pretty much all the analysts I knew in California stayed there, and pretty much all the ones in New York stayed on the east coast.

So you’re more likely to stay in your first region unless you can pull off in-person trips or interview entirely via video conference (unlikely for traditional exit opportunities).

Again, people like to argue that New York has “better” exit opportunities, but plenty of analysts on the west coast and elsewhere get into mega-funds as well; it’s just that they work at local offices rather than in NYC.

One legitimate difference is that there are more exit opportunities in New York just because it’s the biggest financial center.

And you also run into the pigeonholing problem if you start out in another region: go to Houston and you’ll more than likely recruit only for energy-focused PE firms and hedge funds.

If you’re in San Francisco, you’ll be more likely to recruit for tech-focused funds, or maybe even quit finance and join a tech startup.

But aside from those differences, the actual quality of exit opportunities doesn’t differ as much as you might expect.

Got Networking?

Networking opportunities are another more significant difference, and one that people overlook all the time.

Since NYC is much bigger than the other regions, you’ll simply meet more people there and you’ll be better equipped to network your way into other roles.

Just as with other financial centers like Hong Kong and London, sometimes half the people you meet in NYC will be in finance (the other half will be “aspiring” artists or models, which is great for you as a financier).

How much does the quality of networking really matter?

It depends how certain you are of your “career path” – if you’re interested in doing tech banking and then doing venture capital in California, you’re better off starting in SF and networking with tech and VC groups there.

But if you have no industry preference, you’ll gain more options by starting out in New York.

How to Satisfy the Models

Ah, now to the fun part.

The main difference is that the New York models tend to be higher-maintenance, more expensive, and more demanding; LA comes close since everyone is required to get plastic surgery, but you’ll still spend more overall in NYC.

But flashing around wads of cash also doesn’t impress as much in New York because $200K is barely middle class – not enough to satisfy models who are expecting a new bag every day.

In all seriousness, you really will spend a lot more money going out in New York if you actually enjoy it.

LA and SF can also be expensive, while Chicago and Houston are more reasonable. Some also argue that people in the South and Midwest are “friendlier” but I don’t want to get into a debate over that one.

I’m not qualified to comment on the quality of men in each place, other than to say that SF is probably the worst place to find hot guys unless you’re into tech guys with a ton of money from startups.

(Yes, a female friend recently asked if there were a lot of tall, muscular blonde guys in SF and I started laughing.)

Recruiting

“Aha,” you say, “But even if the pay and hours are not much different, surely they must ask completely different interview questions in each region, right?”

Sorry to disappoint, but no, not really.

No one sits down and says, “Well, in Chicago we should ask this specific set of questions but in Houston it will be completely different.”

Once again, the main difference comes down to the industry focus: you don’t need to be an expert on the industry of focus in each city, but you should know something about recent deals and any industry-specific valuation methodologies.

It’s not really “easier” or “harder” to get into finance in different cities – there are fewer spots outside of New York, but there’s also less competition.

Other Regions

Yes, there are banks in places besides NYC, Chicago, Houston, SF, and LA – but the offices tend to be much smaller and they don’t always recruit on-campus.

Other cities with a presence in finance include Boston (similar to SF due to the industry focus), Washington, DC (aerospace/defense), Atlanta (lots of wealth management), Miami (healthcare, Latin America), Dallas (got equities?) and maybe a few others.

I can’t recommend starting out in these places if you have the option to go to one of the 5 major centers listed above.

Maybe if you’re interested in only a very specific industry, like aerospace and defense, then DC makes sense – but you’ll be at a disadvantage in terms of deal flow and exit opportunities.

A lot of boutiques are also based in other regions, so you should jump at the opportunity if you have nothing lined up in a bigger city – but otherwise, stick to the top 5 above.

Outside of IB: Sales & Trading, Hedge Funds, and More

You run into the same differences in other fields like private equity, sales & trading, hedge funds, and asset management: a different industry focus and more geographically limited exit opportunities.

Some cities also tend to be stronger in certain fields.

For example, Chicago is great for prop trading and the SF Bay Area is the spot to be for venture capital.

One downside to any type of markets-based role such as trading or hedge funds is that you have to wake up very early if you’re on the west coast because you work New York market hours.

If you’re fine waking up at 4 AM, getting off work at 5 PM, and sleeping at 9 PM every night, you might be OK; if you’re not a morning person, though, you may want to stay away.

So, Where Should You Work?

If you have absolutely no idea what you want to do and don’t mind spending more money, New York is your best option – there’s more networking, more opportunities, bigger deals, and you don’t even have to drive.

But if you have a more specific goal such as going into VC, joining a tech startup, or working in the oil & gas industry, you could make a good argument for starting out in a different city.

There may be slight differences in pay, hours, and how much you save in your first year (with bigger differences on that last one), but those don’t matter much in the long-term.

To figure out which office has the best deal flow, network with bankers and ask directly – that information changes quickly and you’re always better off going straight to the source.

And whatever else happens, make sure you don’t end up doing equities in Dallas.

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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Investment Banking Recruiting in the UK: All About Competency Questions, Assessment Centers and More

Assessment Centers and Competency QuestionsWhile we’ve had some good stories from readers in London recently, there hasn’t been a solid overview of recruiting in the UK – until now.

It would be easy to dismiss this and say, “Banking recruiting and interviews are the same everywhere!” – but that’s just not true.

There are huge differences in Europe and Australia compared to the US (Asia, the Middle East, South Africa, and so on are somewhere in between), and you’re going to learn how to approach everything from competency questions to assessment centers and numerical tests in this interview with a reader who just won an IB offer in London.

Background

Q: Can you tell us about your background and how you broke into the industry?

A: Sure. I went to high school in a North African country, then graduated from a top undergraduate business school in Canada, and then earned an MSc in Finance at a top university in London.

I was 100% certain I would do investment banking, but I was never able to get an internship in the industry due to personal reasons. But while I was in school I did a lot of extracurricular activities and got exposed to financial modeling through my involvement in one of the biggest student funds in Canada.

Even though I hadn’t completed an internship, I did a lot of research beforehand and was well-prepared for the full-time recruiting process at my school.

I also speak 4 languages, which is very helpful in London as language skills are more highly valued here than in North America.

Your online courses also helped me a lot and allowed me to talk about M&A deals and LBOs nearly as well as someone who had completed many M&A internships.

UK Recruiting

Q: Great, glad to hear it. You’ve lived in so many different places that you must know how recruiting differs everywhere. Can you walk us through how recruiting in the UK differs from what you see in North America?

A: Sure. Here’s how I would summarize the process:

  1. You apply online by submitting your CV, cover letter, and competency questions, and then get selected for first-round interviews based on the strength of your application.
  2. If you do well, you advance to an assessment center (rather than the Superday interviews you see in the US) and you participate in group exercises, tests, interviews, and presentations there. If you do well, you receive an offer.
  3. In addition, you also have to complete aptitude tests (numerical, verbal, and reasoning) somewhere along the way in this application process.

You might have to take them before you apply (Barclays and Credit Suisse), after your online application is screened (Deutsche Bank and UBS), or after you pass the first round of interviews (Macquarie).

Some people underestimate these tests, but they’re extremely important – banks screen candidates based on the results, and often you get rejected not because of your CV, but rather because of your test results.

If you pass the tests, recruiters will review your entire application once again and then decide whether or not they’ll invite you to interviews – the one exception is Macquarie, where you need to be successful in the first round to be invited to the exams in the first place.

Q: Awesome, thanks for the overview and for mentioning the importance of these tests. I want to jump back into that, but one other question on recruiting at a high-level: it seems there are mixed opinions on whether or not you can just apply online in Europe and get interviews without networking.

What do you think? Does that only work if you go to a top school or you get lucky?

A: Networking is important, but not as important as it is in North America – in London students apply from all over Europe and also from other places like Asia. Networking at information sessions is incredibly difficult because 20+ students surround each banker and it’s almost impossible for them to remember each student.

Unlike presentations in the US, information sessions here are aimed at students applying to full-time, internship, and spring programs (which allow 1st year students to spend 1 week at a specific bank) – since everyone goes to the presentations, the applicant pool is very large and it’s hard to stand out via networking.

It’s still important to attend the sessions because some banks ask students who came to fill in an online form – that way they can see who’s serious about working at the bank.

Q: You mentioned “competency questions” before – I’m sure UK readers are familiar with them, but for everyone else reading, what are they and how important are they?

A: Essentially they are written versions of the standard “fit” questions you receive in all interviews, but they have a word limit and you must complete them along with your online application, CV, and cover letter. Examples of competency questions for banks:

  • “What is the personal achievement you are most proud of? What did you learn from this experience and how does it set you apart from others? Please do not exceed 200 words in your answer.”
  • “One of our core values is client focus. If you were to win a new client for our firm, who would they be and how would our bank help them achieve their goals? Please do not exceed 200 words in your answer.”
  • “Describe a recent situation where you had to set extremely high standards for yourself. What did you do to achieve these standards and exceed expectations? Please do not exceed 250 words.”

An individual bank might ask between 5 and 10 of these questions and the total word count for your answers might be around 1,000 words (perhaps more if they ask more questions).

Sometimes the word count limits are much shorter as well – 50-75 words – which actually makes the questions more difficult because you must be concise.

The questions themselves are as important as the rest of your application. Since the applicant pool in London is larger and more diverse than in the US, recruiters are more selective – or at least more willing to reject someone because of small problems in their application.

Q: Do you have any tips on successfully answering competency questions? Let’s say you get a question on how well you’ve performed under pressure or with a strict deadline. How would you answer it concisely?

A: I’ve always used the techniques you recommended when answering these questions – they’re the same as normal “fit” interview questions, but in written form instead. Normally I use the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) approach:

  • Situation: We only had a few weeks left in our internship to deliver the project that the client wanted, and we were well-behind schedule.
  • Task: Finish the remaining 50% of the project, when we only had 2 weeks left and the first 50% of the project took us 8 weeks.
  • Action: I spoke to the rest of our team and decided which features were the most important to include and which ones would be time-consuming but not as useful to the client; we also leveraged the company’s resources and we found a lot of what we needed via contacts in other departments, saving us time and reducing the need to add more members to our team at the last minute.
  • Result: Despite being behind schedule, we delivered 90% of what the client wanted by the end of the internship – it wasn’t the 100% we had set out to deliver, but they were very happy with the end result and ended up giving more business to the company.

That’s just an example – in real-life you might add more details for the type of work you did, the company you worked at, and so on. But you must be concise or they won’t read your answer.

The #1 mistake applicants make is trying to sound “creative” or original when answering these questions.

Just be honest and give a genuine answer, based on a structure like the one I recommended above – they’re not testing your creativity with these questions, but rather how much you’ve learned from your experiences over time and how well you can articulate the key points.

Q: Right, so it sounds like these competency questions are not much different from the normal “fit” questions you would get in an interview. What about the aptitude tests you mentioned earlier? Any tips on what you might see on those and how to prepare?

A: They’re very similar to what you see on standardized tests such as the GMAT – the key is to practice as much as possible beforehand so that nothing surprises you.

The biggest mistake you can make with these is “dramatizing” and over-thinking the answers – on timed standardized tests that is a blunder you can’t afford to make.

They’re just like any other standardized exam: move as quickly as you can, skip anything you don’t know, and come back later to answer anything you skipped the first time. And make sure you go through at least a few practice tests before the real exam, as it’s easy to forget how to take standardized exams well if you haven’t practiced since high school.

If you want the best practice around, sign up for the online aptitude tests and package deals offered on Job Test Prep.

They have a bunch of free tests and their full courses are top-notch, with full score reports and detailed explanations.

Interviews and Assessment Centers

Q: How do you think interviews themselves in the UK differ? Do you still start by walking through your CV and answering the usual “fit” and technical questions?

A: Yes, 99% of the time interviews still start with the famous “Walk me through your CV” question. But many of the interviews here are more “fit”-focused and do not go as in-depth on the technical side. Unlike the US or Canada, most of the interview questions in London are competency-based.

In addition to your guides, I also went through every single behavioral question on this list and made sure that I could answer everything reasonably well.

M&I Note: Before someone leaves a comment saying that you received a plethora of technical questions, your experiences may vary – I’m sure that some offices and groups ask more technical questions than others, and you’ll certainly have to demonstrate technical knowledge at assessment centers (see below).

Q: So let’s say you get past the first round of interviews – what’s a typical assessment center like? How long does it last, how many people are there, and what types of exercises do you complete?

A: I thought assessment centers were more “fun” and diverse than the standard interviews you go through. Usually everything is conducted in small groups (10-20 people) and the assessment center itself lasts an entire day, similar to a Superday in the US.

You might get asked to participate in the following activities:

  • Aptitude Tests (numerical, verbal, and reasoning): They do this to see whether or not applicants cheated in the first round with these tests – since they’re online many people get friends to help or look for answers on the Internet, which are both bad ideas.
  • Individual Case Study: Sometimes you’re given a case study and are asked to analyze it and make a recommendation or decision within a fixed timeframe. Afterward you’ll have to discuss it with the recruiters.
  • Group Presentations: Here, you’re split into groups of 4-6 people and the entire group gets a case study to complete. Recruiters observe you while you work on it, and then you must present your recommendations to bankers at the end.
  • Interviews: Generally you go through 3-5 interviews, one of which is related to the group presentations and the individual case study – the other interviews are a mix of competency-based and technical questions.

Some banks like to be more creative and will ask applicants to “role-play” – for example, interviewees might be asked to act as investment bankers representing the bank, while the interviewers pretend to be potential clients.

Banks use assessment centers because traditional 1-on-1 interviews are not the best way to assess candidates – many people can sound impressive in a 30-minute interview, but fail to perform once they actually receive an offer.

The exercises at an assessment center let them assess how well you’d work in a team, present to clients, and complete other tasks as a banker.

You can read more about them on WikiJob right here.

M&I Note: I think assessment centers are a great idea and that banks in the US should use them as well. Many senior bankers wish they could give candidates a 1-week trial on the job before giving them an offer, and assessment centers would be a good proxy for that.

Q: That sounds more fun than standard final round interviews, though I can see how it could also turn into a bad reality TV show. What mistakes do candidates make at assessment centers that prevent them from getting offers?

A: The main mistake is to act like a “leader” during group work and presentations. You might assume that banks only give offers to leaders, or at least to people who are giving orders – but that’s completely wrong.

In fact, it can backfire and hurt everyone else if you try to do that.

Recruiters notice this and won’t give out offers to anyone who keeps giving orders and trying to “show off” – that means you lack leadership skills.

Meanwhile, other applicants try to talk a lot to stand out – but they don’t say anything meaningful or relevant. Rather than trying to dominate the group presentation and discussion, you should respect everyone else, listen to contributions from others, make good suggestions, and come up with solid solutions. You also want to show that you’re having fun and enjoying the experience rather than being extremely serious.

I’ve seen applicants who have remained more quiet receive offers because they’ve respected everyone else and made solid contributions when needed – those who attempt to “show off” or do all the talking generally do not receive offers.

Q: So let’s say you get a group exercise where you’re asked to analyze a company’s options – sell, acquire another company, or continue to operate as-is – and make a recommendation on what they should do. You have a few hours to prepare, and 30 minutes to present your findings.

How would you approach that question at an assessment center?

A: I had to work on a similar individual case study at an assessment center, but it was a bit shorter and they gave me the numbers, valuation, and a few DCF models.

I started by giving a brief presentation of the company – their industry, history, and most well-known products – and then I walked the recruiters through the company’s past and current strategies. I mentioned a few relevant figures such as the EBITDA and P/E multiples as well.

They had already given me the valuation and important figures such as the P/E multiple of the combined company post-acquisition, so all I had to do was show that the acquisitions in question were accretive.

I concluded by benchmarking the strategies of each potential target company against those of the acquirer – in my case each acquisition was accretive, so it was more about the strategic fit with the acquirer and which one would produce the best combined company.

The key factors in handling these exercises:

  1. Be logical – There are no correct answers most of the time, as the recruiters are just assessing how well you think and analyze problems. Focus on explaining your reasoning in detail rather than finding the “right” answer.
  2. Do not overcomplicate your presentation – Forget about fancy formatting, going through hypothetical scenarios, or adding complexities to the question. You are under extreme time pressure and do not have time to go into unnecessary detail.
  3. Be extremely structured in your response – Again, it’s better to be “boring” and follow a structure rather than showing off your creativity and confusing your interviewers. See the articles here on case studies and private equity case studies for examples.

Overall, relax and don’t dwell on every little detail – they’re also testing your ability to improvise and discuss topics you’ve recently learned about because you do that all the time as a banker.

Q: Great, thanks for all these tips and for sharing your experiences!

A: No problem – happy to contribute.

For Even More Practice…

For even more practice with numerical, verbal and logical aptitude tests and assessment centers in general, check out Job Test Prep and all their test prep offerings.

They have our highest recommendation for online tests and assessment center prep – and their courses are the single best way around to prepare for EMEA recruiting.

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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