How to get an investment banking job without top grades and work experience
Getting an investment banking job – without an excellent background
Have you heard about the new joiner at Goldman Sachs? The guy has – wait for it – 11 previous internships and 10 job offers! It gets worse. There are actually two guys like this – Haydn Pole and Shuaib Chowdhary, both with 11 internships, who joined Goldman Sachs in 2014.
No need to point the obvious. Unfortunately the tales of over-achievers in investment banking are completely true. Just look at any top bank’s analyst class. There will be some irrefutable similarities between all the new joiners: impeccable academics, well-known university and employer names, and some over-impressive extracurriculars.
Case in point – Charles-Henry Beglin. Typical portrait of an investment banker. Joined JP Morgan in 2014. Interned in Rothschild’s M&A department, private equity firm and Ernst & Young. Has achieved top GPA in his degree in Master of Management from the major French business school – HEC Paris. During his time at school headed a consulting association and participated in the rugby club and HEC Fight club (white collar boxing). This is a typical investment banker stereotype. Top school, diverse yet relevant work history, clear interest in finance and some odd-ball (but not too much) extracurriculars to make you seem just the right degree of interesting.
Feeling nauseous reading this? I did too. Sitting in the assessment centre next to Wharton MBA and Oxford Engineering Master, in front of the guy cockily boasting he has already got 6 offers with top banks.
Truth is – getting an investment banking job is incredibly tough. Only 2-3% out of thousands applicants get an offer every year.
If you apply – you are up against some of the most distinguished candidates from all over the word. And it is understandable why banks don’t want to consider anyone with mediocre grades or no previous experience. They don’t need to gamble if they already have a huge pool of absolutely flawless candidates.
But. There is always a but. Look at it from another angle. Because all the candidates are so similar something like good grades or prestigious internship does not automatically qualify you as a good applicant. It merely makes you eligible. That’s why in every new analyst class there are always a few black swans, weirdos – that got in despite all the odds. People from an unknown state school, those who worked as chefs or models, and some that did not work at all.
Although standard investment banking qualifications are important – there are many more components to getting the investment banking job. Firstly, there are some application hacks that will allow you to spin and “ibify” your previous experience. Secondly, there is always a chance to get a job purely through networking. And of course luck. And there is also a story. Your story. Which – if you make it unique – can get you into banking regardless of how qualified you are.
Problem #1: I’ve graduated from a second-tier university.
My condolences. I did too. Not a disaster. You resume won’t be as eye-catching as of someone who studied in Harvard or Cambridge. But there are ways to remedy for that. Firstly, if you already have a prestigious internship on your resume the problem is practically solved. Impressive work experience overwrites education. Just make sure to move it to the top of your resume and highlight your achievements.
If work experience is not an option – think of an exchange semester / online courses / part-time degree. Maybe that one was from a more notable school? Maybe your degree and grades are absolutely incredible – even for the second-tier school? Or you got a scholarship (which signals you were an excellent student)?.
If your answer to these questions is “None of the above” – your best chance is to network. That is one universal fix for any kind of background / qualification problem. If it doesn’t help – just keep up building your CV. Or get another degree.
Problem #2: I have a non-finance related degree.
The easiest one to handle. Banks love to hire people from various disciplines. If you have a good GPA for your degree it will be enough to show you are an excellent applicant. In this case all you need to do is clearly show your interest in finance. This can be done through listing finance-related courses taken (Corporate Finance, Mergers & Acquisitions), extracurriculars (investment society) or financial qualifications (CFA). If you have not done any of the above, try to at least highlight projects that were numbers-heavy (market assessment or business valuation).
Problem #3: My grades are far from ideal.
As I’ve covered before, banks look for at least 2:1 degree in UK or 3.5 GPA in US. The grades themselves are not important – the GPA is just an easy universal metrics to disqualify half of the applicants. Truth is – once you get in the interview room no one will really care about the grades. Once you talk to a person one on one – it’s quite easy to explain you were working while studying or just had a disastrous freshmen year. Trick is to land that interview. There are a few good solutions that can help you:
1) Find mitigating circumstances
Usually at the end of your application there is a box asking if there were any extenuating circumstances that might have affected your performance. Death of a family member or an accident might counter bad performance. If your excuse is good enough (running family business or founding a new charity foundation) your application will be considered despite the bad grades.
2) Have an outstanding extracurriculars or achievements outside academics that might explain bad grades
A good example is a Yale graduate who was so engrossed in organizing a national Korean conference he practically never showed up for classes. The event was a smashing success: it attracted 2,000 attendees and generated $500,000. And even though his grades hit rock-bottom, he had no troubles winning over grades-obsessed interviewers. Despite the GPA of 3.1 he got an offer with Goldman Sachs. The bank appreciated his business acumen, enthusiasm and organisational skills. Similar solutions would be having a good internship for a company with a well-recognisable name: you can counter bad grades with a compelling story on the added value to firm’s performance.
3) Pass CFA qualification or show a high GMAT score
This will demonstrate that regardless of bad academics you have strong numerical skills and interest in finance.
4) Be creative about the way you demonstrate GPA on the resume
And I don’t mean lie. Actually never lie on your resume – the information provided will be easily verified before you start the job. Rather, experiment with fonts, font sizes, bold / un-bold or wording. Highlight your other achievements or experiences. Round up your GPA (going from 3.42 to 3.5 is absolutely fine). List grades for specific relevant courses (like 4.0 in Finance) or highlight the GPA for your major. Whatever works.
Problem #4: I don’t have any relevant experience.
Best solution is to get one. Look at smaller banks or boutique firms in your region. It does not have to be an investment bank per se: private equity firms or hedge funds will fit in perfectly. Accounting, consulting, venture capital or corporate development internships work great too. If you have difficulties getting in, try offering to work for free. It is far from ideal, but can help with smaller companies, especially if you are a recent graduate without any work experience. Just say you are really eager to learn and want to prove yourself on the job. If none of this works, get any internship you can. Industry job or startup. Any work experience is better than a blank – and you can always try to spin it around and highlight tasks relevant for the investment banking job.
Getting in is much easier if you have an interesting story to tell. Take Emily Mirchandani, who recently joined JP Morgan. She gained a degree in biochemistry and worked as an on-house Abercrombie & Fitch model for nearly 6 years. She tried to gain finance experience before applying to show her motivation, interning at Lloyd’s, FTI Consultants, Rathbones and even financial PR company.
Lesson learned: you can always “ibify” your experience. Almost everyone has performed some kind of research activities, either in school or in their job. Most of us had to present at one time or another. Think along the lines of industry research, investment presentations (or just presentations), building Excel models, project execution, etc.
Finally, brainstorm about specific expertise you might have. Investment banks often look for people to fill in particular positions – either in industry teams (technology, energy, financial institutions) or geography teams (German, French, Emerging Markets). I am sure you have knowledge related to some of these. Make emphasis on it in your application – and you will already be considered as a valuable asset for the firm.
Problem #5. I don’t have any extracurricular activities to list.
You probably do. You just need to think carefully about it. Sports, volunteer work, research and corporate projects, climbing Everest or sky-diving. All are viable options.
Extracurriculars won’t only cover your weak academic spots, but if impressive – they can give you a significant edge over other candidates. The reason for it is very simple. Nobody wants to hire an academic prodigy that would not be able to sustain a casual conversation with a senior banker or a client for a few minutes.
A universal fix to all the problems
Networking. One solution that can override bad grades, lack of experience or wrong degree. Referral from someone inside the bank will instantly move your application to the top of the pile. It might not get you a job – but it will get you an interview. And that is all you need.
In US networking is an essential part of job application. It is much less so in all the other regions where you can get in simply through the online application. But it will never hurt. Worst case scenario – even if you don’t get a referral, you can still get valuable insights about culture of the bank, application process or tips on how to get in.
Focus on the following strategies when networking:
#1. Make Linkedin your new best friend.
Utilise your existing connections. Look for people with connections inside the banks. Ask your friends / relatives / acquaintances for introductions.
#2. Leverage university connections.
Talk to alumni office – they should have at least a few people who already made it to banking. Get their contacts and arrange to meet up. Don’t forget about your professors too – they might have good connections to professionals in the industry.
#3. Focus on building relationships.
Attend company events, information sessions at university, job fairs etc. Even if you do not meet anyone from investment banking specifically – it still helps. Many industry professionals have connections with financial firms. Be nice – and they can get you referrals to boutique firms or local merchant banks.
#4. Emailing and cold-calling.
I’ve known a lot of people for whom this strategy helped to secure the job. Problem is – you have to be persistent, and confident when you speak. It will be difficult to get to talk to the right person (associate and higher) who has any power over recruitment process. If you are keen – start calling or emailing. The worst that can happen – the person on the other line will tell you he is not interested. But if you have a good story – and you are persistent, you will probably get at least a few leads. It’s just a statistical probability.
Getting the interview you want is only one step. Be prepared to face many questions on your background:
“Why are you interested in finance?”
“Why did you choose to go to this specific university?”
“Any reason behind the low GPA?”
Have an interesting an engaging story to tell. Prepare in advance. Be honest – investment bankers can easily sniff bullshit. There is nothing wrong with having a bad GPA because you worked to pay your tuition fees. Or having a degree in Literature because you are passionate about the subject.
Just explain your situation as it is – and then emphasise why you are interested in investment banking. Don’t talk in general phrases. “I want to learn” or “I like finance” definitely won’t be enough. Link your answer to the experience in the past.
Say, you worked for an industry company. You can always tell that you enjoyed the work a lot, but you are looking to have a bigger picture. You want to work on more high-profile deals – and understand the industry landscape better.
What if these don’t work?
If investment banking job is really your goal, it might take some time to build up on your application. I knew the guy who applied for two years straight. His degree was not from a top school – so he took another Master. His job experience was next to none – so in a year of studying he got two internships,. His technical knowledge was poor – so he kept studying and going for interviews. For two years he was stuck in the infinite loop of rejection. But working so hard on building up his profile he was getting more and more invites for interviews and building his network at the same time. After dozen of interviews he got an offer of his dream – Energy team at Goldman Sachs.
I know you probably don’t want to waste two years applying. And probably you won’t need to. Just focus on filling in the most critical blanks in your application. Highlight your accomplishments. Start applying early. Be persistent and don’t give up. After all, multiple rejections is an integral part of any application process. And whenever you are rejected – ask for the feedback on your application. It will help to know where to concentrate your efforts.
Above all – put a lot of effort into your resume. It is one thing that can ultimately make all the difference. Follow the steps in our Insider Guide to highlight the right accomplishments and “ibify” your CV. Or read up more on the perfect investment banking resume here. Once you learn how to present yourself correctly – you will be more than half way to your dream job.