If you are non-finance major from a non-target school, like myself, then it is essential that you take the time to read my friend, Anish Patel’s quick series on recruiting into finance from a non-target school, as well as interview tips and advice. In this article, I will discuss my experience recruiting for an investment banking internship from a non-finance major.
I was a late financial bloomer. I never planned to work in finance and actually resented the idea throughout high school, for whatever reason. I entered university as an engineering major with no clear idea of a career path that really intrigued me. I am also a varsity athlete. The first summer after school I did not attempt to find an internship and instead trained and worked as a landscaper.
Returning as a sophomore, I enrolled in an entrepreneurship related minor program in the hopes of merging engineering and enterprise in some unknown way. Mid-way through, I dropped this program in favor of a business/finance minor, that I would need to wait until my junior year to begin. The summer following my sophomore year, I worked in engineering research, waiting until I began my minor to pursue legitimate finance related gigs (do not do this if you are a sophomore). The decision to pursue finance was a function of several things. First, I realized quite quickly that the engineering profession, in most cases, was not my cup of tea. Second, the business school of my university, where most of my close friends take classes, is filled with student’s aspiring to get to Wall Street, and this may or may not have rubbed off on me and activated my competitive streak. Third, a function of the prior two, I matured significantly over two years, and let go of my resentment of the industry to realize that there are plenty of very exciting opportunities to be had.
I’m hoping that you can relate. If so, you’ve probably done some research and realized how hyper-competitive recruiting onto the street, or into a F500 company, can be, and you’re probably wondering what exactly to do in order to get into a top program. Hopefully, my story and insight can give you most importantly, confidence, and ideally, a plan of attack for effectively breaking in. There is a quite a bit to cover, and I made my best to attempt to organize in a most logical fashion, so please bear with me.
When I decided that I wanted to give finance a shot, I was a junior non-finance major with no relevant coursework, no relevant work experience, and no clear idea of what the industry really was. It all looked the same to me. What kept my resume afloat was my GPA and athletics. So, I made some adjustments to it that I thought geared it towards finance, wrote a nice generic cover letter, joined the university job site, and applied to positions in consulting, investment banking, sales and trading, and anything finance related I could find. This is at least proactive, and essential down the line. However, with my resume unseen by experienced eyes and no idea of what I wanted to do within finance, it was largely useless.
Do some significant research and decide what it is exactly that you want to do within finance. By this, I mean choosing between sales & trading, investment banking, equity research, and consulting (not really finance, but a very similar feel in terms of recruiting and selectivity). Throw corporate finance at a large company in there as well, if that interests you.
With all of the applications I put in to random companies in random industries, I ended up doing phone interviews for several that I really knew nothing about. This was good, but unnecessary experience. Do yourself a favor and find what appears to be the most interesting path to you and hone in from that start.
I found my industry more or less by chance when a friend with a similar background recommend I join that industry specific club at our school. This was THE most important step for me on the road to landing internship offers.
Join finance related (preferably industry specific) clubs at your school and seek out the senior members for advice, as they will hopefully be those who have had an internship and really know their stuff (as was in my case). The best clubs may require an application and interview to be accepted. Of course, joining multiple clubs is only a good thing, and certainly not a waste of time. Also, reaching out to an experienced professor to discuss your plans/goals would not be a bad idea so you have an additional advisor in the process.
I began to seriously prepare for interview season about midway through September (the beginning) of my junior year. There are several aspects of this preparation, which I categorize into soft skill interview prep, technical interview prep, and networking. Beginning to prepare, without a prior base of knowledge and with only one month until the interviews, is not smart. Ideally, you should give yourself at least several months.
Keep in mind that the following advice is as specific as I can get, and you will need to take these general guidelines and work within them in order to develop yourself as a candidate and get the offer.
As it is the all-important document that will be responsible for getting you into the interview, taking care of your resume is first on the list. My resume needed an overhaul, mainly in terms of formatting and ordering, as well as the depth of descriptions of prior experience. There is a certain format that finance recruiters like to see when flipping when through a large stack, and if your resume stands out, it may look amateur. It is essential to have several experienced eyes review your resume before any recruiters or important connections see it.
In terms of how you describe your past experiences, try and bring everything back to developing skills that are useful in finance, i.e. analytical ability. But, do not attempt, for example, to say that your summer abroad in Rome helped to develop your analytical ability. Keep things straightforward and only ever so slightly exaggerated.
As a non-finance major, you will, without a doubt, get this question in each and every interview: So, why “______ ?” Insert investment banking, sales & trading, what have you. You will also, of course, get a related group of follow up questions aimed at sorting out if you, a non-finance major, are really cut out for this career. [Side note: Take advantage of Google to find some very comprehensive question and answer lists that are definitely helpful, technical questions as well] So just as you think about ordering your resume to convey your story to the recruiter, think about how you will describe yourself and your interest in the specific job in the context of an interview.
Before you go into any interview, you must craft your short-but-sweet story about the transition from interest in your major to an interest in what you’re interviewing for. Before any industry related questions, you will always begin an interview responding to, “Walk me through your resume,” or “Tell me about yourself.” This is an opportunity to show, not only that you have prepared for this, not only that the layout of your resume and story are interconnected, but that your strong desire to work in this industry is very genuine. Your story may begin wherever you feel is relevant and must quickly reach that special turning point(s) where you decided that finance was the career for you. Do not make the mistake of coming across as just wanting to give it a shot, as your interviewer will quickly dismiss you. Importantly, be ready to have a conversation about every single line on your resume. I took French from pre-school through my junior year of high school, but I elected to remove it from my resume, because in the odd chance that the interviewer spoke French, I knew I was not comfortable to casually converse in the language.
Obviously delivering this idealistic story about your newfound love of finance is easier said than done. So, in order to accomplish this: take advantage of any finance related practice interviews organized by your school, visiting firms, or even a knowledgeable student (maybe in your club). More important than practice interviews is to apply to real interviews with every firm (in your industry) that you possibly can. The only bar that you should set in terms of your success in these first few interviews is to remain calm and deliver your story and other responses with confidence.
In the competitive world of Wall Street interviews, a non-finance major needs to master both the behavioral and technical sections of the interview in order to land an offer. The soft skills will get you through the first part of the interview, and will have your interviewer feeling good and almost forgetting that you appeared to have a slight disadvantage at the start. People may say that you will not get technical questions because you are a non-finance major, and that may be true in some cases, but I received a wide range of technical questions in nearly all of my interviews, especially first round. The first instance of a technical question is often a major turning point of an interview, especially for someone without a finance background. Essentially, the soft skills reflect your promise and the technical skills are the proof — the back up to demonstrate that you really do care about finance. So, If you begin with a decent story, managing to convince the interviewer you at least are willing to learn and work hard, and then you can also calmly walk through a DCF and speak to the theory behind LBOs, your non-finance background will instantly become an asset rather than a disadvantage. The interviewer will remember you as the “________” major who proved he or she really wants to work by having taught him or herself the same things that the other candidates had the luxury of learning in class for the last two years. That’s your ticket. You will stand out not only from the other non-finance candidates by a mile, but from finance candidates as well.
With that said, in my personal experience, as I progressed through the interviews and became more fluent, I preferred technical questions over fit and behavioral based questions. In general, there seems to be a limit that can be reached for technicals, and the more interviews you do, the larger your question archive becomes. In contrast, it is maybe a slight challenge to remain genuine as you reach your 10th or 12th fit interview, but worse, there is always potential to receive a legitimate question that has never even crossed your mind. So, always have a handful of go-to life experiences in your back pocket that can spun in several different but convincing ways.
The primary way to accomplish a certain level of technical proficiency is to read, with assistance. Try to get your hands on a copy of the Vault or WSO guides. Otherwise, do some research and find a great free website or maybe even buy the guide or a textbook. When I say “read, with assistance,” I mean that you should have a go-to person (again, in your club) to ask about ANYTHING that you don’t very clearly understand from your studies. Memorizing formulas and steps from a guide, and not understanding concepts, may only carry you part of the way. I studied for these interviews as I would for a test, every night, and gave them equal weight to my academic priorities. It is totally essential.
The second way is one we’ve already covered: interview as much as you can. Of course, at the beginning of the process you will be less fluent both in your technical and soft skills, so, ideally, you would want your top targets to be later in the interview season. However, you do not control this. So, another piece of advice: While it is reasonable to aim for the top two or three firms in your industry, do not let this aim cloud your judgement and hinder your preparation. Prepare for each interview like it is the only one, but also realize that your interviewing abilities will improve at an increasing rate as the process moves along. Do not be discouraged if your first interview or two or three don’t go as well as planned, and one of those also happened to be with a firm where you really wanted to work. Rather, move on quickly and know that there are plenty of amazing places to work for your first experience in finance despite what the blogs may say. Also, an internship does not mean a full-time career.
At this point in the process, my resume was revised and looking great. I was continually internalizing (not memorizing) my story and ideal answers to other soft questions. I was studying the technicals as much as I could and was bouncing questions off of someone with some practical knowledge. I was applying to all relevant resume drops and internship positions as they appeared on my school website or (very rarely) the firms website. Now as my interview schedule started to fill up, there was only one piece missing from the puzzle…
Although mentioned last, networking is an active process, and should be started early and ramped up over the course of the interview process. It is one of the harder exercises because at times it may feel forced or useless. However, so often one good connection can lead directly to an offer. Networking, excluding cold calling (which you may resort to), depends largely on the opportunities around you.
My most essential network came through friends and their family and friends. Your pre-existing network is probably larger than you think! Outside of this, though, I had little to no network at any of the firms as I headed in to first round interviews. The bulk of my network consisted mainly of my first round interviewers, who were usually younger employees that I could hopefully impress and find some common ground with. That, and friendly senior bankers who I met at networking events and who specifically encouraged me to reach out. Getting through the first round interviews is really on you, but these are great people to call once you know that you’re moving to the next round. Definitely ask for some phone time for questions and potentially interview prep before moving on to the more challenging rounds. Ultimately, for me, networking actually proved to be an enjoyable and extremely valuable process, allowing me to form relationships and feel connected all around the street.
With all of that said, I encourage you to diligently prepare, to be confident, and to think about what lies ahead of you in very simple terms. Talking to business students whose only dreams are to be at bulge bracket banks, or reading blog debates filled with extremely opinionated young professionals, can be very intimidating and discouraging. Do your best to take the value out of anything you hear/read, but know that you are preparing for an interview process and career that is not so much unlike every other. It doesn’t require a finance degree, a target school education, or even a list of connections, and there are PLENTY of people all across the Street that can attest to that. Yes, it requires hard work, it’s more intimidating, more challenging in some ways, and generally more culture intensive…but that’s why you’re interested, isn’t it?
Best of luck