Given that we’re approaching graduate recruitment season, I thought I’d tell you a bit about what we look for in the interview process, and how you can put yourself in the best possible position to secure a graduate job. Some of this advice is common sense, and some of it you can read about on careers websites – but what I’m also hoping to do is give you the inside track on what we’re really thinking when we meet with candidates.
So, as a starting point, before you embark on any recruitment process the most obvious thing to consider is what you yourself can offer to a potential employer and how best to represent that. In that sense, you should think about your CV as a roadmap – the first opportunity you have to take an interview in the direction you want it to go in.
What does that NOT mean? It doesn’t mean altering your grades to the ones you think you should have got, or the dates of your internship to look more substantial, but it does mean focusing attention on the things you think are most relevant rather than the things that fill up space.
CV applications for banking roles tend to have several things in common – you’ll likely have a strong academic background and excellent exams results, a Bachelors and perhaps a Masters from a reputable university and likely – though not always – in a related subject – be it Maths, Economics, Finance or so on.
When it comes to the subject you’ve studied at university it’s fair to say that UK employers, in particular, tend to be open to candidates from Science or Humanities fields, and in fact some actively look for the sort of diversity that this can bring, so please don’t ever feel that you need to justify this choice – if you loved History, or Engineering, or Classics, then say so, and tell us how it’s shaped your perspective.
Whatever your degree subject, the second thing that any employer will look for is a demonstrable interest in the work that they do – ideally this will be in the form of an internship, something which will give you a bit of tangible experience and to show, ultimately, that you know what you’re getting yourself into – and after what might be a tough summer that you’re still keen to work in banking! If you don’t have an internship – and frankly, these can be almost as hard to secure as graduate roles – then that doesn’t have to be the end of the world.
Whether it’s the campus societies you’re involved in, the short educational courses you might take, or the subject you choose to complete your dissertation in, there are lots of ways to demonstrate and to bolster your knowledge of the industry you’re applying to. And if all else fails, go along to some industry conferences, do some creative Googling, read Barbarians at the Gate – it all helps.
Finally, employers will also be looking for a glimpse of your personality behind all of the information on your CV, and whether you know it or not we do take an interest in your hobbies and extra-curricular activities: it’s good to see that your worldview extends beyond the City and that you’re capable – until you start work at any rate – of spending time focusing on something other than your studies or career.
Honestly, for us this can sometimes be the difference between picking up the phone and not picking up the phone – I did call the candidate who won a medal for bravery after saving a drowning child from a river; I did not call the candidate who had a stated interest in parallel parking.
I’m sure everyone here is familiar to some extent or another with the graduate recruitment process – while some of the details may differ, most firms will follow the same basic process, and at each stage they’ll be looking for slightly different things.
A short telephone interview is usually the starting point
It’s likely to cover your CV and background in fairly light detail, as well as your motivations for wanting to work in the industry and at this firm specifically. In all honesty in a phone interview and in limited time it’s difficult to ‘sell’ yourself and your experience well, and perhaps it’s even tougher in a video interview – my best advice would be to be well-researched and thoughtful about which roles and which firms you apply to, and to be familiar enough with both to be able to have a short conversation off the cuff.
Don’t get flustered by being put on the spot, and remember that a little enthusiasm goes a long way. The next stage is likely to be a more detailed face-to-face interview and so at this point you’re just trying to show enough interest and potential for them to invest the time in meeting you – at the other end of the phone, what we’re thinking is ‘do I want to spend an hour of my very busy day with this person?’.
In simple terms, you’ll be expected to talk through your academic background and work experience in detail, focusing particularly on what you’ve learned and achieved in that time, to show logical and thoughtful decision-making along the way, and to articulate career aspirations that make sense given everything you’ve just said.
In terms of industry content, you’ll have a broad understanding of macroeconomic conditions and how that might impact on the industry, you’ll show an insight into industry trends (perhaps within a particular sector or segment of the market), and you’ll be able, crucially, to provide your own opinion on what’s happening.
When it comes to the employer you’re interviewing with, you’ll obviously know their website and their transactions back-to-front, but that’s only useful if you’re also able to discuss why that type of organisation and those sorts of transactions are specifically of interest to you. I think the rule in this respect is roughly the same as the rule for cover letters – if you can take out the name of the firm you’re applying to and put in the name of their closest competitor and have your statement still make sense, then your research has been too basic.
Finally, you’re likely to be asked about your knowledge of the technical skill set involved day-to-day – in M&A, this means financial modelling and valuation methods. While I can’t give you any shortcuts here, what I would recommend is understanding the fundamental concepts behind the valuation method your describing – trying to memorise an abstract formula before an interview doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that you understand its application to a real, commercial organisation with bank loans and electricity bills to pay, delivery trucks to service and products to sell.
Far better to feel confident that you understand what information you’re trying to capture with any valuation method than to rely on your memory to recite back what you’ve learned. Bearing all of that in mind, I’m going to come right out and say it from my own perspective as an interviewer – interviewing candidates is Hard. Work.
We meet lots and lots of people every recruitment cycle, and while the top 5% (and actually, the bottom 5%) of candidates tend to be very easy to identify, the real challenge is in distinguishing between the remaining 90%. What that means for you is that whether you love them or whether they fill you with a total sense of dread, it’s so important to be able to communicate your potential to your interviewer and to give us some sense of who you are and what you’d be like to work with.
Some interviewers call it the airport test– if you were on a business trip and your flight home was delayed, would you be able to make conversation for a couple of hours in the departure lounge. So treat interviews almost in the same way you’d treat a tutorial – turn up having done the background reading, and expect to be challenged along the way, but engage with the questions and hope to have an interesting conversation – it’s what we’ll be hoping for!
If you’re able to navigate the early stage interviews then the chances are you’ll find yourself at Partner interviews or – much more likely at graduate level – an Assessment Day. There are usually a number of different elements to an Assessment Day – lots of interviews, perhaps a presentation, probably a group exercise, and all sorts of variations on those activities. I’d imagine that most people in this room have been to at least one Assessment Day, and we all know that they can be stressful set-ups – put thirty people in a room together, tell them you’ll be making five offers, and then ask them to work together for the next six hours.
It’s difficult, and people who do the best at Assessment Days tend to be the ones who manage to put aside any competitive feeling and focus on taking a positive and proactive part in what’s going on. Honestly, we give the same Assessment Day advice out year in, year out – don’t be the one who talks over everybody else, don’t be the one who barely says a word, don’t be the one who turns up late or manages to insult half the Analyst class over lunch.
Still we do see people falling into those traps, but really it isn’t an opportunity to sharpen your elbows (that’s an incredibly high-risk strategy by the way and one that rarely works) – approach any group projects collaboratively, be encouraging to the people around you, and – especially if you find those situations more daunting than most – do make sure you contribute something to the conversation.
Assessment Day interviews can also be tricky – what you may not realise, having spent several days diligently preparing beforehand, is that the banker interviewing you may only have looked at your CV thirty seconds before you walked into the room. They’re probably snowed under with work, possibly very stressed out, and almost certainly eager to get back to their desk to do some work – not easy to make a good impression then!
Your job in that situation is to make their life while they’re interviewing you as easy as possible – that means bringing some energy and enthusiasm to the interview, offering a good level of detail in the answers you’re giving, and engaging with the questions so that what you’re saying is thoughtful and (hopefully) interesting. Most interviewers aren’t out to give you a hard time, and if they find the exchange with you interesting and engaging, then that’s the overriding memory they’ll have at the end of the day when it comes to making decisions.
Finally, use the Assessment Day as an opportunity to get to know the firm better – I know the focus of this conference is very much on how to secure a graduate role, but I can’t emphasise enough the importance of starting out your career in a business where you get on well with the people you meet, where you’re genuinely excited about the work they do, and which will give you the best platform to build the foundations of the next couple of decades.