I am still not sure if this will add any value or if anyone will find this useful, but I've seen a couple of "Too old to break into IB?" topics lately and I thought I'd share my journey with you. The advice and stories I've read on this forum have helped me maintain my sanity after more rejections than I wish to remember.
The following story is not a story of someone from a troubled background, poor family or anything that would excuse my failures. I simply made poor choices along the way, for which I had to pay the price. My story begins with me just having graduated from high school and it's a long and complicated one, so bear with me or skip ahead to the last few paragraphs.
18 years old
University is free back home, and since my high school grades were decent, I was good at maths and had no clue what I wanted to do next, I enrolled in a five year joint BSc and MSc programme in mathematics. Boy, was that a mistake!
After one semester I hated it and decided to take a break from uni to pursue a career as a painter and theatre designer. Wrap your head around that! I still look back and want to timetravel and bitchslap 18 year-old me.
19 - 22 years old
While I was passionate about art, I was utterly mediocre at it. Combine that with the fact that being an artist, even a talented one, doesn't pay sufficiently to make a living, reality came knocking after three years of failing to make it in my poorly chosen pursuit. I needed to do something else in my life, but I had no clue where to start. Hence, not knowing what else to do, I went back to uni to finish my degree.
22 - 25 years old
3 years passed by and I was sick of it. I simply was not interested in math. I had to push through and figure out what I would do afterwards. I had somehow managed to pass all the courses and all I had left to do was to write a dissertation to get my degree. I didn't write my dissertation. Instead, I took a second break from uni to start my own business.
25 - 27 years old
I don't know whether I had a high level of risk-tolerance or whether I was simply unaware of the risk involved, but after a series of discussions with my best friend, we decided to start our own business. I was still a student while he had just graduated. We had a decent idea and a solid network of people who would be our potential first clients, so after conducting market research and writing a business plan, we dove in. We bootstrapped the whole thing, and what followed was the two most fun and stressful years of my life.
Aggressive sales, technology and complementary skill sets enabled us to grow the company rapidly. We had 10 employees after one year, captured more than 50% of the market share, revenues were 6 figures and we maintained great margins.
This was my first contact with accounting and finance. Somewhere along the way, I started reading about finance; anything I could get my hands on. I also had money for the first time in my life. I was fulfilled and happy, until I wasn't anymore.
After two years of running the business, an external investor approached me and asked to buy my shares at an attractive price. I knew that my partner did not want any outsiders in the company, so being a good friend and valuing my friendship with the guy, I offered him to buy me out at the same price. No competition, no bullshit. He agreed and to this day we still have a great relationship.
27 - 28 years old
The next natural step for me was to write my damn dissertation and finally get the godforsaken maths degree. However, obligations came knocking: the military. You see, military service is mandatory in my country for a year. While completing my military service, I also managed to finish my dissertation and got the degree. Mid-summer of 2014, I was honorably discharged, had my degree and still had no clue what I would do next.
28-29 years old
I thought maybe I should do something related to consulting or finance. At least, those were careers that had piqued my interest in the past. Or perhaps, I would do a MSc degree somewhere in western Europe. I started researching the world of finance. Eventually, WSO was one of the sites I came across. I read and read; forums, textbooks, financial modelling guides, guides about how to tailor your CV and cover letter for investment banking positions. If you haven't checked out the IB Interview Prep Course, you definitely should.
I became obsessed. I liked financial modelling, I liked the work that I thought analysts do, so I started applying to positions in London: Off-cycle internships and graduate schemes. I was technically after all, a recent graduate and I also had a unique background. I thought that maybe "I might actually stand a chance" since banks boast on their websites how they welcome diversity and people from various backgrounds, I thought naively.
Right. Out of 100 applications in 4 months, I was invited to only one phone interview. One. And they rejected me of course.
I was 1,500 miles away from London, with no opportunity to network, and a degree from an unknown - to U.K. recruiters - university, which had taken me 10 years to complete. None of my friends or acquaintances even knew what investment banking was; my only source of knowledge and advice was the internet.
And the internet unanimously concluded that I would need some relevant experience under my belt and an MSc degree from the UK if I wanted to stand a chance in recruiting.
So I did what came naturally to me. I went to the offices of a regional bank (multiple times) and offered to work for free in their investment banking division. After two weeks, they interviewed me and I broke in. They didn't have an internship programme, but I guess they liked my persistence or it was pure luck.
December 1st 2014 was my first day at work. There was no training provided and I was initially given menial tasks. Fast forward a few months, I built solid relationships with the team and was given increasingly more responsibility. I had a very close relationship with an MD. He essentially made me his analyst and even tried to get the bank to pay me something, though he didn't succeed. However, I was slowly building my skill set, forming relationships with people in the industry and getting staffed on deals.
Subsequently, the MD encouraged me to apply to an MSc programme in London, which I did and to which I was accepted.
29-30 years old
In the summer of 2015, the bank offered me an analyst position. Bear in mind that although the pay did not compare with pay in western Europe, the economic and political situation in my country was extremely unstable. A "stable" job in an environment like that would have been a blessing to most people. I rejected the offer with the goal to complete an MSc in London and then pursue a career in the city. The people close to me thought I had lost it (to be fair, it wasn't the first time the thought had crossed their mind).
Some insight on how I chose the uni and the MSc programme
Let me make a distinction first. It's not necessarily true that a uni's graduate programme will place as well in IBD as the same uni's undergrad programme. I know because I checked. I checked hundreds of LinkedIn profiles to see specifically where graduate programmes were placing their students. University rankings do not matter. The only thing that matters is how well a uni places at the firms you want to work.
For EU students who don't have a BSc from a UK uni, even if you do a MSc in the UK, recruiters and HR will still prefer people who got their BSc at a UK uni. However, this shouldn't stop you from doing a MSc in the UK or apply for positions. Just be aware of how you are perceived.
I knew that Oxbridge, LSE, LBS, Imperial and Warwick were the main targets for IBD, but I also knew that they would reject me. I applied to LSE which rejected me. And then there were the semi-targets. Location and being able to network was extremely important to me so I chose to attend a uni that is in London and is below LSE, LBS and Imperial in terms of placement (you can probably guess which one).
I arrived in London and the uphill battle continued. The university in London was good, and they pride themselves on having an excellent careers office. No. The careers office, and probably most careers offices, provide excellent advice to clueless foreigners who have never written an application in their life. But if you know how to write a cover letter and a CV (get some feedback from people in the industry), a careers office will not add any value. Just check the page where they post available positions. They did organize a career fair at the beginning of the first semester and I met some people whom I still keep in touch. They also brought in some speakers from the industry, but those people rarely stayed for networking after their speech. So after going to a couple of these events, I realized that I can spend those two hours more efficiently, so I re-calibrated my approach:
a) Submit a large volume of online applications either on the company's website or on the countless jobsites that exist.
Surprisingly, applying online in the UK is not the black hole that is in the US. A well-written cover letter and CV does actually go a long way (if anyone actually reads them). Trust me on that. I have helped more classmates than you can imagine with their cover letters and CVs. The ones they sent or wanted to send before editing were horrific. Do not overestimate the competition.
b) Following-up after an application to any company, I went on LinkedIn and connected with people who worked there.
I sent them a short message, where I introduced myself, told them I had already applied to the company and asked them to have a quick conversation over coffee or over the phone. Almost 1 out of 5 agreed. Every person that was either an alumnus or came from my country agreed to meet me. All levels. From analysts to MDs. Also, most Americans agreed to meet with me. I guess they're more used to networking like that.
Another thing that I learned through this process is that at Bulge Brackets, MDs can help after your CV has passed the HR screening process; not before, at least that's what they told me. Does that mean that you shouldn't try to meet them? No! Meet everyone. Leave no stone unturned.
c) If I applied to a smaller company and no one connected with me on LinkedIn, I waited for a few days and then called them.
I asked if they received my application and told them that the position was my dream job and that I would love to work for them. I received three interviews on the spot using this method.
d) I joined a relevant society (M&A, PE, Investing, etc) at uni and took up a leadership role.
At the beginning of the year, there will be many enthusiastic classmates who will want to participate in societies. As schoolwork piles up and becomes increasingly demanding, people will give up. Out of the initial 40-50 people in a society by the end of the second month, only five will still participate actively. You want to be one of those five! Organize events and invite people as speakers from the industry. Give them at least two or three months notice. Make sure to advertise your events and bring an audience. Out of all the speakers, some will be definitely willing to talk to you about future job prospects.
I still keep in touch with all my contacts, send them an email every two months to update them on my progress and see how they're doing. I ask to meet them for a quick coffee again if they have time.
I'd encourage everyone to do that. People will let you know about positions that aren't even advertised.
That was my approach. I was rejected immediately from all the Bulge Brackets I applied to.
I applied to over 150 firms this year alone. I made it to several final rounds at banks, consulting firms, PE shops and a couple of HFs. My technicals were tight, but so were other people's and these people had better pedigrees. I was rejected by most of them.
Up until May I had nothing solid. A few more first, second and final rounds, but no offers. I had several fit interviews, case studies, modeling and powerpoint tests under my belt.
Two weeks ago, I had the third and final round with a small advisory firm. So far, I really liked the people who interviewed me and the work that the firm does. I had to present a case study which I prepared at home for the partners, sat down with them and got to know each other. Four days ago, on Monday, one of the partners called and offered me the position. I accepted. In the following days, I received two more offers. Since I prefer the first firm more than the other two, I will be starting with them in September.
Some final thoughts
- I was lucky. I persisted a lot, especially over the last couple of years. However throughout most of my journey up until now, I was also lucky. It's not just hard work.
- If you have a weird background, target smaller firms. People there are more approachable and they actually have more influence in hiring decisions.
- I did my due diligence on the firms. Researched recent deals, people who worked there and understood how their business model worked. I practiced my technicals as well as crafted an interesting story which could be presented within two minutes.
- I am extremely thankful to all the people who were willing to meet with me and give me 15 mins of their time. I have invited some of them out for lunch and will invite the rest of them soon. They all bought me a cup of coffee and shared their best advice. The least I can do to thank them is take them out for lunch.
- I mentioned that throughout this soul-crushing process of continuous rejections, some classmates asked me for help. I tried to help them as much as I could. We might even have competed for the same positions in a few cases, but it doesn't matter. What goes around, comes around.
- At the end of the day not being a complete asshole is good for the soul.
I want to thank everyone here, who without realizing it has helped me along the way.
Thank you WSO!
I hope that some of you got something out of this, or were at least entertained.
Mod Note (Andy): Throwback Thursday - this was originally posted June 2016