Advice for Princeton MFin Applicants

IlliniProgrammer's picture
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All,

Over the past two months, I have seen several threads asking for advice on applying to Princeton Bendheim's MFin program, what the school is looking for, and many other questions. People on the forums have pointed to me because I go to school there, and they think I have some clue as to how the admissions process works. I have done my best to answer their questions with what little additional insight that being on campus gives me.

Lately, people have asked me to do a more complete write-up. I figured that since it is August and people are starting to think about grad school applications, this may be a good time for a post on general advice for applying to Princeton's MFin program, especially since there seems to be a dearth of information on applying to competitive MFin/MFE programs in general.

All of the opinions expressed in here are my own and not the school's and probably not also the majority of students'. I don't want this to turn into some sort of fiasco, so it's important to remember that this is just a post by IlliniProgrammer talking about what he thinks could be helpful for getting into the program. This could be as disconnected from reality as IP's view that everyone needs to be thrifty. (I honestly don't think either is disconnected from reality, which is why the analogy works.)

ABOUT THE PROCESS

Every year, somewhere between 700 and 1000 smart and successful people submit applications to the Bendheim Center. The admissions process, which involves Bendheim Center faculty members, staff and the Graduate School, has to get this number down to 30-50 admits. The size of each class varies from year to year but is generally smaller than other programs, which is intentional. I've heard from the staff that the admissions committee bases the class size on a variety of factors, including the job outlook for prospective students, classroom space, and room in the graduate dorms.

Roughly the top 100-150 applicants will be extended an offer to interview with Princeton. You'll typically get asked questions about your academic accomplishments, career and research interests and what you did at your prior job or internships. There are rarely technical questions although there is always an opportunity to showcase your ability to explain a complicated technical issue in simple terms. While everyone is offered the opportunity to conduct their interview in-person on-campus, many students opt to skype in. In any event, the interview is very important. According to the staff, most people who are admitted to the program have a very strong interview and it can be a deciding factor in the admissions process (all other qualifications and scores being equal). However, not everyone who gives a great interview is accepted.

According to the staff, the admissions committee is made up of the program director, a number of Bendheim faculty members, the corporate relations director, and Deans of the Graduate School. Princeton asks for a personal statement and three letters of reference. They also ask for GRE or gmat scores and a resume. An optional additional essay is available, but most admitted students I have spoken with did not submit one (although some did.)

HOW TO MAKE A STRONG APPLICATION

Princeton's Master in Finance program has a fairly competitive application process. This isn't a top four Econ PhD where you have 500 applicants and 4 admits, but they do have to whittle 800 very accomplished applicants who are largely from Wall Street or Wall Street-bound- down to 30-50 admits. So by one measure, this makes the process more competitive than the most selective business schools.

My educated guess is that the admissions process starts like one for an MFE program, that there may be a bit of a research program component to it, and that it ends like the admission process for an MBA program or a top tier undergrad.

For some background, I'd like to believe that Princeton thinks of its MFin graduates as being financial engineers and strategists who can also go head to head with M7 MBAs (at least within finance) on the soft skills- and for the most part, I believe that is the case for the students I've seen on campus. We are the closest thing Princeton has to an MBA program, and Wall Street wants people who can understand and solve complex quantitative problems, communicate effectively in plain English, and help lead and manage the bank. I think we have the right combination of quantitative ability and personal skills to help lead in finance- and the program may be trying to look for that in its admits. So I have a feeling the admissions process is going to move from an MFE-like filtering process at the beginning to a more MBA-like or competitive undergrad-like admissions approach at the end.

There are a lot of great programs out there that banks should look at for hiring Associates and Quants; I'm just glad we're on that list and that we're a little less expensive than some of the MBA alternatives.

THE PERSONAL STATEMENT & RESUME

Princeton asks for a 1000 word essay as part of the admissions process. It's not an MBA essay. We don't give you a theme, and there's not a lot of advice and commentary out there on what to write. The MBA and grad school admissions consultants will tell you that to get into a top MFE program, you need a top GRE or gmat score and good math grades, but that only helps the program whittle things down to probably the top ~20%-50% of applicants. So getting down to the top 5% requires more work.

If you can, try to find a theme to start the essay with and to tie back into every once in a while. If your life is all about water or all about changes or ideas and you can keep going back to that theme in an interesting way that isn't corny, this could be a good way to structure your essay. It would show you're a great writer as well as a great financial engineer. Your goal is to get- and keep- the reader's attention while also selling them on how interesting you are as an applicant. To that end- I suggest three goals for any good application:

1.) Get them interested in your career
Many students admitted to Bendheim have some sort of front-office experience- either full-time or as an intern. Either way, Princeton generally gets a 90-100% placement rate every year. Having our placement rate drop to 75% would be nearly as big a disaster as having our main building burn to the ground overnight. Since Princeton only gets 30-40 students per year, even one student missing an offer changes our placement rate 2-3%, and I'm sure the admissions committee spends a lot of time making sure that the final list of admits can all land jobs.

We take a lot of bright people without work experience. Many of them probably could have landed a Front-Office offer at a bank, or a Finance/Econ PhD admit at a top ten school, without our help.
Therefore, part of your application needs to convince Princeton that you are already capable of landing a good job at a bank, hedge fund, PE firm, or prop shop, and that a full-time admission to the program would still benefit your career further. Talk about your career goals, be realistic about how your current background would play into a potential job upon graduation, and basically set a tone that you WANT Princeton and would really LIKE Princeton, but you do not NEED Princeton.

2.) Get them interested in your academics and research
Every year or two, Princeton MFin sends a few students on to get PhDs, and the graduate school that we live in happens to largely be research-oriented. We don't have a Medical School, Law School, or Business School. We only have a few Master's programs, and many of them are more about preparing people for academia than industry. To top it all off, you will be living with mostly PhDs and grabbing beer with them in the graduate dorms. We are a research-oriented campus and these essays are being read by research-oriented professors. Many MFin students complete a research project their second year, and some eventually wind up getting published in a significant (not necessarily Big Three) finance journal.

So, if you have worked on published research, or you have some research idea that someone with a Finance PhD agrees is interesting, it can't hurt to mention that in your essay. It's also important to mention anything challenging you've done academically, particularly if it involves math, statistics, or finance.
Please note that research isn't required. I had some research ideas but no formal research experience, and it's certainly less helpful than a front office internship or full-time experience. But I think it helps to mention something academically interesting in your personal statement.

Most full-time students came in with at least something close to the traditional engineering math sequence. That typically means Calc I-III (Multivariable), Differential Equations, Linear Algebra, and Probability. Some came in with much more; a few came in with a little less. This is a fairly quantitative program at its foundation- with core courses that build on linear algebra and calculus-based probability, so it's difficult to see us admitting someone who did the bare minimum math requirements for a typical undergrad finance or liberal arts degree.

3.) Get them interested in you as a person
The one common trait among Princeton MFin students is that they all have something really interesting about them that is completely unrelated to finance. One of our students worked for NASA and to my understanding was on track to be part of their astronaut program before the space shuttle was cancelled. Another runs marathons and recently came in 1st in a 10k hosted by Princeton Theological Seminary. Another runs his own successful startup (in addition to working as a financial engineer). Another is an amazing soccer player.

I'm not sure hang gliding helped me get in, but it certainly didn't hurt. (It's also a lot easier to be at the top of the stack in a certain interesting area that few people do than it is to be an excellent marathon runner.) And I was sure to mention that in my essay and my resume. If you're not essentially being hired by the university to do research (such as with a funded PhD program), Princeton wants you contributing to campus in some other way.

Therefore, the goal here is to show that you're the very best applicant in a certain area related to finance (such as quant development), as well as the best applicant at (or near the top of the stack in) two or three other completely orthogonal areas to finance. Best runner? Best soccer player? Best wingsuit skydiver? Best cave diver?

This is sort of what I'm talking about with the later filtering looking more like undergraduate admissions or an MBA program. Princeton usually winds up with many more exceptionally qualified candidates than it has spots to fill, but a campus filled with people who can only talk about work and academics- and don't have interesting stories to tell and interesting things to get friends involved in- is going to be boring. So if you can talk about going two hours into an underwater cave in Florida on a rebreather, and send students on campus off to your tech diving instructor for a PADI Tec 50 course, you're really adding something to campus and ultimately making Princeton a more interesting place to attend grad school.

To be clear, this shouldn't be the core of your essay and your application- the core should be about academics, career, and perhaps research. You should probably devote most of your personal statement to those parts. But it's good to work this in somewhere. Like the MBA programs, we want interesting people on our campus and in our program. And it's possible that this is what helps you make the final cut.

IF YOU ARE APPLYING NEXT YEAR (FOR A 2015 ADMISSION), YOU ARE PROBABLY AT A COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE

You should always be looking for opportunities to make yourself a more interesting person and expand your horizons- and it's best for this stuff to happen naturally- but the issue is even more pressing if you're thinking of applying to grad school soon. So if you're not applying to an MBA or MFin until next year, the stuff you do now is going to be more natural and more genuine- and look that way in the admissions process- than doing something four months before you submit applications.

Try to be creative- your goal is to have something interesting and attention-getting that no other applicant has. Certainly for an MBA program and perhaps for an MFin program, it is going to be tough to be the best soccer player or (American) football player in the applicant pool. But we need people who can play water polo (actually we have a lot of intramural sports). We need people who are into some of the crazier sports out there. We need people who've volunteered in interesting places. If you've already worked on Wall Street, all of this makes it harder to cut you in the final rounds. It is probably more difficult to reject someone who's volunteered as a tour guide at the Chicago Art Institute than someone who has worked at a volunteer mentoring/tutoring organization largely populated by MBA-bound individuals. Both are very successful, accomplished people- one has something which is a little more interesting than the other.

So the social and the personal dividends- and the stories you collect- should be enough to make you want to seek out opportunities to be more interesting- but if that hasn't been enough, it might be enough if I told you it could help with B-school or MFE admissions.

As mentioned above, your career is more core to your application than any interesting hobbies you may have. If you have at least 18 months before it's time to apply, that may also be enough time to try and land a better job. Princeton is probably going to evaluate people as potential admits based on their work experience if they are more than a year or two out of school. Obviously the program is going to try to find smart, hard-working people wherever it can, but certain jobs probably make you easier to find than others.

IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED, TRY, TRY, AGAIN

I didn't get into Princeton Bendheim on my first try.
My first time, I was a fairly competitive candidate. I worked in Credit Analytics at a major bank, which wasn't indisputably front-office but certainly wasn't back-office. I rode motorcycles and occasionally raced them on the track at the time- I also did some waterskiing. I got an on-campus interview from them, but not an admission. I was accepted several other places, but at about the same time, I got an internal transfer offer to Options Sales and Trading, which I took.

Getting rejected felt bad. It was cold comfort to know I was in the company of the 95% of the other students who applied and it reinforced my view that after a point, the final cut gets pretty random. But it did make me determined to prove that the rejection didn't matter, and that (at least for the next 21 months) staying in industry was better for me than getting an MFin there.

Two years later, I applied again. I enjoyed where I was working, but wanted a change of pace and felt school was the best way to do it. My circumstances had materially improved this time- I was clearly in a Front Office group, I was a USHPA rated hang glider pilot, which I practically had stamped all over my application, and my sense was that it was a fairly narrow miss last time.

I really don't know what happened, but reapplying with a materially stronger application two years later earned me a fresh, second look, and it also could have validated the arguments of the people who were fighting for me the first time (somebody probably had to have supported me in order for me to get an interview). Princeton has a relatively small final round- about 100 students, and I think there's a strong possibility people will remember you if you came close before and reapply within a few years. (This may also be true with MBA programs and MFE programs)

So, if you get rejected, don't feel bad. It's probably more random than you think. And if it was a reasonably close decision (you'll know this if you got an interview), and you come back a year or two later with a materially stronger application, you actually have some of the best chances out of anyone (except the Polytechnique stochastic calculus ninja) at an admission. You already have a few people there rooting for you, you've now provided validation to their original argument, and this is the admissions committee's chance to make the right decision this time.

FINAL THOUGHTS

There are a lot of great MFE/MFin programs out there. NYU (which I believe had a placement at DE Shaw this summer- rare for people with finance backgrounds), CMU, Cornell, Stanford, Columbia, Berkeley, and Princeton are all on that list. If you're good at math, enjoy finance, and aren't sure about an M7 MBA, I'd encourage you to apply here or to some of the other MFE programs mentioned. There are also likely several other schools that I left out which deserve to be on that list.

The admissions process at any top MFE program is going to be a bit random at the very end, and if you're a reasonably successful person, you shouldn't take acceptance or rejection as some sort of validation or lack thereof. (If it makes you mildly annoyed and gives you something to prove, more power to you.) CMU may reject you and Princeton may admit you, or it may be the other way around. Instances like these seem to show it really is a dice roll and that it's really best for hiring managers to take which school you're from with a bit of a grain of salt.

The students you'll meet here are very smart, very hard-working, and somehow pretty humble despite that. They also know how to have a good time when they aren't running proofs on covariance matrices, solving an interest rate model or building a multithreaded pricing application. The graduate dorms literally look like a castle, have a bar in the basement, and we have an awesome Halloween party. So if you are great at math, enjoy amazing parties, but you also enjoy getting something fundamentally academic out of $80K (not $120K) worth of graduate tuition, Princeton might be a better place for you than a top tier MBA. I think the ideal student for a program like Princeton is the Wall Street trader, quant, researcher- or some other worker with a fairly technical job- who is on the fence about an MBA or MFE program- or even a Finance PhD program, but knows he wants to stay in finance. We're basically the quants and strategists with the polish, leadership, and occasionally connections of the M7 MBA- just with $40K less debt.

My observations and advice above only capture a small, incomplete, and biased snapshot of the information that professors and other students hold. Moreover, most people associated with the program and its admissions process can figure out exactly who an MFin student with the username "IlliniProgrammer" is and just how clueless he is about what really goes on. So a lot of what I've written above is a mildly educated guess that's only a little better than what the average applicant can surmise. Still, it fills in a few gaps in the FAQ and gives you a place to start thinking about your personal statement.

So please take this with a grain of salt. Obviously if anything I've said conflicts with what you hear from our staff, our professors, or what other MFin students are pretty sure of, or certainly anything you see on our website (below), I'd defer to that.

http://www.princeton.edu/bcf/graduate/faq/

Thanks and good luck if you decide to apply!