I've been a forum lurker for a little over 4 years now and felt like it was time to contribute to the community.
As the title says, I went to undergrad at a non-target where I majored in finance and economics. Had internships in boutique restructuring consulting and in a Big 4's capital markets group. It was a grind to even get those opportunities, so believe me when I say that interviewing for Big 4 opportunities at a non-target is just as competitive as the BB recruiting stories at targets. I would say I performed well throughout the application process primarily because I had a high GPA (which is the most important for internships) and because I had extracurricular finance experiences (selected to visit NYC and tour BBs/HFs/PEs), as well as social extras (fraternity).
Eyes set on the M&A Path
I knew I wanted to be an M&A analyst after my discussions with alumni and strived to network as hard as possible throughout the rest of my undergrad. Unfortunately, it never worked out. I had interviews at BBs for SA positions, but I don't think I really measured up at that point. When those opportunities are given to you, you really need to grab it with everything and I definitely missed the mark because I was not prepared technically and did not have my story crafted in a way that made me stand out compared to my target competition (literally had an interviewer say that she would transfer my application to the S&T group because there were more people from my undergrad there and I would not stand a chance against Ivy League kids). It was tough, but I had my eyes set on getting M&A experience and I continued to follow that path.
Transferred to Valuations Group at Big 4
Fast forward and I ended up transferring to the Valuation group at my Big 4's Transaction Advisory Services and spent the next ~two years there as an associate. I can get into specific questions about the job if anyone wants, but it probably won't be that interesting. The work is highly mechanical in nature. Valuation services are a commodity service if all you are performing are purchase price allocations, tax valuations, or goodwill impairments. For what it is worth, I gained a lot of financial modeling experience and was able to casually talk about valuation in a fluid way. Plus, you write a ton of reports which is always good for fresh grads.
My Big 4 Valuation experience
I'm not going to try to sell the Big 4 Valuation experience like it's the best option because I honestly did not have a great experience. Hours were ~70 a week, constantly had to work weekends, barely any bonus, and clients don't really care about your work product or "advice". Valuation for financial reporting/tax structuring is an academic exercise, nothing more, and we would constantly get into debates about whether we should add a 1% or 2% company-specific risk premium (fucking stupid). I'll caveat and say some in my national practice did incredibly interesting projects where they were doing strategy consulting (read McKinsey's Valuation book for more detail). I never did and was constantly sold from my partner that I would be getting the experience soon if I continued to be hungry. Never happened and decided it was time to move on.
Contacted by a headhunter to lateral to a Boutique
I eventually got contacted by a head hunter in the area that specialized in financial services; however, I had been applying to lateral analyst positions through LinkedIn constantly. I got a couple hits, but I will say that these are not black holes, as some on this forum have communicated. Lateral job opportunities are ad hoc and are being posted to fill a specific need. If you can apply and reach out to associates or above in that group, you will no doubt spark a conversation to lead you to interviewing. It's all about putting your profile in front of as many faces as possible. I interviewed at a couple places, but ultimately stuck with a smaller team where I would have more responsibility.
Interview process was around 1.5 months and I was grilled on industry-specific items on the various phone calls I had initially. In addition, I had to prepare a case study and submit within a week before my superday. Basically, public company A is our client, prepare marketing documents as if you are their sell-side advisor (investment highlights, valuation, industry outlook, competitive position, financials). Actual superday was very non-technical. I guess I had jumped through so many hoops to get there that it wasn't a priority anymore. I had to present the case study and was asked specific questions about what I would recommend, but honestly when you spend a week straight reading everything about a company, you will develop an opinion. It worked out because the company was absolute shit and was about to hit a massive wall of debt maturities, so I recommended that they sell and focus on a strategic who would have a better cost and capital structure for their business, which was exactly their POV.
How I stood out against IB Analysts
I really had to focus on why I wanted to do banking and why I wanted to join their group. Valuation was interesting work for the first year, but after that I started to peek my head up and become curious about all these transactions I was working on. How did they get to this price? What were the negotiations like? Who else was interested? I wonder what the marketing process was like. I also flat out told them that no one would work harder than someone who scrapped from a small farm town to get where he is today. I believe it was that hunger aspect that really sold me, as I was going up against other IB analysts who looked a hell of a lot better than me on paper.
I highly recommend utilizing WSO's IB Prep Pack. There are a ton of standardized technical and behavioral questions that you can expect from almost any interview. Specifically getting to the meat of the financial/accounting questions vs. reading theory in a textbook, will set you apart. I also recommend writing out answers to the behavioral questions and reviewing out loud (i.e., what's your greatest weakness type questions).
At the end of the day, lateral hires to boutiques that are not massive platforms (10-20 people) are primarily assessed on fit and that's how you should focus your energy. Technical questions are a part of the screening process, but if your group is small, they will want to know that they can work with you all night and then shoot the shit with you the next morning. If you are yourself and a genuine person, then they will see that.
That's all I've got right now, but happy to answer any questions or go into more detail.