Yesterday I received an offer from an equity long/short fund in HK and achieving my goal that I have been pursuing over the past 5 years. As a long-time WSO user, I have read numerous stories which have motivated me all the way. So I think it's time for me to share my story...
Background: building foundation and interest from reading and trading
I came from a local family in Hong Kong. Back in my high school days, because of my school's culture, the best graduates tend to become lawyer or doctors. I have no idea what an investment bank nor hedge fund is. Yet since the day I picked up a book about monetary policy and macro economic indicators, I start to feel obsessed with economics, and later investment. I started my trading account, and used my limited knowledge to try to identify investment opportunities by monetary policy analysis and value-investment (well...at least I thought I am doing it right back then). By the time I am graduated, I still perceive this as my interests, but not career option...
1st 2 years in college : from GPA IB porter
My first year almost killed my career: I become obsessed with student society work in college. I dedicated so much that my GPA in one semester dropped below 2.0. Don't get me wrong, I actually find this one of the most rewarding experience I have ever had throughout my college. I get the chance to achieve many breakthroughs that I cannot get from elsewhere. Yet until year 2 I have no idea what I want to do, and thus have no motivation to have good time management and self-discipline to achieve big.
Actually since year 1 I have already come across with investment banking and hedge funds. However, since year 1, there are lots of bright students, obviously understanding how intense the competition was to break into investment banking, working so hard and preparing themselves to get into investment banking, such as asking seniors for referrals, getting internship in relevant firms (such as Big 4, boutique IB), and preparing for interviews. With my mediocre academic results, I have never attempted to get into investment banking.
It was a 3-year college curriculum for me back then, so in my year-2 spring semester, with my blank resume, I have to start thinking about what I should be doing after graduation. It was that moment when I feel like I should reluctantly accept the fact that it was already good enough for a student like me being hired right after graduation by a small company, I receive a piece of advise from my relatives that "it is the best to find a job which fits your interest". When I look at my book shelf full of investment-related books, I feel like I should at least give it a try, and if I failed, I should still be better than sitting there and doing nothing right? **Yet, how can I even get an interview from an investment bank or a hedge fund with my blank resume?**
I decided to go bold: cold-emailing and cold-calling. It is actually less common back then in Hong Kong comparing to US or Europe for students to do cold-emailing and cold-calling. Thanks to WSO, I received many good advice to prepare for how to do cold-emailing or cold-calling. I have sent over 300 emails during the semesters to look for summer internship. However, obviously I was too late. It was March that I started to do such things, and most summer internship positions have already been filled. It was in late May when I suddenly received a call, it was a boutique investment bank I applied online before for a "summer internship" position. I was quickly accepted after 1 round of interview by a HR, and later I found out why the procedure goes so quick...they are actually looking for a porter, not really a summer intern with return offer opportunity, since they are moving their office to the new location across the street. And me, as an summer intern, has spent a sweaty summer packing all the documents and stuff in the office...
Year-3-and-4...and year-5 in college: from a porter, to hedge fund intern, and finally, a bulge bracket intern
**Yet after going back to school, I didn't give up. I know at least I have an investment bank on my resume now. I started to receive a few interviews for semester internship. One in particular caught my interest: It was a USD1bn equity long/short hedge fund. This is when I realize my readings over the years finally paid off. I have gone through all 4 rounds of interviews with my knowledge in monetary policy, in particular those of Asian economies, and stocks. When I finally receive an offer, and was asked to sign the contract in their office, I realize a semester internship in a hedge fund is not enough for me to get an investment banking or hedge fund job. So I decide to make another big decision: I offer to work for free, full-time, for half year in the fund by taking half-year off from school, and they accepted.
It was a fruitful year in the hedge fund. According to my managers before my internship ends, it is actually a wise decision for me to take a placement comparing to a semester internship, because it is also of their interest to allocate more resources to train me in all aspects, instead of giving me ad-hoc assignments, which I believe many of you might have experienced during an summer internship.
There is one thing that I have never stopped doing, cold-emailing. By cold-emailing I have actually landed an equity research internship in an investment bank right after my hedge fund internship. But by the time I have declined other interviews and ready to accept the offer, my offer was suddenly withdrawn, because "someone with special relationship" has taken my seat. I was shocked, but quickly accepted this as the reality of the industry (interestingly, during the same year, there are series of investigations and allegations against US-based IB granting special internship/job offer to candidates with "special relationship", in particular in Asia (/Hong Kong)). Fortunately my boss in the hedge fund was satisfied with my work, and was willing to offer me another 3 months to stay until I found another internship.
After 9 months of placement, I have returned to school to finish my last 2 semesters. When I start to hunt for full-time job, another opportunity popped up: an interview for an internship position for a bulge bracket bank. Perceiving it more like a office visit (of course, i did prepare seriously for that), it turns out I am so blessed to pass all 5 rounds of interviews and successfully landed an offer. This is when my reading works again: I talked about why I think Abenomics (Japan) is more likely to fail given how self-contradicting the policies were, I talked about why Indian economy is structurally a failure over the past decade, I explained why I think China will not have a hard landing, but instead a debt restructuring which could give rise to another infrastructure boom, etc. I talked about my stock pitch for an hour. All thanks to the reading and preparation I have done, and of course, my luck.
After finishing another fruitful internship and finishing my last semester in college, I have decided not to return to the bank, and went to a smaller but reputable research platform by referral from a network I know from cold-emailing, and recently landed in a sizable hedge fund. My efforts paid off.
What I think I have done which you can also try
1. Don't ask for tips, ask about how solid you are
There are always juniors asking me about "tips" during an interview, but indeed, my biggest "tips" is to seriously prepare for your technical knowledge, and it is fine to be over-prepared. These are the things that can knock you out from the next round once you get the answer wrong, but not the personality questions like "how do you foresee yourself in 5 years".
2. Your interviewer is looking for a colleague to work with, not a superhero
When I was doing mock interview for students, I sometimes realize how tense the students are, and always giving the same answers to the personality questions. Interviewer is looking for a colleague to work with, and thus it is sometimes a good idea to be more genuine and show your true self, such as smiling more, making proper jokes, asking interviewer personal (but of course, proper and not awkward) questions and further discuss on that (within a proper time horizon). Make sure that you show that you can also be a person he can hang out with after work. This helps winning impression as well. On the contrary, don't be over-confident, don't speak like you know everything. Your interviewers are always smarter than you. Stay humble in front of them.
3. Find a career buddy
1+1 >2. A good career buddy, or peer group, can always not only share useful resources (network, preparation materials, etc) among each other, but also motivate each other when one of you get an internship or interviews.
4. Setting long-term career goal, not just looking for a full-time job
Setting long-term goal and vision the process you need helps efficiently shape your career planning, such as resources/knowledge you need in the future, preparation for alternative career pathway, etc. For example, if you ultimately aim for hedge fund, a sell-side research experience is a plus, and therefore sell-side research is the first job you should target, not straightly targeting hedge fund. If you target to be a trader, you can foresee how trading will looking in say 10-year time, and therefore programming will be what you need. If you target to work in sell-side research, you can vision the impact from MiFID II, and decide whether the risk-reward is still worth for yourself.
5. Read, Read, Read
This is more of my personal advice, but reading did help me a lot. Good books give you edge when answering technical questions and make yourself unique. I also suggest putting your favorite reading list onto your resume to create one more topic between yourself and the interviewers. This works very well for me, and at least 3 times the interviewers actually have the same favorite book as me
6. Networking is not for internship, genuinely treasure the relationship you built for your entire life
After sending over 700+ emails, I actually did not get any internships from these. But I did receive many good advice, both work and life, which shape me to become who I am right now. Those you connect by cold-emailing usually have met someone else before. Therefore they know your intention. Build a good impression, and they will offer your help even after graduation. I still kept frequent contacts with at least 10 networks I built during college time.
7. Think about the downside, think about plan B
I met many people so determined to break into investment banking for various reasons. Yet one common thing I found is that they seldom talked about the downside they could possibly face. Many people quit investment banking 2-3 years after landing the so-called dream job because of not being able to sustain physically and mentally due to the high intensity of the job and the long working hours. To make things worse they could be sacrificing their family, spouse, friends, health, or time for learning, building new habits, gym, travel, etc until they realize what kind of life they want to be in. Sadly this is usually only realized by people working in the industry, while others will only see the bright side. Find people and talk, and be honest to your self. Think about plan B if investment banking is not your ultimate dream job.
8. Even if you failed to get what you want, you have already taken steps others didn't, and have grown to a better person
Recalling my journey, the one thought that keeps popping up in my mind is "fairly speaking it might be too tough for me to get into investment banking with a CV like mine". Actually til now, I agree with this, but what kept motivating me is the belief that even if I failed, I should have grown better. It is the process that matters, and when you keep pursuing excellence, something surprisingly rewarding will follow.
9. Don't be afraid to take gap year
The best decision I have made is to take gap years to enrich my resume. It is not only because of the extra time and names you can have on your resume, but also about the network you can get from the colleague, graduation, the potential return offers and making your next employees being convinced that you are really learning something from your previous experiences. Yes, it feel weird to defer a year and not being able to graduate with your best friends, but the reward is huge.
There are too many to share, but let's stop here first. I am happy to answer any question and share more stories.