If you look at elite athletes of virtually any sport, they almost always share one thing in common: they started playing the sport at a fairly young age. Sure, there are exceptions, but very rarely do you see a world-class athlete who picked up the sport after high school.
Now, what does this have to do with finance? I was thinking about this recently since a lot of WSO posters have been complaining about the proliferation of college and even high school kids on the site. Initially I shared their frustration. But having thought about it, I realized that it actually makes perfect sense for those youngsters to ask for advice. That's because the finance game, much like pro sports, starts EARLY. To get the coveted jobs, the preparation starts earlier now than ever before.
Let's add some historical context here. Back in the not so distant past, there were plenty of people who broke into finance late and through unconventional means. Stories of hungry smart people who did not attend top schools would start at the bottom of the rung and through hard work and talent move up to the top. You had guys like the infamous Jeffrey Epstein who went from being a high school teacher to a derivatives trader at Bear Stearns before launching his own fund and making millions. Lloyd Blankfein couldn't get into Goldman out of Harvard Law so worked at commodities trading firm J. Aron, which later got acquired by Goldman.
Gary Cohn, Goldman's COO and likely heir, was an aluminum slide salesman who basically conned his way into a job as an options trader (you can read his story on the web). Chinh Chiu, the legendary dealmaker at Blackstone, got his first finance job at Salomon Brothers by driving from Buffalo to the firm's holiday party in Manhattan and networking to get an interview. I could go on and on, but you get my point. Non-traditional paths were quite common, and there was less emphasis on pedigree or whether one took the "right" path. Smart hungry hard workers were given the chance to prove themselves and were rewarded if they performed.
This is not to say that stuff like this never happens in today's finance world, but suffice it to say, the path has become more narrow and well-defined. The game now starts in high school as one's college pedigree has taken on more importance than ever before. In many ways, top financial firms have basically outsourced their recruiting to the admission officers at the top 15 or so colleges. Ambitious high school students know this and bust their ass off during their teenage years to get into the right college. Once there, the game further intensifies. Now it's about picking the right major, getting a strong GPA, extracurriculars, leadership, and the right internships. God forbid if a kid really wants to major in say history or political science. Minor, fine, but it's STEM/econ/business or bust. After 4 years of hustling, it comes down to getting an analyst job at the right bank, right group, so they can then get recruited by the top PE firms and hedge funds 2 years later. The cream of the crop who manage to accomplish this end up not only making a lot of money at a young age but get access to the best opportunities years down the road. Your FIRST job out of college is now critical because it sets you up for the rest of your professional trajectory.
I recently finished business school and had classmates who had such backgrounds as well as those who did not. The difference in access and outcome was pretty drastic despite being at the same school. Recruiters would often ask for 10 different criteria and ding anyone who did not meet all of them. Those who for whatever reason did not get on the "right" path at a young age ended up having to take jobs that weren't their ideal gigs. Of course, they are still doing fine, and the point is not to garner sympathy but rather to highlight how finance has changed over the years. I now totally get why youngsters post threads on WSO asking about college admissions, exit opps, etc. Before we make fun of them and cast judgment, let's not forget that we were once in their shoes and that the game continues to get more difficult.