I thought it would be helpful to write down my experience these past 3 months. I've been applying to S&T and Asset Management positions for the past several months. In total, I've received 4 offers from Big Banks, including Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Though I'm glad it's over, the process was a lot of fun. I meet a lot of interesting people, brushed up on my interviews skills, landed a killer SA position and missed an ungodly number of classes while flying between New York and campus.
Near the end of this process I discovered WSO. Although it was a little late for me to use the site in the recruitment process, I think that WSO provides a huge service to current and future applicants. That being said, I feel like there is a lack of input from people with my (admittedly meager) skills and experience. My hopes in writing this article will, besides distracting me from my real work, fill that gap a bit. Additionally, though I've been relatively successful, in retrospect, there are many things I would have done differently. Hopefully my experience will help you avoid my mistakes. At the same time, I hope that this post demonstrates just how much you can screw up yet still land a top SA position.
First, Some Background:
I go to a top 20 non-Ivy. I spent most of my college career with a vague notion of wanting to go into finance without really understanding what that implied. I kinda sorta knew what the difference between an ibanker and a trader was, but I couldn't have expounded upon it at any length. I honestly just found my high school econ class really interesting, and the money always sounded good.
My college has a top program for mathematical finance, and all the major S&T firms recruit from us. I applied to and was accepted to this program my sophomore year. It's very mathematically intensive, but enjoyable, and I've learned a lot. I think that finding a strong school or a strong program like this definitely gave me a leg up in my application.
Other than my major though, I honestly haven't done much to pursue a finance career. I'm not in any undergraduate finance or banking or investments clubs. I've honestly never understood the point. My honest impression of these organizations is that they hold a weekly meeting, one person might give a half ass lecture frantically thrown together an hour earlier on some topic they don't understand, and then they eat pizza provided by the university. At the end of the year everyone gets their panties in a bunch applying for some board position X on the ABC committee (I think there are more committees then members in most of these groups). Typically, positions are filled by the board, who always choose their friends in the class below them. Those people then step up, don't do anything useful and so the circle of life continues. I don't think this problem is unique at my university either. It certainly seemed prevalent at the other 5 top-20 universities I've visited.
In retrospect, although I believe my understanding of these organizations is correct, for whatever reason banks still look kindly on the position. My guess is that your willingness is put up with so much meaningless crap is an indicator of honest (if misguided in effort) interest in making lots of money...I mean finance. Plus, it's better than having nothing on your resume, so I'd say go for it with these organizations, just make sure it's not your selling point.
Other than those organizations, I've mostly been involved in my own startup business. It's still relatively nascent, but it's an exciting idea that I've put a lot of effort into and hope to get off the ground after this summer. I'm also involved in some random clubs and whatnot. Nothing resume-worthy; just fun stuff.
One weird thing about me is that, although I am a quant-ish major, I don't really know anyone else interested in finance. Almost all of my friends are premeds of physics majors. This was both good and bad, it meant that the recruiting process didn't come to consume my entire college life, as I've seen it do to some other people. At the same time, knowing other trading applicants would have been a big help in figuring out where to apply and in preparing for interviews.
On (not) Networking
Perhaps the biggest mistake I made in the entire interview process was my total failure to network. And when I say total, I mean total. I didn't do ANYTHING. I showed up for the 2nd half of one UBS information session, then creeped on one UBS guy answering some other people's questions, but didn't ask any of my own or otherwise make myself notable. I did accidentally stumble upon a Goldman Sachs information session, but I didn't do anything other than grab some food.
Around January 16th I figured I should figure out when I needed to start working on my resume and cover letter. Checking my school's career site I discovered, much to my dismay, that most banks had stopped accepting resumes at my school on the 15th, and that the remainder were due on the 17th. That evening and night (I believe it was a Saturday) I completely redid my resume and created a cover letter.
I'm rather proud of my resume. My uncle, who is a higher up in a financial firm, forwarded me what he called a well formatted and written resume, and I largely crimped its style. I am very proud of how well it looks. That being said, I legitimately have a very strong resume content-wise. I unfortunately made the mistake of submitting a .docx file, a mistake that would come back to haunt me later. Always send PDF.
My cover letter, while not terrible, was certainly overwordy and somewhat unfocused. I certainly didn't tailor it to each bank individually other than changing out the names in one sentence (I later found out that I submitted my Citi cover letter with Morgan Stanley's name- I did not receive an interview invitation). The entire thing is 4 (small) paragraphs describing my academics, my entrepreneurialism, a situation where I successfully lead a team and finally why I wanted to work in finance. In retrospect, it was way too long.
Because of the late start date, I ended up not applying to very many places. I think in total I applied to Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, UBS, Citi, and Nomura. I also submitted applications to a few prop firms, but wasn't really interested in the positions.
1st Round Interviews:
Once I submitted my resumes I somehow managed to completely forget about the recruiting process for a good two weeks. I didn't do any fake interviews, trade stories and tips with other people, or anything really. I just kinda zoned out with my school work and life. In retrospect, I should have done a lot more to prepare, especially since I'd never actually done a "serious" interview before. This is not to say I was totally ignorant of the process; I kept up with the economy and the markets, I'm in a highly quantitative major, which de facto prepares you for brainteasers. These were just things I did in my life though, not as part of any special Plan of Attack.
Regardless, my first call back came (naturally) from my top choice for a 30 minute interview on Monday. Monday is a busy day for me and I was feeling under the weather, so this turned into a crazy day of sorts. I ended up running to a CVS 40 minutes before the interview because I'd lost my razor. My suit was nice, but my hair looked was a disaster, and I was coughing every minute or so. I was not a pleasant sight to behold.
The actual interview in retrospect went pretty well, though at the time I thought I'd done a meh job. The first thing my interviewer zoomed in on was my GPA, which is on the low side of the acceptable range. He didn't come at this directly, instead asking me about what classes and liked or disliked, and what made me perform strongly or weakly in them. We danced around this for a while. I talked about how I sometimes had problems in "easy" classes that wasted my time I felt (bad answer in retrospect), but that I would still perform well in them. I was able to back this up by noting the grad classes I'd ace'd. Eventually, he just asked me straight up what the problem had been. I explained that I'd come down with swine flu during finals the previous year, and that that had killed my GPA for that semester. This was 1.) the truth and 2.) went a (surprisingly) long way to soothe his concerns.
The next few questions were math brainteasers. What's the square root large this large number? Do this series of mental math calculations. I did ok at these, getting them right, if a little slowly. I was fortunate enough to have an interviewer more interested in "order of magnitude" accuracy than exact answers. My performance here was not something you'd want to bring to a prop shop.
The final set of questions were on my resume. This is the area where I really shined, and I'm pretty sure is why I got the offers I did. My resume has a few strong components content-wise, including starting my own business, and a rather large business competition I won (think O($10,000) prize). In general, I found that the interviews I directed to focus on this area were the ones where I later got job offers. I think that this because of two factors. Firstly, I feel like these things are relatively strong things for a resume. Certainly better than some BS position in the college finance club or one of the 100,000 culture associations. Secondly, discussing my startup is an area where I am legitimately THE master. I know my business and my market cold, and I had a fully thought out, detailed answer for every question thrown at me, not due to any explicit preparation as much just a natural mastery of the material. Plus, my business (being non-finance) was in an area that my interviewer did not have equal or better domain knowledge he could use to beat me down on technicals. This fact really allowed me to shine on these questions while preventing the situation from turning into some sort of dick measuring contest.
At this point the interview took an interesting turn. Notionally these 1st round interviews are all 30 minute single shots. I happened to be the last interviewer this guy had for the day, and we ended up going a good 15 minutes overboard in him questioning me, and then he spent another 30 minutes answering some my questions and even went over my resume line-by-line making suggestions. I'm not really sure why he did this or how it happened, it just did. Clearly the guy liked me, however, and I think this extra time helped me land the superday. I don't have any advice on how to make this happen other than to book the last interview or the interview before lunch, as otherwise it's just not logistically possible. No matter how much of a rock star you are, they aren't going to keep all the other people waiting an extra 30 minutes to revamp your resume for you.
And Now We Wait...
The next day I received my Superday. I initially missed the call (taking a test) and wasn't able to get in touch with the guy for another 4 hours. I don't know why, but in all of the recruitment process, this was without a doubt the most stressful time period. I guess my brain was making up for all of the tension I should have been experiencing while waiting for call backs. Regardless, I was finally able to reach my interviewer, and he offered the Superday. I'd been hoping for this, but hadn't expected it, so I was flabbergasted and someone incoherent. I thanked him and got off the phone, then ran around my room jumping for about 10 minutes.
Countdown to Superday
I didn't do any real preparation for my Superday (unless you count checking what the S&P was at right before walking in the door). This was a mistake. I should have done some practice interviews or talked with some seniors about their experiences. Or anything.
One important resource I did exploit though was my 1st round interviewer. Looking back, I should have made more use of those contacts before all of my Superdays, not just the 1st one. All of my 1st round interviewers, once I'd been given the Superday, definitely became cheerleaders of sorts for me. My 1st round interviewer above ended up spending 60-90 minutes on the phone with me running down different interview types and talking about the firm's culture and direction. In retrospect, this conversation really didn't help me incredibly much during the interviews though, but it definitely helped me out networking -wise. I'm still in contact with my interviewer today, largely because of that conversation.
My other 1st rounders also sent me very nice emails or phone calls that I could have turned into great networking opportunities had I been not being an idiot. In general, your 1st round interviewers have vouched for you at this point, so you being a successful candidate makes them look good. This is something you as an applicant can- and should- exploit.
When booking Superday travel, you'll probably be dealing mostly with the firm's online travel service. You may end up emailing or calling someone though, certainly your HR person. This should go without saying, but be very, very nice to your HR person. I had HORRIBLE experiences with several HR people, but I still treated them with the upmost courtesy and respect. Not only is this the nice thing to do, but you simply don't know how these things could come back to bit you in the ass.
My actual Superday was in New York. When traveling to your Superday, make sure your leave the day before. In general, the more time you can give yourself between your arrival and the Superday the better. Otherwise, you could end up like the 3 people who didn't show up at my Superday because their morning flight got cancelled due to a snowstorm and they didn't have any time to make alternative arrangements. It's much better to follow the example of my fellow Superday attendee who, upon finding out her evening flight to NYC was cancelled, managed to fly in a cargo plane followed by overnight bus to New York, arriving at the bank's offices with 30 minutes to spare. She got an offer.
The actual Superday experience broadly corresponds to the 1st round interviews- only on steroids. We had 4 30-minute interviews back-to-back. Whereas my 1st round interviews would all be with associates, analysts or maybe 1 VP, the Superday had me meeting with Managing Directors, VP's and higher ups. I did interview with one associate, but everyone else was heavy duty.
Make sure you go to the bathroom beforehand, regardless of whether you feel like you need to or not. Once you're in the interview chair it's too late to go back. By then you can't leave without looking dumb. Bring water for during the interviews. It'll help you calm down, stay hydrated and give you something to fidget with between interviews.
You're probably going to be nervous before the interviews start. My entire body was shaking before the first interview began. Fortunately I got it under control by the time the guy showed up. Take deep breathes, drink water.
I can't say that there was a broad similarity amongst these interviews. My first interview, with an MD, was completely insane. The guy was definitely trying to fuck with you. All I could do was hold onto the seat of my pants. That's all I know how to explain. The 2nd and 3rd interviews, with a Vp and the associate, respectively, were very much in line with my overall interview experience. Resume focused, asked a lot of questions like "tell me about yourself?" My instinctive approach was to drive these towards my startup idea, and from there it was pretty easy to own the interview.
The 3rd interview was also surprisingly personable, with a good amount of banter and joking. Again, this was the associate, who was relatively close to my own age, so I was a little bit more at ease. Later I found that interviews with the younger people tended to be easier. Typically we were able to relate a little bit more on a personal level, even joking a good amount. The younger people tended to also asked easier questions, and didn't quite have the developed interview routine of the VPs and higher. I would almost recommend trying to go for these younger people over the older ones. It's better to have a great interview with a middle person than an average interview with a top person. This is definitely debatable though.
I thought my 4th interview was a disaster, though the guy later told me I did fine. Nevertheless, it definitely highlights the difference between you owning the interview and the interviewer owning it. This interview was the first I'd had with a real quant person, which intimidated me from the get go. He immediately delved into my coursework. At first I held my own, but then we had a slip up. At some point, I mentioned that in one class the teacher had discussed bonds and discounting. This guy interpreted that as meaning I had taken a full-on formal class in Fixed Income Securities, and proceeded to ask me a series of questions defining things like duration, convexity, etc. I had no idea what he was talking about. Unfortunately, when I told him, he didn't really seem to care that much. Fortunately, I earned some brownie points once he explained what duration was by calling it a derivative. I then proceeded to blow those brownie points by looking at the schedule, seeing that my 4th interview was in the FX group, and asking him an FX question. He suggested I look at the name above the group and title, and asked if I looked like a Vanessa to him. I probably had a sort of deer in the headlights look right about then.
The Epic Conclusion
Walking out of that 4th interview, I was certain I had blown my Superday. Surprisingly, I was one of the only 4 people that day who got an offer. I can't really say that there was any specific event that put me over the top. I think I just put in a decent performance across the spectrum of my interviewers. The first interview showed quick thinking and communication skills. The second interview I was able to control and play to my strengths, while I think the 3rd helped me address the "fit" questions. Even the 4th interview, which I had thought so disastrous, must have turned out well after all. If I had to conjecture, it showed a willingness to admit ignorance, an eagerness to learn and an ability to understand ideas quickly. Other than that I honestly don't know. The one thing I would definitely say is to sit straight and maintain eye contact. When they ask you a math question, think it out load. That should carry you through any interview.
The thing to remember too is that of all the rounds, Superday has the best odds. Typically 30-60% of Superday attendants get offers, while I'd guesstimate that less than 20% of applicants survive the resume or 1st round. That being said, don't let those numbers make you cocky, nor should you let having an offer make you too cocky. Once I got my first offer, I was totally relaxed for my other Superdays. I think in one case this came off as arrogant, and ended up with me not getting the offer.
Eventually I ended up with 4 different offers, all from BB's. I definitely had a lot of fun with this situation. After 6 weeks of chasing jobs and interviewing all those people, it's rather enjoyable to have multiple multi-billion dollar financial institutions flying you out to New York and begging you to work for them. Don't let this play out too long though. It's important to make a decision and not be seen as stringing people along. I nearly did this with one bank my accident. So enjoy your moment in the sun, but don't let it get to your head; afterall, you're an intern, not the freaking CEO.
In conclusion, that's the story of my application process from beginning up to my first offer. Beyond that I had four other 1st round interviews and Superdays. Eventually I ended up with 4 offers total. The stories of those interviews are well worth the telling, and hopefully have a few nuggets of wisdom therein. For now though, I need to finish the homework I should have begun 6 hours ago. If the response to this article is positive, however, I might do a sequel. Then again, at this point I doubt there are many applicants remaining, though hopefully my story will be useful to future generations of greedy capitalist financers-in-training. If you have any specific questions, feel free to PM me, I can't promise you a swift response, but I will respond.