Hello all. Long time lurker here who recently "made it" by winning a summer offer for 2019 at a top independent advisory shop (think EVR/CVP/PWP). I want to reflect on my experience recruiting and hopefully help out some prospective monkeys in the process.
My background- I currently go to a large state school. In high school I was a 4.0 student, Eagle Scout, debater (read: nerd virgin). I knew I wanted to go into banking and applied to top targets, getting into two schools that place lights out. I also applied to my mom's alma mater, a southern state school. They offered me their premiere full scholarship. I had to choose between a top target and a free state school, a decision that I am sure has faced or will face many young users of this site. Most of those users would take the top target in a heartbeat. I did the opposite. Here's why-
I would be lying if I said that this was not the biggest factor in my decision. If you have the stats to go to a target school, there are many solid state schools that will literally fly you out senior year of high school to offer to throw money at you. I was in the grey area financially where I didn't get any financial aid at the targets I got into, but the decision to attend would have created a lot of stress for my family and saddled me with a mountain of debt. Free school is good school.
Specialized Banking Programs and Ultra-Motivated Alumni
Many state schools have selective investment banking clubs or programs. Off the top of my head, I know that South Carolina, Columbia has a program that placed into Goldman and MS last year, UGA has a program that places kids into Goldman every year and IU has a famous program that places lights out. The difference between these programs and a target's general population is that the non-target programs and their alumni bases are a lot smaller. This actually works as an advantage because it puts pressure on alumni to grow the presence of their school on the street. I had alumni call friends at other banks to get me interviews and invite me to stay with them in the city. They FIGHT for kids from their school.
Big Fish, Small Pond
It's not hard to find opportunities to grow your technical knowledge and start/ lead programs at a non-target. With less kids wanting to go into the industry, leadership positions in finance clubs are much more accessible. The group of students interested in banking is small and thus out to help each other succeed rather than compete with one another. A current senior at my school teaches free financial modeling lessons to freshmen. On the academics side, grades come easy. This allows more time to actually focus on learning technical skills or take part time internships or network.
If you have ever had the opportunity to spend a Saturday in the fall at an SEC school for a home game, you know what I'm saying. Even if the bar/ party scene isn't necessarily "better" at a state school than an ivy (it is) the easy academic course load lets you partake in recreation more often.
TL;DR: The cream will rise to the top no matter where you go to undergrad. If you are willing to put in the work, strategically choosing to attend a non-target school could be the best decision you ever make.
Hope I helped at least a few young folks. Feel free to disagree or ask me anything in the comments.