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Why investment banks reject you. And what you can do about it

If you’re young and unencumbered by work experience, it’s the season for applying to investment banks. All around the world, hundreds of thousands of young people are dispatching their applications for junior banking jobs before recruitment deadlines expire. If you’re less young and already have some banking experience, this time of year is less conducive to getting hired. Banks typically rein in front office recruitment ahead of their fourth quarter results, but this doesn’t stop them recruiting to fill strategically important roles. 

Either way – experienced or not – your application may not get far. Banks are fussy places. At the junior level, 98% of applicants are rejected. At more senior levels, banks will often have a good idea of exactly who they want to hire, and will take their time finding it.

Nonetheless, there are things you can do to improve your chances. Most banks are upfront about why applicants fail, particularly at the junior level. We’ve assimilated application advice from across banks’ own websites – if you’re not getting anywhere, this is what you might be doing wrong.

1. Your resumé is ‘off’ 

Your resumé is your ambassador – it goes ahead of you and if you’re not careful it will probably let you down.

Among other things, banks will reject you if your resumé is written in a weird font, poorly formatted, more than two pages long (preferably one), is full of verbiage and doesn’t detail exactly what you achieved in each previous role in a quantifiable manner, if it contains spelling and grammatical mistakes, if it is printed on orange paper, and is saved in a file format that cannot be opened.

What you can do about it:  

Resumé formatting mistakes are easy to resolve. You need to keep a banking resumé short and keep it concrete. Provide, ‘relevant metrics that demonstrate your rank, your results or your leadership,’ says Credit Suisse. The Swiss bank says it also helps to, ‘use active voice and action words such as: Directed, Developed, Managed, Performed, Led, Headed, Created, Coordinated, Produced, Researched, Identified,’ and to ‘use an easy-to-read conventional typeface, such as Arial or Times New Roman.’ You also need to make sure your resumé is downloadable – Credit Suisse says anything more than 512kb is excessive.

2. You don’t know your resumé inside out

Not only does your resumé need to be a concise validation of what you’ve done before, but you need to know exactly what’s in it and to be able to use this as the starting point for a broader discussion. Morgan Stanley says you’ll need to be able to talk about everything that’s on your resumé without referring to the document itself.

“For every work experience you’ve had and for every organization you’re involved in, be prepared to go beyond what’s on your resume and speak to specific projects you worked on or efforts you spearheaded,” says a recruiter at Goldman Sachs.  “Provide details on what your responsibilities were, what skills you applied and what learnings you took away from the experience. Then quantify the results.”

If there’s something you don’t want to talk about, don’t include it on your CV. “If there are any points in your resume or CV that you can’t speak about persuasively and knowledgeably in an interview, leave them off,” Credit Suisse suggests.

What you can do about it: 

Don’t write anything on your CV that you don’t want to talk about, in detail, during a banking interview. When you do write something on your CV, make sure you can discuss, in detail, exactly what you achieved there.

3. You can’t connect

People in banks work long hours. – They need to get on well together.

“One of the questions we ask ourselves when considering a candidate is, “would I be happy working next to this person?”, says a recruiter at Goldman Sachs.

It’s not just Goldman, other banks want to hire candidates who are ‘authentic’ and can ‘build a connection’ with the interviewer too.

“Relax and be yourself,” says Credit Suisse. “The more the recruiter sees of you, the richer the conversation will be.”

“Enjoy the conversation,” intones Morgan Stanley. “Be honest, and don’t be afraid to show the real you.” Morgan Stanley says it puts potential recruits through, “The Airplane Test”: would you be pleasant to be around for long periods of time.’

What you can do about it: 

The trick to showing the ‘real you’ in an interview is not to be too nervous. For this reason, Morgan Stanley suggests you practice: “…whether in front of a mirror or with another person. Get comfortable speaking about yourself, but avoid sounding too rehearsed. It’s important to be genuine, enthusiastic and stay true to who you really are.”

Morgan Stanley also suggests that you’re “conscious of your body language, maintain eye contact, and let the interviewer finish their thought before you respond.” Bank of America agrees that you need to, be conscious of your body language throughout the interview,’ and that, ‘interviewers take note of a firm handshake, good posture, eye contact and a smile.’ UBS advocates listening carefully to questions, taking your time before answering, repeating or rephrasing a question to clarify your thoughts, getting to the point as quickly as you can, and asking for help when you don’t know something.

4. You’re not hungry enough

If you’re applying to work in an investment bank, or anywhere in finance, you need to really want it. Everyone gets rejected a few times – even Lloyd Blankfein. 

To show your hunger, you’ll need to know everything there is to know about the bank and the role you’re applying for. “We’ll need you to tell us why you’re right for Deutsche Bank, and equally importantly why Deutsche Bank is right for you. We’ll expect you to show real understanding of how we differ from other financial institutions, and tell us why the division you’re applying to meets your aspirations and ambitions,” says Deutsche Bank. Morgan Stanley says applicants need to learn how to ‘tell their story in an engaging way’ and that when you fail it’s usually because you don’t have ‘a compelling reason’ for wanting to work in a particular division, or in banking in the first place.

This being the case, you absolutely must not use the same CV or application letter to apply for different jobs in different banks.

What you can do about it: 

Every application needs to be purposed to the role you’re applying for. “Tailor your application to the role you’re applying to. While lots of banks ask similar questions they are rarely exactly the same – never copy and paste from another application form,” says BNP Paribas.

You need to demonstrate that you’re passionate about working in that particular bank and in that particular role. Talk to people who are there already for an insider perspective. Research the bank’s position and strategy in your sector. “Try not to ask us questions that you can easily find answers to by reading our website and marketing materials,” says Morgan Stanley.  Equally, you can demonstrate hunger by having some considered questions to ask at the end of your interview. Make them as specific as possible – don’t ask generic questions like, ‘What’s the culture here?’, says Morgan Stanley.

5. You can’t sell yourself 

Finally, you need to make banks want you. For this, you need a story, and that story needs to be compelling. You need to spell out exactly what you can bring to that particular role, backed up with examples of what you’ve achieved in your past.

Goldman Sachs says the most common mistake applicants make is, ‘not communicating concrete ways in which they’ve made an impact in their past jobs or other experiences.’ BNP Paribas says you need to spell out which skills and experiences you have which will make you a good fit for the business.

What you can do about it:

If you’re struggling to articulate what makes you special and what you can bring to a role, before you go into the interview it helps to prepare responses to the most common banking interview questions using the S.T.A.R interview framework. Under S.T.A.R, you’ll need to think of times when you demonstrated the skills and competences banks are looking for. BNP Paribas it this up as follows: ‘1. Situation/Task: What was the situation or task? Remember, you need to set the scene for the interviewer. 2. Action: What did you do? What role did you play? Don’t fall into describing what ‘we’ did. This is about exploring your behaviour. 3. Result: What was the outcome? What did you learn?’

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