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How to big yourself up in banking interviews without coming off as arrogant

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Too modest or too cocky? It's important to find a happy medium to impress hiring managers.

Interviews can be awkward. On the one hand, you need to sell yourself and big up your achievements. On the other, you need to ensure that the interviewer likes you – and coming off as overly cocky could impact your chances negatively.

Here are some tips to strike the proper balance of singing your own praises and graciously acknowledging that your accomplishments were a team effort without being perceived as either arrogant or wishy-washy.

Let your resume show your skills

Your resume can help you to sell yourself without seeming too arrogant, according to Janet Raiffa, an investment banking career coach, the former head of campus recruiting at Goldman Sachs and a former associate director in the Career Management Center at Columbia Business School.

If you make sure to note that you graduated summa cum laude in your resume, then you won’t have to explain that you were at the top of your class during an interview. If you won a professional or award and note it on your resume, make sure that it’s clear what it was for.

“I like to see performance-related accolades or rankings at the end of the bullet chain rather than as a first bullet,” Raiffa said. “Putting accolades before client-facing bullets may make a recruiter think you are more focused on being recognized than in getting the job done.”

Having a sense of humor about yourself can also help dissipate a perception of arrogance, she said.

“I remember reading a resume that was so full of achievements with amazing grades and scores and schools that I immediately felt the student must be arrogant,” Raiffa said. “I felt this way until I got to the bottom and saw that in the ‘Additional Information’ section, the first thing he listed under activities was ‘truly terrible golfer.’

Be careful with your choice of words

Avoid using words like “best” or “greatest,” which can come off as being cocky, according to Roseanne Donohue, an executive recruiter, resume writer and career coach who worked previously at J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup.

Instead, she suggests using more team-oriented language. For example, instead of boasting “I was the reason that the project was successful,” say “We had a great team and we all played a part in delivering or the success of XYZ.”

Don’t be modest

Talking about yourself is expected in an interview, and if you’re not displaying a good amount of confidence then you run a risk of not getting a job, Raiffa said.

“In my 15 years as a campus recruiter for banking and consulting, it was actually very rare for an interview candidate to be assessed as too arrogant,” she said. “Arrogance was usually displayed at recruiting or social events where students let their guards down, or monopolized recruiters or line professionals while other students were trying to talk or enter a circle.

“A candidate who is too modest is likely forgotten because they aren’t selling their skills or achievements enough,” she said.

Tout your accomplishments, but don’t drone on

Take your cue from the interviewer’s body language, Donohue said.

“Cut it short,” she said. “Being concise is important – don’t go on and on. Show that you’re proud of your accomplishments but keep it concise. Talk about the team and add in what your piece was as part of that project.”

Going into an interview, you should be prepared with three-to-five talents or strengths that you want to communicate in preparation for questions such as “What are your key strengths?” or “Why should I hire you?”

“For each of the strengths, you should have an illustration so it isn’t just a list with no backup,” Raiffa said. “Then think about the answer to what a former manager would say about you, or what you heard about in your reviews.”

If you’re concerned about sounding arrogant, think about how what you want to brag about can be expressed by others, she said.

For example, rather than saying “I was the best writer in my team at XX,” you could say, “I was fortunate enough to earn the highest possible performance ranking for communication, based largely on my writing ability.” Similarly, you could say “You should hire me because my former boss would say that I was the best writer in the team.”

When in doubt, tell the truth matter-of-factly

The core to telling your story in an interview is to tell the truth, according to Amy Adler, a career coach at Five Strengths.

“When the facts of your career history tell a great story, it’s not bragging or false modesty, and there’s no need to embellish,” she said. “Of course, this doesn’t mean you should take credit for a team effort. If you’re an individual contributor, talk about how your efforts supported the success of the whole; if you’re a leader, praise your team and talk about how your leadership and strategic insight improved the project.”

Buy yourself time if necessary without saying “Um” or “Hm”

If the interviewer asks a question and you’re not sure of the answer or need some time to think, reiterate what you feel is the main thrust or give a summary of the question back to the interviewer.

“That shows you’re listening, which is a positive thing,” Donohue said.

Be aware of cultural differences

Overcoming modesty in interviews is particularly an issue for international candidates aiming for a job on Wall Street, since the US culture is a less modest one, Raiffa said. For internationals at US schools or those relocating from outside the US, it’s important to practice US-style interviewing, and understand that articulating one’s achievements confidently is expected here, she said.

“For anyone worried about bragging about achievements, remember that passion is also an important selling tool,” Raiffa said. “If you’re hesitant to say ‘I’m the best candidate for the job because of my strength in X, Y and Z,’ think about saying ‘I’m the best candidate for the job because I’m more passionate than anyone I know about starting my banking career at your firm.’

“You can never be [perceived as] arrogant when you’re talking about passion, motivation or interest in a particular firm or career,” she said.

It’s OK to be prideful when you talk about yourself

There is a huge difference between arrogance and pride, Adler said. Arrogance comes across as overblown, unsubstantiated and empty, whereas pride in one’s work comes across as a healthy and realistic assessment.

“An interviewer is going to know you’re going beyond truth and into boasting, because there won’t be any context for the story, it will feel contradictory in the retelling, or it will feel like a zero-sum game – you did everything; the rest did nothing,” Adler said.

“So claiming the lion’s share of the credit for a project is valid when you can demonstrate the many contributions you provided without trashing the rest of the team, but the entry-level professional will lack credibility if he or she takes credit for a project larger than him or herself or what he or she could realistically contribute,” she said.

Photo credit: XiXinXing/GettyImages

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