Last week, Goldman Sachs announced that Brian Levine, co-head of global equities trades and execution services, will retire this summer after 25 years with the bank. In a departing note to colleagues on social media, Levine acknowledged that finding his way to Goldman – and Wall Street in general – was no easy task.
“It’s literally unfathomable to think back to the grad school days of Emory and receiving 80 consecutive job rejection letters, and imagining back then that I would even get hired by the best firm on Wall Street, not mention staying at the then-125-year-old firm for the next quarter of a century,” he wrote.
Even if Levine was embellishing a bit with the number of rejection letters he received, the statement is incredibly meaningful as it can convey both a sense of hope and a feeling of dread for prospective applicants, depending on how they look at it. He was turned away 80 times and made partner at Goldman Sachs. Or, put more cynically, Levine had what it takes to make partner at Goldman and got rejected 80 times anyway.
“One of the biggest fallacies on Wall Street is that if it doesn’t happen right away, it will never happen,” said Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. The storybook process of getting an internship at a prestigious bank and parlaying it into a full-time offer is rarer than people think, he said. Goldman Sachs, for example, makes offers to only 3% of applicants in a given year.
For the other 97%, responding successfully is all about preparation, attitude and action. To survive long-term on Wall Street, you need to have thick skin and not take job search events personally, Cohen said. “With technology driving innovation at new speeds, career ‘failures’ will only happen more often in banking.” You better be prepared to deflect all the chaos – both in the job search and throughout your career.
“If you get emotionally crushed by being rejected by your top choice, the job may not be for you anyway,” said a former VP at Deutsche Bank in New York, who also mentioned “thick skin” as an imperative trait to being successful in banking.
Of course, separating emotion from a job search is easier said than done. A recent study by Laurence Daoust, an assistant professor at HEC in Montreal, looked at the pain people felt after being rejected by one of the Big Four accounting firms. One rejected student told Daoust she was ‘‘devastated” by the rejection. Another said she felt "life was over,” while a third used the words "emotionally distraught” to describe students who were on the outside looking in.
Hope to succeed, prepare to fail
The best way to move forward after being rejected is to do what Levine did. Put as many irons in the fire as you can and never center all your attention around a single option, Cohen said. However, you must also find a balance where you don’t stretch yourself too thin, warns a New York headhunter who specializes in diversity hiring. “If you are just firing off non-targeted resumes and cover letters, that’s the easiest way for banks to reject you,” he said. You need be willing to take the same approach and do the homework for every application and interview. “Outwardly frustrated candidates have no chance,” he said.
When the rejections start piling up
If you’ve been turned away consistently during the application and interview process, it’s time for some honest reflection and feedback. “Try to tap smart and successful people in your network and ask for objective, thoughtful feedback” on your resume as well as your message and delivery during interviews, Cohen said. Push for brutal honesty and look for similar feedback that can help you tweak parts of your search process that may be failing you. With the gaudy number of applicants each bank faces, HR will often shrink the pool of candidates for reasons as simple as resume format, an unclear objective or initial nerves in the interview, according to the headhunter.
Know when the writing is on the wall
Levine was rejected 80 times – and that was after he received his MBA from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, a very good U.S. school known as a semi-target for Wall Street banks. If you’ve exhausted potential reasons for being rejected that are in your control – things outside of your GPA and the name of your university – it may be time to change course and explore other options, at least initially. But that doesn’t mean you need to give up on an eventual career in the industry.
Look for opportunities that can be used as an onramp into banking, including ratings houses, bankruptcy specialists and accounting firms, Cohen said. “Don’t just sit on the sidelines and become stale,” added the former Deutsche Bank VP.
Another option Cohen has seen a lot of people take in recent years is going back to school, but not necessarily for an MBA. The shorter, cheaper master’s in finance degree has become a common way for people to find a job at an investment bank without sterling undergraduate credentials. Over 95% of students from nine of the top 10 master’s in finance programs had a job within three months of graduation in 2018, with four schools sporting 100% employment rates. And unlike MBA programs, most schools are happy to accept students directly from undergrad.
Being rejected 80 times and getting back up shows backbone. Anything more than that and you may need to set your sights on a different path.
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