GUEST COMMENT: The only questions that really matter in financial services interviews

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A job interview is a lot like a date – whether you make it or break it depends on a few brief moments which stick in people’s minds: it’s your clammy palms or your avoidance of eye contact which make the deepest impression on the person you meet.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about your ability to hold an interview’s gaze. But I can suggest that you think very carefully about your answer to the crucial and entirely predictable question for your area of the industry before you step into the interview. That way you’re less likely to lose your cool. Anticipation is power.

1. Trading:

 Prove: [insert unsolvable mathematical proof here].

Trading interviews are a bit like hazing, although more psychologically damaging. Expect anything. Bring your thickest skin; it can get brutal.

Looking back, I’ve known trading interviews which felt like the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan.

You’re out to prove that you can deal with extremes of pressure combined with mental duress. Arguably, it doesn’t really matter which answer you give as long as it’s both immediate and cogent. If you come out of it feeling like you’ve been water-boarded then your interviewer has probably done an adequate job of assessing you.

If you keep your composure and respond reasonably, you’re more likely to have passed.

2. Sales:

Sell me this biro.

If you can’t make up a reason on the spot for a guy with a large collection of Mont Blancs to want to buy the pus-coloured, company logo-emblazoned pen someone left on the table after the last interview, you might as well go home now.

Tell them anything: it used to belong to Elvis, it shoots darts containing a poison used by Amazonian tribes, it will bring them untold good fortune. It’s your call, and it’s up to your creativity to make them remember you.

Remember, the sub-text here is both: “Can this guy or girl think quickly if put on the spot?,” and, “Will I enjoy sitting next to them for 12 hours a day?”

Drink Red Bull before you go in. Bring your best banter.

3. M&A & Corporate Finance:

What valuation would you put on this biro?

M&A is like alchemy. You’re searching for the magic formula which turns lead into gold.

Excel and PowerPoint are your tools. You must use them to convince a client to do a deal that probably makes no sense. The track record of value destruction wrought by hyperactive, aggressive corporate financiers over the past thirty years is a testament to this.

Even though you’ll be expected to do a lot of grunt work as a junior in M&A, using all of your creativity to make a pig’s ear look like a silk purse is very much a daily requirement.

Read up on valuation techniques and practice keeping a straight face as you explain, confidently and in detail, why that British Gas-France Telecom deal makes strategic sense.

4. Accounting:

Do you have any hobbies which you’re devoted to?

The answer here is an unequivocal no. The Big Four firms and their smaller cousins make a Faustian pact with new recruits; join us, spend several years slaving for your accounting qualification every evening and weekend, for one of the lowest starting salaries in the City, and you’ll live happily ever after.

There’s just no way though to balance a keen interest in equestrianism or bird-watching with all that studying, so say no, and bang your fist on the table for emphasis if necessary.

The author works in asset management and is an ex-investment banker