“If you’re thinking of applying to Goldman Sachs, you’re probably anticipating a battle to get hired. You’ve probably read those stories about how the firm only accepts 4% of people. You’ve probably seen those profiles of brilliant students with rafts of internships. I guess you’re also thinking you need to be excellent at maths and to have been interested in a career in an investment bank since you started university?
Well, I was a recruiter for Goldman and you’re wrong. Everyone wants what they can’t have, and Goldman Sachs is no exception. Those excellent students with a first in economics and ten internships? They’re not the ideal. When I was at Goldman, we were actually fairly anti-hiring these people, whom we referred to as “plug and play.” Yes, they’ve got the track record, but they’re not exciting.
What Goldman Sachs really wants are people with unusual profiles. This is where the emphasis lies – it’s all about trying to attract a diverse group of applicants who’ve studied history, or English Literature instead of just finance. That’s become harder since the financial crisis and it seems especially hard for Goldman because the firm can be viewed negatively in wider society. It therefore has to try doubly hard to draw people in.
This is why Goldman Sachs has some big diversity initiatives. It’s also why Goldman – pretty much uniquely among banks – doesn’t do numerical tests. Nor does it do assessment centres. Instead, the recruitment process at Goldman is all about round after round of face-to-face interviews – there’s a big emphasis on character and being the sort of interesting person they want to work with.
This doesn’t mean you’ll get in if you’re academically mediocre. You’ll still need top grades – but grades aren’t the only thing that matters. At Goldman Sachs, every single application is read by a human being. I know this, because I would sit there day after day reading through a stack of thousands of CVs. And then I’d pass the successful ones to my colleagues to check again. We didn’t just check the qualifications, we also paid close attention to the cover letter – the 300 words on why you want the role. There were some students who were excellent until we got to this letter: people who sent the same application letter to 10 different banks and who weren’t writing specifically about why they wanted to work for Goldman.
So, what did we look for in the cover letter? We looked for creativity and effort and writing about GS. There were some crazy submissions – poems and things. Someone who’d studied English Literature at Cambridge wrote a really brilliant and off the wall description of why they wanted to work for us and we invited them for interview because we thought they might have some brilliant and innovative ideas.
It’s not just zaniness, the bottom line is that Goldman really wants to hire people who are ambitious. You need to be personable, and you need to be seriously ambitious. This is why Goldman also hires a lot of people who play competitive sports – we had everything from Olympic swimmers to semi-professional tennis players. You don’t need to be interested in finance from year dot, but you do need to be incredibly competitive for a cause.
Clive Smith is the pseudonym of a recruiter who worked in Goldman Sachs’ securities division.