The short answer to the question in the headline is not very far – investment banks and recruiters serious about hiring a candidate will always do a thorough background check that will expose any egregious truth-stretching. There are areas where you can stretch the truth on your resume a bit as long as it can be proven and justified, or certain convention allows it.
I will describe three places where you can stretch the truth on your resume and how far you can go.
I recommend keeping the months you started and ended each position off your resume and just include the years. It can smooth out any gaps you may have between jobs and, to be honest, no one really notices when they are doing an initial screen. I have only shown years on the resumes I prepare for my program members who come to us for help landing a job in banking, and I have not had one case of a recruiter or hiring manager at a bank request to see the starting month.
There is a heightened risk of raising eyebrows if a job in your employment history ended in January and you didn't start your next job until December of the same year. By only showing years on a resume, you can mask 11 months of unemployment that might be cause for concern with someone. If this is the case, you may want to consider adding a section explaining what you did in that gap of time – maybe you took some continuing ed classes or did something entrepreneurial.
A recent client of ours named James who was laid off from a banking role but received a three-month severance asked if he could stretch his employment period with that employer by the time covered by that severance. We told him he could as technically he is still being compensated for his time by that bank – it's a stretch for sure, but again, something that will not make or break an application.
Another area where it is very easy to stretch the truth is in describing your prowess on Excel. Everyone keen to be an investment banking analyst or associate purports to be “highly proficient” in financial modeling and obviously would have to prove it in some way.
You should only stretch the truth on your resume about your experience running financial models on Excel to the extent you actually have done the work. If you are coming from outside banking (let's say consulting), then hiring managers would not expect that you've done full-on merger or leveraged buy-out models. So don't think you have to show that on your resume, especially if you’ve never done one or your only exposure to it has been in class or maybe watching a video from YouTube about it.
For candidates who come from non-finance backgrounds who want to highlight your Excel skills, fully describe the types of models you have built. Pricing, market-sizing, planning and forecasting models are the most transferable to the skills and abilities that would be expected from a junior banker.
The bottom line: If you are applying for a banking job and but never actually built a financial model and don’t how to get your revolver to work or how to make sure your accretion/dilution makes sense, then don’t claim to be great at financial model-building. It’s better to be honest and present yourself as technically capable of learning the nuances of a discounted cash flow (DCF) and comparable company valuations.
Demonstrating leadership experience on a resume for banking can get blown way out of proportion, especially among graduates and junior bankers not far removed from school.
A common leadership example we've seen where candidates tend to stretch the truth is with experience picking stocks for a student- or school-sponsored fund. Stretching the truth too far with work you may have done with an investing club or endowment fund may make you appear either arrogant or more interested in the buy side rather than an investment banking job, so be careful if this applies to you.
A veritable leadership experience with this type of activity should be limited to elected positions you earned (don't claim to be a leader or decision maker when you weren't). Where you can stretch the truth to your advantage is on the time spent covering and understanding of stocks or companies you looked at.
In showing leadership experience on a resume, we recommend limiting it to elected positions within a club or organization.
One of our clients, Crystal, an aspiring investment banking analyst, came to us with a laundry list of 20-plus leadership examples on her resume, with only seven being actual elected leadership titles. By limiting the number to the three VP and two club president positions she did hold as a student at Columbia, it added weight, prestige and focus to the initiatives she did there, from building membership and enacting an agenda through influence and persuasion. There was no need to stretch the truth of how great a leader she was in school based on quantity of examples.
Stretching the truth on a resume targeting investment banking can seem like the default approach, but I’ve found that the most powerful resumes testifying to a candidate's ability tend to prioritize essential bulletpoints rather than including everything under the sun. It’s best to take an honest approach heavy on specifics.
Stretching the truth can backfire in a very bad way for a candidate and lead to a complete loss of your reputation and credibility.
We had one candidate who went to a summer seminar at Harvard (the ones open to all) who later stretched the truth to say he “attended” Harvard, representing himself as an alumni of the university. Of course that is easily checked, and a simple search of Harvard's alumni database by my team showed that the candidate received no degree and had no affiliation to the school whatsoever. This would be devastating to any application.
So yes, it’s fine to be creative on your resume and augment your achievements to reflect yourself in the best light, but when you cross the line of stretching the truth too far, you should know that there will likely be consequences.
Francis de la Cruz is the founder of The Write Resume and The Private Placement Group. Previously, he worked as an investment banker at UBS, Morgan Stanley and J.P. Morgan.
Lead photo credit: SIphotography/iStock/Thinkstock; headshot provided by the author