Five years ago, getting a job in an investment bank was a question of completing a numerical test, filling in an application for a summer internship position, attending some interviews and converting your summer internship into a job, Not any more. These days, you'll typically need to complete internship after internship after internship before you get a full time offer. You'll need to participate in finance clubs and 'leadership' activities. It will help if you've set up your own company. And you'll need impeccable grades.
"People here are burning out before they even make it inside a bank," says one student at a London university with a summer internship at a major US bank. "They can't handle the pressure of all the psychometric tests and application processes which are required just to get an internship."
"I came really close to burning out," admits another student from a top London university who's joining a US bank's trading desk this summer. "I applied to around 40 banks and boutiques for internships, and I was running the investment society and completing my college work. None of those 40 applications came to anything and it put me under tremendous stress. I ended up cold calling trading houses in London."
With banks like Goldman Sachs only hiring one in every 33 applicants, competition for places on banks' analyst programmes remains incredibly intense. And with banks cutting graduate recruitment targets for 2016, students are under increasing pressure to differentiate themselves from the crowd.
"It seems that the industry has got a lot more competitive," says another London student who's secured an IBD internship at a top US bank this summer. "It seems banks now require work experience, entrepreneurial experience, high grades, and leadership positions." He thinks banks are doing it deliberately: "They're testing your mettle. If you can cope, they can see that you'll be ok within a highly-pressured industry like investment banking."
What's the trick to surviving the harsh new reality as a student with banking aspirations? The successful students we spoke to revealed several coping mechanisms.
Firstly, you absolutely need to secure a spring internship or 'insight week' in your first year. If you do this, you'll be in the slipstream for a second year internship and full time position. If you don't, you'll make life far, far harder later on.
"Securing a spring week helped me massively," says one student at London's Imperial College. "During the spring week, I was able to interact with the people responsible for filling the summer internships on a human level - I was more than another CV on their screen or nervous interviewee carrying a leather satchel. Thanks to that spring week, I've got a summer internship already lined up."
Getting a first job in banking - even if it's just a spring internship, requires persistence. "I've got friends who received 10 rejections from different banks," says one student. "You need to keep applying - it's a numbers game."
The student who unsuccessfully applied for spring weeks at 40 banks and boutiques in London said he eventually landed a few days of unpaid work experience at a small trading house in London after cold-calling. "I was desperate," he says. "I could see that I needed to gain some relevant experience if I was going to be noticed, but no one would give me any."
The incoming IBD analyst says he took a different approach: "I spent my first year of university enjoying student life. However, I still managed to secure a spring week by applying at the right time and reaching out the right people. I then spent my second year doing things to boost my CV. And then I spent my third year focusing on my studies and taking the CFA Level I exam which has given me additional knowledge and shows I'm interested in the industry."
In this way, he says he managed to secure this summer's internship without too much strain. "If you play your cards right, at the right time, and make sure you're well positioned, you can get a banking job without killing yourself."
Another student who's secured an internship this summer stresses the need to commit long term: "Even when you get an internship, over half of you won't be converted into full-timers. It takes a long, long time and a lot of persistence to get a job in banking and a lot of people just don't have the discipline and resilience to make it."
Needless to say, luck is luck and if you don't have it, there's not much you can do to get it. Even so, all the students we spoke to stressed the element of serendipity in the investment banking application process. "I see plenty of people who are as good as me, who've been through all the processes I've been through and who don't have an offer," says one student. "I've also seen people who've got offers with the 'bare minimum' on their CVs. Some people have it easy, some don't."
Lastly, if you want to last the long process of securing a job in banking, you'll need to enjoy the race.
Some students develop a whole philosophical ethos around hard work: "If you truly want to achieve something, working hard to enhance your chances of success should come naturally," says one incoming intern at Goldman Sachs, "Of course it will be tiring, but if you want to achieve it it's worth it. It's not just the result that matters, but how you develop during the process. I've made sacrifices and have constantly asked myself whether I truly want to achieve this goal."
Others just 'love finance.' "What's really helped is my interest in the mechanics of the financial system," says another imminent intern. "I keep myself motivated because I like what I'm learning, I'm meeting incredibly smart people, and having a fun time along the way!"