The investment banks that conduct the hardest interviews

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Comparatively speaking, investment banking interviews are known to be extremely difficult. You’ll face highly technical questions along with behavioral inquiries and even an occasional brainteaser. Plus, the physical process is rather daunting. They call interview sessions for juniors “Super Day” for a reason; you’re not just sitting down with one hiring manager for an hour-long chat.

But which banks put candidates through the most stress during the interview process? The latest rankings from Wall Street Oasis are below. A quick glance at the list reveals an obvious narrative before you get near the bottom of the page. Interviews at boutique investment banks are killers.

Boutiques account for the top seven hardest interviews, as judged by people who have gone through more than one. Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, two of the most prestigious and highly selective bulge bracket investment banks, don’t even make the top 10, finishing 13th and 23rd, respectively. PJT Partners, launched within the last five years by famed rainmaker Paul Taubman, leads the list, with 99% of candidates considering the interviews to be difficult. Established boutiques Centerview Partners and Moelis and Co. fill out the top three, followed by restructuring specialist Millstein and Co., which reportedly just got acquired last week by fellow boutique Guggenheim Partners. You have to reach the eighth position on the list before you hit a bulge bracket bank – Citigroup.

Recruiters and people who work at boutique investment banks don’t find the rankings to be much of a surprise. Due to their size, boutiques care more about culture and fit than larger firms, according to one New York recruiter who asked to remain anonymous as they work with a few of the aforementioned firms. Analysts work in small teams and have direct contact with MDs, but also clients – something you wouldn’t see at larger investment banks. “They’re never going to hire someone with minimal people skills who’s great with Excel,” the recruiter said. That said, the team is small enough that strong client-facing skills aren’t enough either. Boutiques don’t have to fill near as many seats, so they can afford to be selective. “They want the finished product,” the recruiter said.

This is why the interview process can be so demanding. Current employees at top-ranked boutiques note that the technical questions they were asked had much more depth than what they had seen at full-service investment banks. “They ask more than ‘walk me through the three financial statements’” of a company, one said. They’ll dig into your knowledge of financial theory and application, including actual case studies, he said. “You can’t just memorize answers to common questions – you actually have to know how to work through it and provide quantitative answers.”

Culture fit is the next big hurdle as analysts at boutiques will work mostly on live deals, not just pitches. On the surface, personal questions should be easier to answer than technical ones, but most of the time that isn’t the case, said a current VP at a New York boutique. “Most juniors seem wildly unprepared to have an actual conversation with you,” he said, recalling one interview where a candidate aced every technical question but couldn’t find his tongue when asked about his passions outside of finance. “He didn’t even make our long-list.” These types of people can be assets at large banks, but “you can’t take a kid to a client meeting if he is going to be sweating through his suit jacket,” he said.

The actual interview process at boutiques sounds similar to what you’ll face at larger investment banks, though they tend to start with phone screens more often as their human resources footprint is smaller. Larger investment banks have started incorporating simulated video interviews in some cases. You’ll usually be looking at two first-round phone screens and then, if things go well, a Super Day consisting of as many as six interviews with both senior managers and potential colleagues – a key difference between boutique and bulge bracket banks.

One point of interest that may have contributed to boutiques rising up the charts as the most stressful interviewers: many now offer several services in addition to traditional M&A advisory, including ECM, DCM, restructuring and activist advisory, among others. Yes, they are small – making culture fit particularly important – but the breadth of knowledge required to work at a boutique is on the rise.

Have a confidential story, tip, or comment you’d like to share? Contact: btuttle@efinancialcareers.com

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