Only the very best of the brightest now land jobs

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The result is several thousand confused and frustrated top graduates and MBA students. Many who would have been certain of finding jobs in any of the past few years have got nowhere. John, a graduate researcher in risk management at Cambridge University, says: 'I have tried to understand recruiters' logic and come away puzzled. I can see no reason why I was rejected.'

Robert, a top-ranking second-year economics undergraduate at Cambridge, is similarly bemused. He says: 'I applied to six investment banks for a summer internship - four rejected me outright, one told me they weren't taking any interns and one hasn't replied. I have written back to some asking for pointers on how to improve my application, but I haven't heard anything.'

From the candidates' perspective the application process can border on the Kafkaesque. There are complaints that application forms take hours to fill out, that summary rejections are then often issued by computers without human guidance, and that redundancies at the banks have left human resources departments so depleted that it can be difficult to find someone to talk to.

'There doesn't seem to be anyone human to tell me where I went wrong, it's all voicemail systems,' says John at Cambridge.

Derek Shao, a second-year management student at the London School of Economics (LSE), had an interview with an investment bank in January. He has heard nothing since. 'I don't really know whether I got rejected or not,' he says.

Most organisations do give debriefings to candidates who make it to interview. But even these are not always informative.

One second-round Goldman Sachs interviewee who had thought he was assured of a place after a successful internship last year, says: 'It seemed they were trying to find really minor reasons for rejecting me. None were convincing.'

Top MBA students are sometimes being interviewed, but told there are no vacancies anyway. One applicant from London Business School (LBS) had 18 internship interviews at five banks before being turned down and encouraged to reapply by several of them. Another, George Ajjan, had interviews with the three of the four banks that he applied to for a private banking position.

'Ultimately, I came very close to an offer with one bank, but their story was sort of 'we love you, but we just can't take you', which begs the question of why they interviewed me,' says Ajjan.

Banks say disenchantment is inevitable when people are rejected and that they do their best to make the reasons clear.

Most unsuccessful candidates have one thing in common - a determination to come back for more. John and Robert at Cambridge intend to reapply in the autumn. So do the two LBS students. One says:'I will keep on trying. What doesn't kill me can only make me stronger.'

Candidates have developed their own theories for their lack of success. John cites his age: he is 29. 'Banks prefer students who are younger. If you are older you must demonstrate a preparedness to put the work in,' he says.

Robert cites his lack of work experience. He says: 'It's much easier if you've been brought up in London and you've temped in banks during school holidays. Growing up in Wiltshire, all I've done is work in supermarkets.' He plans to remedy this with voluntary work at local stockbrokers this summer.

Some candidates are more likely to succeed in a second application than others. Candidates rejected for internships can reapply for permanent positions applicants who failed when first-time graduates can reapply after taking an MSc or an MBA.

But at least one cause of rejection is irredeemable. For candidates tarred by academic mediocrity in their first degree, there is no going back. One who graduated from the LSE last year had interned as an undergraduate at Merrill Lynch and Deutsche Bank. He was due to join Deutsche's trainee scheme last October, but the offer was rescinded when he missed getting a 2:1 by two percentage points.

'Four days before I was due to start, I was informed that I no longer had a place,' he said. He has since been paying for himself to take the CFA exams, but is not sure this will help.

'I have spoken to banks' recruiters who've told me that even if I go away and get a Harvard MBA and reapply in five years' time, I'd still be rejected because of the class of my degree.'

Getting into investment banking was not always as hard. In his book The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism, Philip Augar, former head of broking at Schroders, describes his interview in 1978: '... a few introductory questions: school (grammar) university (Cambridge) contacts in the City of London(none) sports played (lots)... the next comment was, 'Well you seem like a decent type, we'll offer you a job'.'

Augar says that if he applied today, he would probably not get in. His sentiment is shared by another City of London veteran: 'The people I am turning away are of a far higher calibre than myself when I applied,' he says.

When 2002's graduate and MBA intakes arrive later this year, existing employees should perhaps regard the new recruits with awe. In the harshest recruiting climate for years only the very fittest have survived.

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