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19 tough Wall Street interview questions and how to answer them

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When an interviewer asks you a tough question, take a second to think before you speak.

So you’ve scored an interview at a bank or buy-side firm that you’d really like to work for. That’s an important step, but you’ve still got a long way to go before securing a job offer. Some Wall Street recruiters, HR executives and hiring managers may try to trick you, but most are interested in understanding how you think and interact with others, as well as your knowledge of the industry and ability to perform the role for which you’re interviewing.

Here are some of the toughest questions that you’re likely to get during a Wall Street job interview now.

What did you do to prepare for this interview? Explain what you know about our firm.

Know as much as is online and public about the firm, including press releases and articles on new hires, directional changes, mergers and acquisitions, and any other recent news.

“You are being judged on how well prepared you are for this very first assignment you’ve been given without yet being hired,” says Julia Harris Wexler, a career coach who works with Columbia Business School. “Know the job description and be prepared to say exactly why your skills align with the position.”

Also, research the interviewers. There’s no excuse not to know their background, Wexler says.

“It provides a natural conversation point to say, ‘I see you attended UPenn and played lacrosse. I also played lacrosse in college,’” she says.

If for any reason you could not do this job what other careers would you pursue? What is your plan for after Wall Street?

When you interview on Wall Street, your goal should be to make interviewers understand that this is all you want to do and that you’re passionate about it.

“Show that you’re focused and committed to pursuing this goal and willing to break through any of the barriers that might exist to pursue this goal,” says Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. “Stay singled minded and [demonstrate] you’re making it happen however possible, within reason.

“Emphasize your commitment to pursuing this goal,” he says. “Say there are plenty of things you could do, but this is what you want to do.”

Discuss your personal revenue contribution to the group in terms of your specific P&L?

This type of question is common for front-office positions, including sales roles. Give the interviewer something concrete, but do not reveal proprietary information about a current or former employer.

“What can you bring to this role in a time where electronic trading platforms are cutting out the role of the salesman?” says Diego Azevedo, a strategy, economics, research and analysis recruitment consultant at Selby Jennings. “Candidates should focus on what an automated [trading] platform and a computer cannot do, service clients in everything they need.”

Tell me about yourself in three sentences. Why should we hire you for this role? What is your strongest accomplishment personally?

While this type of question seems like a softball, there are pitfalls here. Stick to the facts – and nothing but the facts.

“This means answering questions with hard data, versus your opinion or self-reported data,” Wexler says Julia Harris Wexler, career coach and the managing partner of Julia Harris Wexler Consulting.

For example, say: “I achieved a return on equity of ___% throughout my career.”  Versus saying: “I know how to make money for my clients.”

“Let the interviewer draw that conclusion from your data,” Wexler says. “Do not oversell; simply present the facts.

“It’s way more powerful when an interviewer draws their own inference,” she says. “Know your resume so that you do not delay in answering questions about moves you made and the dates and times of your experiences.”

Brain teasers, like multiplying four-figure numbers or figuring out how many bricks are needed to clad the entire surface of the Empire State Building.

Particularly for positions that involve more conceptual and quantitative gymnastics, hiring managers want to know: Are you smart?

“You typically find that if a candidate is interviewing for a group that is highly quantitative, they’re going to want you to prove that you are skilled at performing magic with numbers,” Cohen says. “There’s no way around it – you have to actually do it.

“You need to have a defensible strategy to show that there is a logic to your answer,” he says. “The logic by which you come to that conclusion is key.”

If a client is going to leave to go to the competition, what will you do to keep their business?

Share an anecdote about talking an upset client off the ledge or helping one out of a delicate or difficult situation.

“Heads of business want to know that their salespeople are tuned in and ahead of every problem the client might have, because there is a cheaper option out there but there should not be anyone with better service,” Azevedo says.

Who did you vote for and why?

Political questions are minefields. The interviewer may be trying to gauge: How diplomatic are you? Are you politically practical? Are you aware of any allegiances at the company at which you’re interviewing?

For example, Bob Mercer is a well-known ultra-conservative donor and Trump supporter, and he fired Renaissance Technologies employee Robert Magerman for publicly criticizing the co-CEO’s political views.

“Talking about Bernie Sanders may not fly on Wall Street – you have to know your audience to hold your own,” Cohen says. “Even if your political convictions are not aligned with the person interviewing, show that you’re discreet and make it clear that you don’t feel that it’s an appropriate topic without chastising the interviewer.

“Say, ‘I’m confident in the individual that I voted for,’” he says.

The interview may press you or try to bait you: What do you think about the current state of affairs? What do you think will happen with the economy? Do you think that Trump will be able to move the needle?

“You have to be sure to be up on current events, drop names like Anthony Scaramucci and Gary Cohn, and explain why or why not while being diplomatic,” Cohen says.

Why are you better than everyone else we’re interviewing? What specifically differentiates you from your peers?

Interviewers want to know: Are you a fighter? Do you believe that you deserve this? Are you poised and confident, or either wishy-washy or obnoxious?

“There are lots of folks competing for very few positions, so what makes you stand out so much so that we can’t help but pay attention to you?” Cohen says. “You have to be able to enumerate and extol your virtues and talents.

“There’s never a single reason – there are always multiple reasons you’d be the best possible candidate,” he says. “Touch on many if not all of the key qualifications that they’re looking for in the role you’re going for.”

What type of environment do you most dislike?

If you’re interviewing at a bank, then don’t say “a bank.” But seriously, avoid criticizing a past employer.

Tell me a joke

The interviewers are wondering: How uncomfortable can we make you?

“That question is really getting at, ‘Can you think on your feet and turn lemons into lemonade?’” Cohen says. “They’re not looking for Joan Rivers or Louis C.K., they want to see someone who is comfortable in your own skin; if you can’t think of one, say ‘I have the worst sense of humor,’ or if you do tell one, make sure it’s fun and hopefully funny but, more importantly, appropriate and won’t embarrass your employer in front of clients.”

How do you deal with bullies who you work with?

Remember: Interviewers are proven to hire those who they like versus those who are the most qualified. So, don’t say you went to HR, because nobody like a snitch. Try telling an anecdote about when you were unruffled.

“You certainly have to have the skills necessary to do the job – being nice on its own doesn’t cut it – but once they figure out you can do the job, they hire the professional they most want to spend long hours working with side by side,” Wexler says.

What are you best at doing?

Be authentic. That means to tell the truth about your accomplishments and how you work best.

“No one wants to listen to you read a script – and it produces anxiety for all who lie,” Wexler says. “Interviewers pick it up.

“Know yourself and tell them who you are, so that you make their job easier,” she says. “Help them read between the lines of your resume.

“Breathe life into your experience by having a high EQ [emotional intelligence] about yourself as a professional.”

What are you worst at doing? What are your weaknesses?

Respond carefully when a hiring manager asks about your weaknesses.

For any questions about skills that you do not have answers for, Wexler suggests saying: “I have not yet worked at that, but neither did I work at the past few areas that I have proven myself capable of mastering, such as __________. I enjoy learning new things and have proven to be a quick study.” Give examples that illustrate this point.

What is the toughest decision you’ve ever made? What’s the hardest challenge you have faced in your life thus far?

The interview is asking whether you’re mature enough to handle a real crisis and if you’ve had any character-building experiences.

“Talking about something that’s flimsy, shallow or inconsequential will not impress your interviewer,” Cohen says. “It has to be something substantial, like running into a burning building to save people or delaying college to work and support the family after a parent passed away.

“Demonstrate maturity and cause the interviewer to say ‘That’s really impressive,’ rather than ‘This person is a lightweight,’” he says. “Whether it’s an investment bank or a buy-side firm, you’ll be making decisions that involve huge amounts of money, so prove that you can exercise good judgment under stress or duress.”

Photo credit: Rui Vale de sousa/GettyImages

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