After all of the hard work you’ve done to keep your grades up, build up your resume, and network your butt off, you’ve finally landed that elusive investment banking interview. There’s just one last hurdle before you can have that job offer in hand; this is the culmination of everything you’ve been working towards your entire life. You know it’s not going to be easy, and if I had to guess, you’re probably the most nervous you’ve ever been in your whole life.
You’re confident in your skills and what you can bring to the table. You’ve done your homework, found the most common and important questions, and studied a lot. Now, you have to go out there and execute. All the time you spent practicing won’t matter if you don’t hit the shot when the game is on the line.
Now, after years of experience interviewing candidates and helping my clients ace interviews, I’ve derived some crucial actions you must take and behaviors you must have to stand out in investment banking interviews.
Read on to find out what you should do in an investment banking interview to succeed and get the job. Let’s do this in chronological order.
1. Don’t show up on time, show up early
The worst thing you can do is to be late for an interview. Imagine all the preparation you’ve put in, going down the drain because of a silly mistake. One time, I had a client who wasn’t even late for the interview – he was sitting in the waiting area, but nobody came and grabbed him due to a miscommunication. When he finally went into the interview room, the interviewer assumed he was late, and the entire mood of the interview was just off. Needless to say, he didn’t get the job. You never know what could happen on the way to the meeting; account for the chance that you run into traffic, and any other unforeseeable circumstances. Arrive at least 15-30 minutes early, and if it’s too soon, find a Starbucks nearby and wait there until it’s time to check-in.
2. Look the part
The first impression is everything. You are interviewing for investment banking, which is a client-facing job. Banks want to hire people who are presentable so that they can put them in front of CEOs and CFOs of multinational public companies. Make sure you’re well-groomed and make sure you dress conservatively and professionally.
For men: it means a solid colored suit (either dark grey, dark blue or black) paired with solid shirts (stick to white or light blue). For your tie, again stick to conservative colors (i.e., dark blue instead of red), and do not wear french cuffs. For your shoes, wear black cap toe dress shoes and make sure to get your shoes shined beforehand. Wear black dress socks, nothing with crazy colors.
For women: again, wear a conservative solid colored suit (same color as the men), and if you’re going with a skirt suit, nothing overly tight or revealing. Wear a light-colored button-down shirt (same color as the men) and don’t wear too much makeup or perfume.
3. Get yourself to relax
While you’re waiting for the interview to start, you’re going to have a lot of downtimes. A lot of candidates let the anxiety build up during this time, and by the time they go into the interview room, they’re already sweating bullets.
Come up with a ritual that helps you relax. Maybe it involves a quick meditation. Take deep breaths. Stretch it out. Listen to music that brings back good memories for you and raises your vibration (Eye of the Tiger, anyone?) — thinking about people, things, events, or memories that make you happy. Whatever it takes for you to relax, put yourself in the right state of mind so that you can perform at your optimal state.
4. Watch your nonverbal cues – be confident, yet humble
According to scientific studies, 55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken. Candidates are so often caught up on remembering WHAT they’re supposed to say, that they forget about HOW they’re saying it. Except long after the interview is over, the interviewer won’t remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.
So make sure your body language is on point. Sit up and don’t slouch. Have a firm handshake. Maintain eye contact. Smile at the appropriate times. Lean in a bit to show that you’re attentive. And again, look relaxed, not nervous.
Have some pep in your voice, and try not to be monotone (this was something I had to practice back when I was recruiting). Bankers want to see that you’re energetic and excited about the job, but not too over the top at the same time. Speak with a confident tone, but have humility in your answers.
5. Listen carefully to the question
A common mistake that candidates make is when they don’t answer the actual question that’s being asked. This can happen when the interviewer is asking a multi-part question, and you only answer one part. For example, if the interviewer says “walk me through how EACH of these transactions flows through the three financial statements,” and then you proceed to only talk about the first transaction, or you only talk about its impact on the balance sheet and income statement, but completely ignore the cash flow statement. Well, you’re not answering the question.
This can also happen when the interviewer asks you a question that is just a disguised version of a question you’ve prepared for, except you don’t know how to read between the lines. For example, the interviewer might ask you: “Your GPA is only 3.3. Why should we hire you when everyone else has a 3.7 or higher?” Instead of going down the rabbit hole of being defensive about your GPA, you should address the GPA and then turn this into a question about what your strengths are.
6. When answering questions, be concise
A lot of candidates LOVE to ramble. They go on and on and on. They tell these super detailed, elaborate stories. Except investment bankers are notorious for having short attention spans. The nature of their job demands that they become somewhat impatient creatures who always want to “go go go.” With that said, if you ramble, you will most likely lose your interviewer, see their eyes glaze over, or have them start scrolling through their emails right in front of you.
To avoid this mistake, when you’re drafting out your answers, always ask yourself these questions about every single sentence you include:
What is the purpose of this sentence? What is the point I’m trying to get across? And why does this matter? What value is it adding to my candidacy?
If you can’t answer these questions about a sentence, you should probably take it out. A shorter answer is usually better than a longer answer because the interviewer can always ask you follow-up questions if they want to know more. If you start doing verbal diarrhea on them, though, there is no coming back from that.
7. Be a great storyteller
The key to questions like “tell me about yourself” or “tell me about a time when…” is to be a great storyteller. A common mistake that many candidates make is that they only TELL. “I’m really hardworking.” “I’m really good at time management.” “I’m really interested in finance.” Statements like that don’t really tell the interviewer anything – what are they supposed to do, take your word for it?
Instead, I always tell my clients: “Show, Don’t Tell.” Demonstrate the qualities you have by telling a story about it. Make sure you pick the best examples from all of the past experiences you’ve had. Structure your answers in a logical, coherent, and easy to follow manner. And most importantly, make sure to tie it back to investment banking so that the interviewer knows why they should care.
8. Truly understand the technical concepts
When I say TRULY understand, I really mean it. Not just the superficial, shallow understanding that most candidates have. In my experience, there are three levels of understanding:
1. Basic understanding: An example of this is when you’re reading an interview guide, and you don’t know how to answer a question, so you cheat by looking at the answer. When you read the answer, the concept seems to make sense to you, so you feel like you understand what’s going on. This is where everyone starts.
2. Cognitive understanding: This is one step further than a basic understanding. This is when you not only feel like you understand what’s going on, but you’ve also memorized the answers. So now if you come across this question again in the near future, you’ll be able to regurgitate the answer you’ve memorized. The problem is, as soon as you put your interview guide down for a week or two, you no longer remember the information. Or if the interviewer changes the question up slightly by asking you a variation of it, or by changing the numbers and assumptions being used, and now you’re suddenly stumped. This is where most candidates stop.
3. Physical mastery: This is where most candidates who get job offers actually get to. It means the light bulb has gone off in their head. They’ve connected all the dots. They truly understand how all the different concepts tie together, and they’re able to apply this knowledge to different variations of questions they’ve never seen before. They are able to teach these concepts to other people.
Once you’ve achieved physical mastery, the knowledge is actually INSIDE of you. The analogy here is an orange – when you squeeze an orange, orange juice comes out. When you get squeezed by the interviewer, because they’re applying pressure and trying to test you, whatever is actually inside of you, is what’s going to come out.
9. Ask intelligent questions
At the end of most interviews, your interviewer will save some time for you to ask them questions. Some of you may think this part is not all that important, and you couldn’t be more wrong.
The questions at the end are an opportunity for you to get additional information that you want to know about the firm. Do not ask lazy questions or questions that you should be able to find the answers to on your own, without having to speak to someone who works at the firm. At the end of the day, even though most of you would probably take whatever investment banking offer you can get, that is a really bad “posture” to have. Instead, just like dating, you’re also evaluating the firm to see if it would be a good fit with what you’re looking for. So make sure you are using this opportunity to do your due diligence accordingly.
10. Send thank-you note
After the interview, make sure to send individual thank-you notes to every single interviewer you met with, as soon as you can. Do not just have the exact same email that you copy/paste to every single interviewer. They all work together, it’s not difficult for them to compare notes and it’s pretty obvious when it’s just a generic, cookie-cutter note. They took the time out of their busy schedules to meet with you, and the least you could do is write them a personalized note to thank them for their time. This won’t ever be the reason you get the job, but it can be the reason that you don’t if you don’t do it correctly.
And that’s about it! If you’ve gotten to the interview stage, you’re already three feet from gold. Make sure you don’t make any silly mistakes by following the steps above and let’s bring that offer home!