Do Your Homework: I-Banking Interview Prep

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Everyone says I’m expected to “do my homework.” What exactly does this mean? How much will I be expected to know about each company with which I interview?

First and foremost, “doing your homework” means that you genuinely understand the role of an investment bank and can clearly articulate the distinct roles of its various functions and that you have devoted some time to distinguishing among the major players. It means you’ve considered all of this information and shaped an idea of which firm you’d like to work for, and in which general area. It means that you’ve developed reasonable job expectations, done some good old-fashioned soul searching to decide whether or not the inherent sacrifices are worth it to you, and determined the specific benefits you’d hope to gain from the analyst or associate experience.

The homework bar is higher at the MBA level than it is at the undergraduate level. In general, interviewers are more forgiving of analyst candidates for two primary reasons: First, no one expects a 22-year old interviewing for his first job to know for certain that his destiny lies in investment banking. Second, investment banks typically hire analysts for a two- to three-year time horizon, after which they expect many will go on to business school or other jobs. Nonetheless, firms will expect that both undergraduates and MBA candidates alike can articulate solid reasons for pursuing a job in the field, and they will expect to see evidence that you’ve invested some serious time determining whether this career-and this firm in particular-is right for you.

Regardless of the specific position for which you are applying, “doing your homework” has two primary components: understanding what distinguishes the firm in its industry, and understanding what distinguishes the firm as a place to work. The first of these relates to the firm’s position in the financial marketplace, while the second has to do with its “employment brand”-the unique way the firm positions itself to prospective employees.  Our Seven-Step Homework Guide should help you to learn about both distinctions:

1. PARTICULARLY IF YOU’RE AN UNDERGRADUATE WITH LITTLE PRIOR EXPOSURE TO INVESTMENT BANKING, MAKE SURE YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT AN INVESTMENT BANK DOES AND HOW THE VARIOUS FUNCTIONS OF A SECURITIES FIRM FIT TOGETHER.

We’d recommend that you start with WetFeet’s Insider Guide to Careers in Investment Banking. Mariam Naficy’s book The Fast Track: The Insider’s Guide to Winning Jobs in Management Consulting, Investment Banking, and Securities Trading also provides an excellent overview. As the name implies, this book is a particularly good resource for those candidates comparing potential opportunities in multiple areas.

2. ONCE YOU’VE DETERMINED WHICH FIRMS YOU’LL BE INTERVIEWING WITH, CHECK OUT ANY FIRM SPECIFIC LITERATURE YOU CAN FIND.

This includes the WetFeet Insider Guides to investment banking firms (see the list at the end of this book), which provide insights into the firms’ areas of relative strength and insiders’ perceptions of the companies’ culture. In addition, be sure to review any recruiting literature on file at your campus career center. This information is likely to be general, but it will provide a useful overview of each firm’s organizational structure and respective recruiting processes. Also, these materials will give you a general sense of the “employment brand” that the firm is trying to convey-in other words, you’ll get a sense of how the firm distinguishes itself from other firms in the marketplace that compete for talent.

3. CHECK OUT THE WEBSITE OF EACH FIRM WITH WHICH YOU’LL BE INTERVIEWING.

This does not mean that you’ll be expected to memorize and regurgitate either the company’s financials or its business principles in the course of the interview. However, if you’re interviewing with a public company, at least take a gander at the firm’s annual report (generally available through the Investor Relations section of the firm’s website). In addition to providing detailed information on the company’s financials, the annual report highlights the key transactions in which the bank was involved over the course of the previous year and summarizes the relative performance of each of its major revenue-generating areas. Also, check out the most recent press releases for any noteworthy developments that have taken place since the last annual report went to press.

4. REFINE YOUR INDUSTRY-SPECIFIC KNOWLEDGE AND REVIEW THE MAJOR TRANSACTIONS IN WHICH EACH FIRM IS INVOLVED.

Trade journals such as Institutional Investor, Investment Dealers’ Digest, and The Daily Deal provide a wealth of timely industry-specific information. For example, Investment Dealers’ Digest (www.iddmagazine.com) offers an excellent online database for subscribers, which includes league table information, recent deal flow activity, and information on the biggest transactions in various areas (M&A advisory, high-technology, energy, etc.). Unfortunately, an annual subscription to this little gem costs a hefty $995, but full-text articles from the print publication are available through Factiva, a comprehensive online news database; if your business school library offers Factiva access (and it’s worth checking into), you may want to take a look. If not, Investment Dealers’ Digest occasionally offers trial subscriptions at little to no cost. In all likelihood, you won’t ever be asked about a particular bank’s league table standings, but it doesn’t hurt to develop a sense of who does what on the Street.

5. KEEP ABREAST OF CURRENT EVENTS-THOSE RELATING TO THE FINANCIAL MARKETS AND OTHERWISE.

Even if you’re not ordinarily a faithful The Wall Street Journal reader or subscriber, it may behoove you to become one, at least during the recruiting season. The publication’s online edition is particularly user-friendly and is available to students at a significant discount (as is the print version). The Financial Times (WSJ’s European equivalent) is another excellent source of financial news and not surprisingly provides a more pronounced international focus than the The Wall Street Journal. At a minimum, know the major developments and trends characterizing the investment banking industry. In particular, the increasingly widespread practice of “bundling” investment and commercial banking services and the intense scrutiny over firms’ investment research franchises are two trends you should feel comfortable discussing in an interview. Also, be sure to have at least a general sense of movements in the major indices (investment banking interviewers have been known to ask what the Dow closed at the previous day) and the events that most directly affect the financial markets.

6. ATTEND THE ON-CAMPUS INFORMATION SESSION.

Trust us: The hour that you spend at each firm’s on-campus meet-and-greet will be time well spent. At the information session, the company will undoubtedly address the topic of what sets it apart from its chief competitors-its competitors for business and its competitors for talented people. Pay attention to what the firm’s representatives stress as its key selling points: whether it’s the firm’s untrammeled dominance of M&A activity, its unique rotation program for incoming analysts or associates, or its unparalleled reputation as an employer of choice. In addition, these information sessions provide an opportunity for you to meet current analysts and associates and to hear them answer the questions that you’ve been formulating throughout the course of your research.

7. TAKE THE TIME TO SPEAK WITH INSIDERS!

There’s really no substitute for good old-fashioned informational networking (a process which should be relatively easy for current MBA students, who have a considerable network of b-school students, former analysts, summer associates, and alumni to consult). If you’re an undergrad with fewer
industry contacts, check out your career center’s alumni database for the names and contact details of current firm employees (preferably within the division to which you’re applying). At the very least, contact the individuals who represented their firms at the on-campus information sessions (analysts and associates, please-firms may send VPs and the occasional MD to information session, but bankers at this level aren’t likely to return your call-remember our discussion of the hierarchical structure earlier in the guide?). Not only can these individuals generally answer your most pressing queries, they can typically put you in touch with other people at the bank who can provide you with a broader perspective on what it’s like to work there. Not only will this help you learn about the specifics of each firm’s culture, but it will give you some real-life insight into the life of an analyst or associate.

Make no mistake: Preparing for interviews is a time-intensive process. If your schedule is already filled to capacity with academic and extracurricular obligations, it’s particularly tempting to gloss over interview preparation in favor of the more immediate demands on your time and attention. This is a dangerous trap, and one that you should avoid at all costs. In this case, it’s better to take a long-term view. As one recently hired insider advises, “Take a light course load that semester if you can. The time you spend researching companies and talking to insiders is time well spent, and definitely worth the investment in the end.”

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