Wall Street Mastermind

7 Reasons Why You’re Struggling to Break Into Banking

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Sam Shiah

May 9, 2024

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Did you know that the best investment banks in the world only accept around 1-2% of their applicants each year? That’s about the same as the % of Division 1 college athletes who make it into the NBA or the NFL.

If you’re tired of getting rejection e-mail after rejection email from the investment banks you applied to, this article is for you.

In this article, we’re going to talk about the most common reasons why people fail to break into investment banking, despite their best efforts.

Oh and by the way, if you find that some of these common reasons apply to your personal situation as well, don’t worry.

Read until the end and I’ll give you something that could help you overcome whatever challenges you may be facing.

Here are 7 things most likely to prevent you from successfully landing a job offer

1. The school you go to

The first reason is the school you go to. There are three categories here – target schools, semi-target schools, and non-target schools

  • Target schools are the top tier schools – think Ivy League schools as well as top public schools that also oftentimes have a business program – for example Berkeley Haas, Michigan Ross, UT Austin McCombs. These are firms that top investment banks proactively recruit from, as in they will come on campus and host recruiting events and interviews. Needless to say, it’s highly advantageous if you go to a target school.
  • Non-target schools are the opposite. These are typically less prestigious schools that are not highly ranked, and oftentimes they’re state schools that are much cheaper to attend. The investment banks do not proactively recruit from these schools because they have limited resources and can’t send people to every single school, so they choose to focus on the target schools. Non-target schools also have fewer students who are interested in breaking into investment banking in the first place, so there are fewer like-minded individuals for you to surround yourself with. As a result of this, most of the time there are fewer student organizations and clubs dedicated to helping students break into the financial services industry.
  • Semi-target schools are self-explanatory, they are somewhere in between target and non-target schools. This means that some investment banks proactively recruit from the school, but not all.

For a lot of people, going to a non-target school ends up becoming the biggest hurdle preventing them from breaking into investment banking.

If you’re still in high school currently, the best thing you can do to boost your chances of breaking into investment banking is to make sure you get accepted into a target school.

If you’re already in college, then your school is pretty much set in stone. But don’t worry, your school is only one factor and is not the end all be all.

2. Inability to get referrals

Another advantage target school students have over non-target students is they have a much larger alumni base that’s already working on Wall Street.

This means it’s much easier to find bankers to network with, and those bankers are more likely to refer you for interviews at the end of the day.

And given how competitive the investment banking recruiting process is these days, you should assume that if you don’t have a referral, you are most likely not going to get an interview from the firms you’re applying to.

In other words, networking is a must, not just a nice-to-have.

Even if you go to a non-target school with little to no alumni on Wall Street, you still need to network.

If anything, non-target school students need to network even more than the target school students, because it’s the only shot they have at getting noticed by the top investment banks who are not proactively recruiting on campus.

The key here is to get creative about who you reach out to.

School alumni are just the low-hanging fruit, but you can find other commonalities with bankers to leverage.

For example, one easy thing to do is to reach out to bankers who went to other non-target schools, not just the school you are attending.

In other words, the commonality is that you both attended non-target schools, and you are trying to get advice from them on how they broke in as a non-target candidate themselves.

When you lump all the non-target schools out there together, you’ll find that you have just as many, if not more bankers you can reach out to than the target school students.

3. Having a low GPA

This is pretty simple – investment banks want to hire people with good grades in school.

The closer you are to 4.0, the better.

Anything 3.7 or above is considered a good GPA, and you probably won’t get questioned about it.

Most banks do not have a hard cutoff for minimum GPA requirements, however, and the few that do typically set it at 3.5.

So if you maintain at least a 3.5, you’ll still have a shot with most of the banks as well.

We have also seen students in Wall Street Mastermind break in with less than a 3.5, but the lower your GPA, the more you’re going to have to rely on networking to get these firms to give you a chance.

Basically, you need someone to vouch for you and tell the recruiting team why they should give you a chance despite you having a less competitive GPA.

Anything below a 3.0 GPA, you can probably forget about it unless you have some crazy extenuating circumstances that temporary tanked your GPA, and you can also show that it was a one-off anomaly and that you’ve been on an improving trajectory since.

4. Lack of relevant experience on your resume

These days, the most competitive candidates we see typically have 3, or sometimes even 4 relevant internships on their resume by the time they apply to the top investment banks.

And on top of that, they are usually actively involved with 1 or 2 relevant student organizations on campus, oftentimes taking on leadership positions.

Relevant internships can be at a smaller investment bank or private equity firm, as well as other types of internships in corporate development, equity research, valuation, or any type of investing role.

Relevant student organizations can be investment banking clubs, private equity clubs, or even student-managed investment funds where you’re investing real money on behalf of your school’s endowment.

To make sure you have enough relevant experience on your resume, you have to start stacking these experiences as early as possible.

Keep in mind that junior summer internship applications for top investment banks these days open before you’re even halfway through your sophomore year.

Plus, each internship usually lasts at least 2-3 months, so the sooner you start, the more internships you’ll be able to get onto your resume.

5. Not being technically sound

Obviously, any investment bank that is going to hire you is going to want to know that you have enough technical knowledge to do the job.

At a high level, this means you have to be well-versed on the following topics: 1) accounting, 2) valuation methodologies, 3) M&A, and 4) LBO.

And when I say well-versed, it does not mean you’ve memorized all the formulas, or worse yet the exact answers to the 400 Questions Guide that upperclassmen at your school said you should read.

Your interviewers know that anyone can just memorize a bunch of information by brute force and then forget it right after.

After all, we’ve all been there before – cramming for final exams the night before.

Interviewers these days are much more sophisticated than that – they will ask you questions that require you to have “application knowledge”.

This means it’s impossible to just memorize the answer beforehand; rather you’ll get asked questions that you have to think about on the spot, and apply your understanding to either real or hypothetical business situations.

Most candidates cannot do this and get eliminated on the spot.

Oh and you’re probably wondering – what about financial modeling skills?

While it’s an important skill once you’re actually on the job, it’s actually not useful at all for passing interviews.

The top investment banks out there – which we’ll define as a bulge bracket, elite boutique, or reputable middle market bank – do not give you financial modeling tests during your interviews. Instead, they will only ask you to answer questions and explain the technical concepts verbally.

So that’s a very different skill than financial modeling.

In other words, make sure you’re not wasting your time on time-consuming and complicated financial modeling courses until after you’ve gotten the job.

Until then, it’s just a distraction.

6. Having boring answers to your behavioral interview questions

This is one of the most overlooked skills when it comes to investment banking recruiting, but it’s ironically probably the most important skill.

Many candidates will spend most or all of their time studying for technical interviews, and little to no time preparing for their behavioral interviews.

This is a mistake because the behavioral interview is actually MORE important than the technical interview when it comes to setting you apart from other candidates.

The reason is that by the time you get to the final round interview, most if not all of the candidates there will be able to answer the technical questions.

So that alone is not going to make you stand out.

Your behavioral answers, on the other hand, allow you to set yourself apart because everyone’s answers are going to be completely different.

So the key is figuring out three things: 1) what do the investment bankers want to hear, 2) how are other people typically answering these questions, and 3) how can you make your answers better than your competition’s?

Most candidates are not able to answer any of these questions.

Now pause and seriously think about it for a bit: do you know the answers to these questions? Because if you don’t, then that’s a sign that you really need to spend a lot more time on your behavioral interview preparation than you thought.

7. Starting too late

Last but not least, the seventh reason is starting too late.

This one is different from the other reasons I listed in that it’s more of an overarching reason.

Individually, each of the first six reasons I listed is not that hard to manage if that was the only thing you had to do.

Unfortunately, given how competitive investment banking recruiting is, you really have to check most, if not all of the boxes to be competitive.

Compared to a normal college student who maybe only has to worry about maintaining his or her GPA, as an aspiring investment banker you also have to stack your resume, network with hundreds of bankers, and prep for interviews extensively.

All of this has to be done in the same 24 hours that you have in a day, and ideally within the first 1.5 years of your college career before applications open up.

This is why the sooner you start working on investment banking recruiting, the more likely you are to succeed.

We’ve actually looked at our own internal data here inside of Wall Street Mastermind – and the students who started working on recruiting with us freshman year on average end up with better offers than students who start sophomore year.

And students who start during sophomore year outperform those who start junior year, and so on so forth.

This shouldn’t be surprising.

The analogy is if you’re running a race, getting a head start against your competition will typically increase your chances of winning the race, right?

The perfect solution for you

At this point, we’ve gone through all the most common reasons why people fail to break into investment banking, based on our observations of having worked with over 1,200 students on their investment banking recruiting process.

As promised, if you find yourself struggling with some or all of these areas currently, I have the perfect solution for you.

Here at Wall Street Mastermind, we specialize in helping our students check all the boxes needed for investment banking recruiting, in the shortest amount of time possible.

This means helping you find highly relevant internships to stack your resume with, teaching you how to land referrals effortlessly, and helping you craft the best behavioral and technical interview answers possible.

All of our coaches have worked at top tier investment banks on Wall Street, and some of our coaches used to be the global heads of recruiting at top bulge bracket banks like Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, UBS, and Lehman Brothers.

You literally will not find anyone more qualified than this to have in your corner as you’re working through these challenges.

The other benefit of working with us is that it will free up a lot of time for you, which in turn allows you to do a better job at maintaining or improving your GPA.

And remember, outside of your school which is pretty much set in stone, you really need to make sure you check most, if not all of the other boxes we talked about today.

So if you want to maximize your chances of breaking into a bulge bracket or elite boutique investment bank, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our team.

And as always – remember – Nothing worthwhile comes easy, and nothing is more important than your future.

Keep Grinding!


Need help navigating through this process?

If you’re someone who’s struggled to break into investment banking on your own but you’re still holding out hope, I hope I gave you more clarity on some of the different paths you might want to consider.

If you ever need help navigating through this complicated process — please don’t hesitate to reach out to our team here: wallstmastermind.com/apply

Wall Street Mastermind, Banking on Success Event NYC 2023

About me

As a former Morgan Stanley banker, my mission through starting Wall Street Mastermind—the original and premier Wall Street coaching program since 2018—is to help our students secure the highest-paying, most prestigious jobs on Wall Street.

Connect with me

📍Linkedin www.linkedin.com/in/samshiah/

📍Youtube www.youtube.com/@SamShiahTalksFinance/

📍Instagram www.instagram.com/wallstreetmastermind/

Talk to our team to get help with your investment banking recruiting process

📍wallstmastermind.com/apply

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