Wall Street Mastermind

How to Get Into Investment Banking From a Non-Target School

Picture of Sam Shiah

Sam Shiah

March 29, 2024

Share this post:

If you search on youtube for “investment banking non-target school” – you find a bunch of YouTubers talking about their own experiences breaking in as a non-target student.

Now that’s great and all – because it shows you that it can be done. But the more important question, if you’re a non-target student yourself, is HOW do you know if what THEY did will work for YOU too?

In this article, I’m going to walk you through exactly what you need to do, step by step, to break into investment banking from a non-target school.

And the difference between the advice you’re going to get here versus anywhere else, is that I’ve personally helped hundreds of non-target school students break into investment banking – and not just at no-name firms that you’ve never heard of, but even at tier 1 bulge bracket and elite boutique investment banks.

In other words, this stuff works.

You might find this surprising, but 35% of our successful students actually come from non-target schools. And another 20% of our successful students come from semi-target schools. This means that over half of our successful students didn’t come from target schools.

Not only that, but if you look at the offers our students have gotten from the top 50 investment banks on Wall Street – almost 30% of the elite boutique offers went to students that didn’t attend target schools.

At bulge bracket banks, that number increases to 56%.

And at middle market banks, that number increases to 66%.

This is based on a very large and statistically significant sample size collected over multiple recruiting cycles, so trust me when I say – you’re going to want to hear the advice I’m about to give you in the rest of this article.

I’m going to give you my 5 best pieces of tactical advice to break into investment banking as a non-target school student. You must check all 5 of these boxes if you want to be successful as a non-target school student.

But OK with that said, let’s dive in:

The first thing is your resume.

This is one of the most important things for you to do a good job with, especially as a non-target school student.

This is because one of your biggest disadvantages as a candidate is that your school is not as prestigious as the Ivy League schools or other top public schools, which is where most of your competition is going to be coming from.

The school you go to is the first thing that shows up on your resume, and is one of the first things people look at. We can’t really change that, so we have to make sure everything else on the resume is SO GOOD that it makes up for the school you go to.

So what are the things that you CAN change or have control over?

First and foremost – keep your GPA as high as possible. Because after your school, your GPA is probably the very next thing bankers look at when they’re reviewing your resume.

Some bankers understand that not every student who attends a non-target school are there because they performed poorly in high school. In fact, a lot of students actually did well in high school, but just couldn’t afford to pay $80k a year to go to an Ivy League school.

The best way to demonstrate that you’re not at a non-target school because of poor academic performance is by having good grades. If you have good SAT or ACT scores, that obviously helps too so make sure to include that as well.

Just having good grades though is not enough, because most of your competition at the top schools will also have good grades.

So where you can really set yourself apart is through your work experience and your extracurricular and leadership activities.

In terms of work experience, the more relevant internships you have, the better.

The most competitive candidates we typically see these days will have upwards of four relevant internships on their resume by the time they have to apply for their junior summer internships at the top investment banks.

Those applications open up about half way through your sophomore year, and you typically should stay at each internship for 2-3 months.

So the assumption is that you should be able to do at least one part-time internship per semester while you’re in school, plus you’ll definitely want to do a full-time internship during the summer.

Aside from internships though, you’ll need to demonstrate your passion for finance by getting involved with finance related extracurricular activities.

This typically means joining the relevant finance or investing clubs on campus, or better yet, starting a club on your own. One of the downsides of going to a non-target school is that there aren’t as many student organizations that cater to students who are interested in finance.

However, you can turn that into a positive by using it as an opportunity to start such an organization yourself.

Being able to say that you founded a relevant club on campus, or that you were the president of the organization, will help make you stand out against target school students, most of whom won’t have this type of experience on their resume.

And one last thing you can do is participate in investment banking case competitions. There are many of these out there, but the most famous one is the NIBC Global Investment Banking Competition which was founded in 2009 and has happened every year since.

Participating in these competitions give you hands-on experience with the type of work that bankers do, and gives you something interesting to add to your resume and talk about in interviews.

If you are able to place at the competition, you’ll also have the added bonus of demonstrating that you not only can hang with the target school students, but you can actually outperform them on the job.

Next, let’s talk about the second really important area – which is your networking.

Everyone knows that you have to network if you want to have a realistic shot at getting investment banking interviews.

However, networking is even more important for non-target students than target school students.

This is because the top investment banks will go to the target schools and proactively recruit on campus.

They host information sessions and mingle with the students there, and they also have school specific recruiting teams that are responsible for identifying the best candidates from each target school.

If you’re a non-target student, you don’t have any of these luxuries.

The bankers will not be coming to your school to try and get to know you.

This means that if you don’t take the fight to them, you’re not even going to be on their radar.

And if nobody at the firm knows who you are, and you’re just holding out hope that the banker who’s reviewing resumes will just pick you over all the Ivy League students, you can forget about it.

That’s why you HAVE to network as hard as you can, and try to get as many referrals as you can.

The other challenge when it comes to networking is that you won’t have nearly as many alumni from your school who are already working on Wall Street.

Of course if a banker went to the same school as you, they’re more likely to respond to your networking request, and it’s also easier to build rapport with them.

That typically also means that they’ll be more inclined to help you out after you talk to them.

But again, since you don’t have the luxury of a large alumni network on Wall Street, you need to make a few adjustments to your approach: Know that you will have to network with more bankers than your competition at the target schools

Your response rate will be lower, and most likely your referral rate will be lower too. So you have to be willing to outwork the target school students.

To give you some context, the target school students we work with will typically reach out to hundreds of bankers.

On the other hand, for the non-target school students we work with, we’ve seen that number go as high as 2-3,000 in the most extreme cases.

So we are talking an order of magnitude difference.

But it’s not just about working HARDER, you also want to work SMARTER.

Instead of limiting your networking criteria to just bankers that went to the same schools as you, broaden that to include all non-target school bankers.

You can easily do a google search for the non-target schools that have the best track record of placing alumni on Wall Street, and then do a search on Linkedin to find the bankers that went to those schools using Linkedin’s standard search filters.

When you reach out to these bankers, instead of mentioning your school as the commonality, you can frame your request as wanting to get advice from someone who’s broken into investment banking from a non-target school, because that’s something you’re trying to do yourself.

If you can tell the bankers you reach out to the specific reason why you chose to contact them over other people, they’re going to be much more likely to respond to your networking request.

And one last tip on networking – don’t just think about schools when you’re coming up with your networking contact list. Get creative and think outside the box a little bit to find other commonalities.

For example, are you a part of any clubs or organizations that have many different chapters across schools? If so, you can also do a search on Linkedin for people who are in that organization, and then again use the search filters to target people from specific firms.

Using myself as an example, I was in a business fraternity called Alpha Kappa Psi in college. If I type “Alpha Kappa Psi” into the Linkedin search bar, and then filter “current company” for Goldman Sachs, I’ll get a couple hundred results of people who have both Alpha Kappa Psi and Goldman Sachs on their Linkedin profile.

Once I have this list, I can reach out to them and mention that we are both brothers in AKPsi, and that will increase the chances of me getting a response from them.

Next, let’s talk the third really important piece – which is your technical interview prep.

Because even if you have a stellar resume and you crush it with your networking, all that does is get you the interview.

When you get to the interview, you are still going to have to outperform the target school students to force the bankers to hire you.

If all you do is perform at the same level as the target school students… well let’s just say this: nobody has ever gotten fired for hiring the Harvard kid over the kid from a no-name state school.

So obviously the first thing that comes to mind is the technical interviews. You need to make sure you have a thorough understanding of all the topics that you could get tested on.

The topics, in order from most important to least important, are: accounting and the three financial statements, valuation methodologies, M&A math (a.k.a. accretion / dilution), and leveraged buyouts (a.k.a “LBO”).

I would learn those concepts in that order, because that’s starting from the easiest and most fundamental topics and working your way up to the most advanced and complex topics.

The order of operations is important because without understanding the more foundational stuff first, the harder concepts won’t make sense.

But whatever you do – make sure you don’t just try to memorize answers to the questions in the popular interview guides.

This is the most common mistake that people make when they study for technical interviews, because your interviewers will not just ask you the exact same questions from the guides.

You must understand the concepts behind the questions inside out, and the real test to whether you’re ready is seeing if you can teach these concepts to someone who knows nothing about finance.

Until you can do that comfortably, you are not ready.

With that said, the technical interview is really just the table stakes. It’s like the buy-in to the poker game; if you don’t know your technicals, you can’t even get a seat at the table to play the game.

But the reality is your competition from the target schools are also going to know their technicals, so this alone is not going to set you apart.

To win the poker game, you have to outplay your opponents. But how do you do that exactly?

Well, that’s where the fourth part comes in – which is your behavioral interview prep.

Unlike your technical interviews, where every candidate who’s prepared is going to have the same answers because there is only one right answer to every question…

The behavioral interview is much more subjective and open-ended. There is no such thing as a right answer or wrong answer. There are only better answers or worse answers.

In other words, the stories you choose to tell about yourself will be completely different from the stories your target school competition tell about themselves.

In other words, you are going to be graded on a curve relative to your competition.

When you’re crafting your stories, you need to think about how you can position yourself against the competition, to cover up your weaknesses and highlight your strengths.

For example, a popular question we’ve seen bankers ask non-target school candidates is “why should I hire you when I’m interviewing a bunch of other candidates today that go to Harvard, Wharton, Columbia, and Stanford?”

Most non-target school students freeze when they hear a question like this, because they don’t know what to say.

In reality, the banker is just stress testing you to see how you handle pressure. After all, investment banking is a very high pressure environment, and if you are the type to fold under pressure, or if you don’t have confidence in yourself simply because you don’t have the pedigree, you’re not going to make it in banking.

A good way to answer this question and turn your non-target background from a weakness into a strength is two fold:

First, If you had a good reason for going to the non-target school, explain your rationale for picking that school over a target school. For example, you might say:

“I actually did very well in high school and was accepted to a lot of these target schools that you’re mentioning. Unfortunately, the cost of attending those schools were a bit too steep and my parents couldn’t afford to pay $80,000 a year for college, especially since I also have three other siblings.”

Of course, don’t lie about anything that’s not true when you do this.

Second, talk about why attending a target school actually makes you a stronger candidate. For example, you might say:

“However, I’ve loved my time here at XYZ University. I’ve taken so and so relevant courses and learned from some really amazing professors, and I’ve also had the opportunity to start ABC Investment Club, which is the first student-run investment fund of its kind on campus. Additionally, I think having to overcome the challenge of being a non-target school student that’s trying to break into banking has really helped build character. I’ve had to work much harder than my target school counterparts just to even make it to this interview today. I’ve reached out to over 1,000 bankers throughout my networking process. I’m not coming in with any sense of entitlement that this job should be mine, and if anything I have a chip on my shoulder to prove that I belong. If you were to hire me, I know I would run through a wall to do whatever the firm needs me to get done, because without the pedigree that some of these other candidates have, the only way to prove that I deserve this job is by outworking everyone else and by producing results. Because I’m a non-target school candidate, I know that I have the grit and the work ethic necessary to succeed in investment banking. That’s why you should hire me over the students from those Ivy League schools.”

Now let me ask you this – if you were an interviewer and you heard this answer from a candidate, would you want to hire them?

Hell yea, you’d be super impressed. Especially when most of the other non-target students that got asked this question just froze up and stuttered their way through some incoherent answer with zero confidence whatsoever.

THIS is how you make yourself stand out. With phenomenal answers that are different from everyone else’s.

Last but not least, the fifth and final piece of tactical advice I want to give you is very simple: start as early as possible

To do the four things I talked about up to this point takes A LOT of time. There is literally no such thing as starting too early.

If I use a racing analogy, investment banking recruiting is like running a race. The target school candidates get to run on the inside track, whereas you as the non-target student has to start on the outside track.

This means you have to run farther, and it’s harder for you to win. In other words, you’re starting with a handicap in this game.

One of the ways to level the playing field, is if you start running the race before your competition. So the sooner you can start, the more you’ll be able to accomplish, and the better job you’ll be able to do with all of the things we covered today.

So with that said, I hope this article gave you a good overview of the tactics you can use to beat out the target school students for the top tier investment banking jobs.

If you would like more hands on and personalized guidance with your recruiting process, we can help you execute all of the strategies we discussed today plus a whole lot more. If you want to become our next successful non-target case study, like the hundreds of successful non-target students that have come before you, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our team.

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


Share this post:

About the Author

3 Responses

  1. I genuinely appreciated what you’ve achieved here. The outline is tasteful, your written content fashionable, yet you appear to have acquired some uneasiness regarding what you wish to present forthwith. Undoubtedly, I’ll return more frequently, similar to I have almost constantly, should you sustain this upswing.

  2. Thank you for your response! I’m grateful for your willingness to engage in discussions. If there’s anything specific you’d like to explore or if you have any questions, please feel free to share them. Whether it’s about emerging trends in technology, recent breakthroughs in science, intriguing literary analyses, or any other topic, I’m here to assist you. Just let me know how I can be of help, and I’ll do my best to provide valuable insights and information!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recommendations For You

Did you know that the best investment banks in the world only accept around