Interview Insiders: Know your Q&A

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You've filled in application forms, you've excelled in aptitude tests... all that remains is getting through the interviews. Now the real preparation begins.

Put it down to nerves, or inexperience, but plenty of people answer interview questions badly. Take the person who described the rigors of enticing pigs to mate when asked to provide an example of his persuasiveness. "It's surprising how unclued-up people can be about what we're looking for," says the head of graduate recruitment at one investment bank.

Some mistakes are self-evident. Angela Garnett, head of graduate recruitment at Lazard in London, recalls one candidate who when asked if he read the financial press said he found it quite boring. "It wasn't a good answer," Garnett says.

The best defense for a high-pressure interview is good preparation. You need to understand the interview process, and know what kinds of questions will be asked before going into the interview.

Round One: Examples, Examples, Examples

Just what are banks looking for? Examples, is the short answer. Most of them use 'competency-based' interview techniques.

In the first round of interviews in particular, candidates are typically asked to provide examples of situations in which they have displayed a particular competency.

"We look for specific examples of past behaviors which provide examples of future potential," says Nancy Labiner, head of Europe campus recruiting at Goldman Sachs. "We don't require investment banking experience: A candidate can talk about a job at Starbucks if they can tie the experience to leadership, working as part of a team or dealing with difficult customers, for example."

First-round interviews are typically conducted by junior bankers and graduate recruitment staff. At this stage especially, you will need to stand out: A bank hiring 200 graduate trainees will interview around 1,600 people at this phase.

What Do Banks Want?

When it comes to behaviors, most banks are focused on the same things:

  • Team building
  • Communication skills
  • Proactiveness
  • Assertiveness
  • Leadership skills

Joanne Scott, head of resourcing at Morgan Stanley in the U.K., says questions designed to elicit desired behaviors might include, "Give an example of a situation when you demonstrated leadership," or "How would your friends describe you?"

Questions are designed to be open-ended, says Scott. Within reason, responses can cover any subject area, as long as they are detailed and specific to the candidate replying.

Round Two: Brain Teasers

If first-round interviews are about checking that a candidate has the right behavior, second- and third-round interviews are more technical. At this stage, interviews are more frequently conducted by senior bankers.

"Some businesspeople like asking bizarre questions and conducting high pressure interviews," says Vivienne Dykstra, former head of graduate recruitment at Deutsche Bank and now a consultant on graduate recruitment techniques. "The idea is to put candidates on the spot and grill them until they crack, with a view to seeing how they react under pressure."

Dykstra says a favored conundrum is, "Why are manhole covers round?" Answer: "So they don't fall down the hole, and can be rolled along instead of lifted." Others have been known to include "How many red cars are there in the U.S.?" or "You have a bowl of 100 marbles, 50 are black and 50 are white. Devise a strategy for being able to separate them when blindfolded."

At the same time, David Schwartz, a financial services recruiter at Highland Partners in New York, and former global head of campus recruiting at Goldman Sachs, says high-pressure interviews are increasingly frowned upon. "HR people have to restrain bankers from asking these questions. In the end, a guy who knows how to solve a brain teaser won't necessarily be any good at bringing in a corporate finance deal."

Sample brain teaser questions used by banking interviewers:

Q. At dawn on Monday a snail fell into a bucket that was 12 inches deep. During the day it climbed up 3 inches. During the night it fell back 2 inches. On what day did the snail finally manage to climb out of the bucket?

A. The following Wednesday, nine days later.

Q: A man drove from Aardvark to Beeville. On the first day he traveled 1/3 of the distance. On the second he traveled 1/2 of the remaining distance. On the third he traveled 2/3 of the remaining distance. On the fourth day, after covering 3/4 of the remaining distance, he was still 5 miles away from Beeville. How many miles had he covered so far?

A: 175 miles: the total trip is 180 miles. On the first day he traveled 60 miles, leaving 120 miles. On day two he traveled another 60 miles, leaving 60 miles. On day three he traveled 40 miles, leaving 20 miles. On day four he traveled 15 miles, leaving 5 miles.

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