The Recruitment Process: a Survival Guide

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Competition for undergraduate and graduate trainee positions in investment banks is intense. With a reputation as a high paying, jet-setting industry, banking exerts a magnetic attraction over university leavers. Applications are received in tens of thousands and the vast majority are turned down.

To filter these applications, banks use a thorough screening process, from on-campus events to online applications and several rounds of interviews. And you must stand out each step of the way.

Surviving Application Forms

Online application forms, found on banks' websites, are used to eliminate over 50% of the applicants. Poor academic credentials are the most common cause of failure. Most banks are looking for nothing short of a 3.5 GPA and higher.

Strong academic results do not, however, guarantee an interview. To weed out those with little else to offer, application forms ask searching questions such as: "Describe a situation in which you displayed leadership skills to influence the outcome of an event."

Students often underestimate the importance of such questions. To do well, they should produce a detailed but concise answer that provides evidence for the skills being looked for.

Recruiters say common mistakes include short answers, spelling errors, failing to answer the question and pasting answers from one bank's application form on to another's. To 'ace' the application form, it's a good idea to prepare your answers offline and to proof them carefully before submitting. Make sure you're answering the questions, and try to do it concisely.

It's also a good idea to get your application in early. Vivienne Dykstra, a former investment banking graduate recruiter turned graduate recruitment consultant, says the best applicants are the first off the mark. Banks are quick to offer these early applicants an interview as soon as possible, she says.

Surviving Interviews

If banks like your application form, you may be invited to a first-round interview. Here they probe you further to find out your skills and your personality. First interviews typically take place in the familiar environs of your university campus, with your college's career services coordinating the interview time slots.

There, you will face a less familiar panel of several interviewers usually made up of junior people from the business area to which you've applied, and people from the human resources (HR) function.

The first round is all about ensuring you're the right kind of person for the bank. All banks have a list of skills/personal characteristics known as 'competencies,' which they try to identify. At this stage, recruiters will also make some effort to probe your knowledge of investment banking and your motivation for working for that bank in particular.

If you create a credible impression of being a banker who is both a team player and a leader, who is knowledgeable about the profession and the bank, you should be invited back for more.

By this stage, around 300 of the original 8,400 applicants are left. Between half and two thirds will receive the coveted offer of a full-time place.

The main thing distinguishing second-round interviews from their first-round predecessors is a greater emphasis on technical aptitude. The bankers interviewing you will want to ensure you have the wherewithal to function intelligently under pressure, and that you're sufficiently interested in their line of business to have more than a basic understanding of how it works.

To this end, applicants for fixed income sales roles might be asked how bond prices respond to interest rate adjustments and why. Applicants for foreign exchange (FX) trading roles might be asked to explain how interest rates adjust to the price of FX options.

Networking Is The Key

In addition to the application and the interview, most banks, such as Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, organize on-campus events at the universities where they regularly recruit. Prior to the interview dates, they also hold networking sessions for the candidates to meet with both the recruiters as well as professionals in different divisions of the firm.

These on-campus events and networking sessions are extremely important, says Amabelle Cardenas, Global Markets & Research campus recruiter for Merrill Lynch. "In this business, it is so important to network and make good connections," says Cardenas. "Candidates must follow-up after the networking sessions are over and build that relationship."

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