In a bid to stand out from the deluge of identikit applicants for finance roles these days, it may be worth putting your head above the parapet and trying something bold. Pitched right and trying something unusual could help distinguish your application, but present it in the wrong way and it’s likely to backfire.
In investment banking, two cases show how bold moves can, and cannot, work. A seemingly stupid covering letter from a student applying for an investment banking internship, was eventually heralded as a bold attempt to stand out from the herd. The student said they wouldn’t go about “feeding you a line of crapp [sic] about how my past experiences and skill set align perfectly for an investment banking internship. The truth is I have no unbelievably special skills or genius eccentricities, but I do have a near perfect GPA and will work hard for you”. He got some interviews, at least.
Then there was (now-deceased) Aleksey Vayner’s 2006 video resume ‘Impossible is Nothing’ in which he attempted to secure a job with UBS’s investment bank by his prowess at pumping iron, skiing (including jumps), ballroom dancing, karate – and career advice – which was leaked by an HR team member and went viral. He didn’t get this (or any) investment banking job.
Career advisors suggest two things when attempting to be bold during your job application – a) actually be good and b) don’t go too far out on a limb. Here are seven tips for success.
1. Take control, but be specific
If you’ve got the guts to do it, try to take control of an interview. It will allow you to sell yourself effectively without waiting for the right question to crop up, says Jeremy I’Anson, a careers coach who works with investment bankers.
“One candidate asked at the start of the interview what were the key things they were looking for in the new recruit,” he says. “He listened, and then spent the next half an hour listing how his qualities matched the requirements, with supporting examples, stats and anecdotes to support his claims. The interview was short, it was structured and he was quickly offered the job.”
2. Get personal
At the very least, you’ll be given the name or names of the people interviewing you – find out as much as humanly possible about them, and mention it at the earliest opportunity, says Simon North, founder of career coaches Position Ignition.
“It’s basic research, but it shows authenticity and that you’ve focused on the person not just the company for a decent amount of time. Knowing that this person moved from, say, JPMorgan a couple of years ago and asking about their motivations for doing so, is a key way to show that the job search isn’t just about you,” he says.
3. Get speculative
In the age of social media, it’s never been easier to gain access to key decision makers within large organisations and you should take every opportunity to interact, says I’Anson. “60-70% of jobs are never advertised – find a way to get in touch with someone, even if it’s just interacting on Twitter." Be smart, and stay polite, however. This is an alternative to simply turning up at the office uninvited, which career coaches do not recommend.
4. Be honest
Presented with an interview question you patently don’t know the answer to will only result in five minutes of fudging and skirting around the issue to give some sort of answer. Financial services firms throw in tricky interview questions all the time, don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know the answer. Morgan Stanley supposedly asked “Can you spell ‘diverticulitis?” to one candidate, who simply answered ‘no’ and still got the job.
5. Use technology, but be subtle
Despite the ‘Impossible is Nothing’ fiasco, more juniors will have to produce an online video to stand out from the legions of “grey” young candidates with little experience to distinguish themselves, says North.
“This is not your CV, but nor does it need to be an exercise in narcissism,” he says. “Outline something about yourself that you might talk passionately about while out for a drink in a bar. Your gap year and the leadership skills you learned, or your commitment to the hockey team to demonstrate your stickability – banks want people who will stay in the industry for the long term and can demonstrate authenticity.”
6. Big up personal connections
Nepotism within investment banking may be frowned upon, even if Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein says it’s a fact of life, but it will ensure you have some sort of champion within the organisation. “Ultimately, getting into banking is about a cultural fit and having someone vouch for you in an informal basis is a good way of getting ahead of the pack,” says Andrew Pullman, founder of consultancy People Risk Solutions and a former head of HR at Dresdner Bank.
7. In public, everyone is a potential lead
So many students looking for work in financial services have turned up in the financial district sporting a placard and handing out CVs to passers by in the hope of securing a job, that it's no longer considered much of a novelty. It is, however, still generally respected as being a gutsy way to put yourself out there. Expect various reactions, from mocking to support and advice, but always stay positive, advises, Faraaz Kaskar, a Leicester University student who pulled the move in 2012.
"You got the occasional person taunting you, saying stuff like ‘I have a job and you don’t’, but the majority of people we met were really supportive. I handed out CVs to people and from there went on to a few interviews, but aside from that, people were offering advice and support and encouraging us to keep in touch with them," he says.