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How to succeed in any banking interview

The right narrative is the key to banking interviews

If you're getting invitations to banking interviews but you're not getting invited to work for the banks you're interviewing with, you're clearly doing something wrong. And that wrong thing is almost certainly your interview technique. Banks don't just want excellent candidates with polish and pedigree. They also want candidates who can tell stories - and those stories need to be carefully articulated if they're to succeed.

Success in banking interviews is about narrative, says academic Lauren Rivera in her book, 'Pedigree.' The candidates who get offers are those who recount their motivations for going into investment banking as if they're structuring a novel. They have a compelling plot. "Artful story telling about one’s experiences is awarded greater weight than one’s actual experiences," Rivera says.

Rivera conducted in-depth interviews with 40 Wall Street bankers over a two year period. Anonymous Wall Street professionals such as Vishal, Molly, Brandon and Heather explained what differentiates good candidates. Her resulting insights can be distilled as follows:

You need a convincing story about the past and a convincing story about the future 

Banking interviewers are looking for a strong narrative that combines past experiences with future trajectory, says Rivera. Stories about the past are used to assess, "drive", or work ethic. Stories about the future are used to assess the level of "interest" in that role and that firm.

You need a story that posits you as a protagonist, not a passive participant 

A good banking careers story must be pitched as a set of "‘personal decisions’ and not ‘serendipitous circumstances’", says Rivera. Talk about what you did that brought you to the interview - don't talk about what happened to you.

You need a story what will arouse an emotional connection in your interviewer 

Rivera says banking interviewers are looking for candidates whose stories offer narrative resonance ('seeing me in you') and narrative drama ('overcoming stuff', 'vivid images').

Banker Vishal told Rivera that he always asked candidates to tell the story of their lives. "I like it when people tell a good story," he said. "I like it when people have challenged themselves. You can be complacent about sitting on your couch but not complacent about how you live your life.”

Rivera says the stories banking interviewers favoured most were often those which reaffirmed evaluators' own stories. "They used emotional language that elicited feelings of excitement among interviewers, which in turn made the candidate much easier to remember during deliberations,” she adds.

Molly told Rivera that the best candidates have stories that are 'moving.' Consciously or not, Rivera says interviewers are looking for stories that elicit 'excitement, admiration and awe.' Stories of extreme dedication are interesting. Stories of rags to riches are, "especially exciting."

You need a story that talks about the pursuit of values rather than status 

There's a caveat, however. If you're telling a story of rags to riches that ends with the achievement of a job in an investment bank and you explain your motivation in term of earning money to support your extended family, you'll be penalized. Banks don't like stories that talk about money. Nor do they like stories that talk about status.

Instead, you must frame your story in terms of "inner drives, loves and values," says Rivera. Don't mention the need to, "make money, please parents or maintain status among peers." Do talk about, "undertaking strategic, progressive decisions in pursuit of an intrinsic passion." Mention your "personal joy and satisfaction in being a winner."

You need to explain your interest in banking in terms that suggest a personal connection 

If you have banking connections - either through family, friends, or college alumni - Rivera suggests you should use them when explaining your motivation for entering the industry. She says banks "strongly value" candidates' expressions of interest when they are pitched in terms of personal connections. These kind of "first hand observations" take precedence over information taken from publicly available resources like banks' websites: "Evaluators judge the possession of insider knowledge as a superior indicator of interest, and they privilege career motives that mirror their own.”

The three acceptable reasons for wanting to work in banking 

Overall, Rivera said there are three "right reasons" for claiming an interest in banking jobs. They are: intellectual interest, excitement about the work and excitement about the people you'll be working with.

Laura, another banker, recalled a candidate who gave a brilliant if clichéd response to a question on his motivation for pursuing a banking career: "He told me he was really excited to learn general financial skills and to be surrounded by such bright accomplished and interesting people for a few years.” Remember that. Repeat it next time you're going for a job in finance.

AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • Ch
    Chad James
    10 May 2015

    Being a great story-teller is now a must in many job interviews. They really don't want to hear your sob stories. They want to hear the challenges you faced and how you overcame them with your ability.

    In other words, they prefer to hear how strong your mindset is no matter what the circumstances are.

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