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Forget investment banks, students should apply to the Big Four

Do you want to work for the Big Four, or do you want to work for an investment bank? Goldman Sachs only hires 3% of all applicants. So does Morgan Stanley. All the Big Four accounting firms only let a similar proportion through the door, suggesting it's just as hard to get into both types of organization. Believe me, though, it definitely isn’t.

Big Four and investment banking recruitment programs are apples and oranges. For a start, despite taking on thousands of graduates every year, the vast majority of investment banks' recruits go into the back office. This means that your chances of getting into a ‘banking’ job are near impossible, and if you’re not perfect you will be rejected.

Most consultants or accountants going into Big Four companies are smart, capable people, but the graduates hired into front office jobs by the likes of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are just a cut above. Big Four standards are lower – but this is very relative, as the bar is still set very high.

I pursued a graduate job at Goldman Sachs for years. I networked my butt off and studied as hard as humanly possible to get top grades. I knew my stuff, I had the right background, and I had people pulling for me internally. But their interview process killed me, and I’m not surprised I didn’t get a call back. I didn’t even get a first round interview at Morgan Stanley, despite flying to New York and making what I thought was a good impression with various alumni from my school.

Eventually, I did end up with one offer from a bulge bracket firm and one European bank, but only after very extensive networking, practice interviews and a whole lot of strings pulled by alumni at my university.

At the same time, I was applying to a Big Four firm. I applied online, talked to no one at my school, crammed for the interview 30 minutes before each interview for last minute prep and breezed my way through for an offer.

You have to be very smart and among the best to be considered by the Big Four. But to get into a front office role in investment banking, you need to be all this AND aggressive, and to have the right pedigree, and to have all the right nuances and to be perfect in every way.  People who don't have the right background usually don’t even bother applying to banking – the industry is self-selective in this regard.

The guys I’ve met who work at PwC, Deloitte, KPMG or EY are smart, but they’re also pretty chilled out. They’re nice people, and are a lot more cheery and much less intense than top-level investment bankers. They were the people having fun at college – working as camp counselors, lifeguards and sports instructors.

The people going into banking were focused on getting a banking job from the moment they went to university – if not from high school. New consultants simply haven’t cut their teeth in the same way. It just isn’t as selective.

Working for the Big Four isn't inferior to working for a bank. It’s like comparing MIT to somewhere like Bowdoin. Depending on who you are, you might have more fun and get a better education at Bowdoin. But it’s a hell of a lot harder to get into MIT. The guys at Bowdoin are smart, but those at MIT had 4.0s in high school and were building robots when they were nine.

The Big Four need to stop trying to compete with investment banks for prestige. It’s just not going to happen for them. They need to be appreciated for what they are – similar, but different.

Leon Johnston is a pseudonym

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

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AUTHORLeon Johnston Insider Comment
  • Le
    Lena
    21 July 2021

    Don’t get me wrong but you just sound like you settled after failing your goal and even though it is good for you, I don’t think you can compare those 2. As you said, IB and the big four are different. Student who want to get into IB know the big four exist and also know one has nothing to do with the other. “apply to big four not IB” : is not really an alternative, it is just what worked for you.

  • An
    Anonymous
    20 July 2021

    This post is a mischaracterization of the Big Four and of IB.

    Just follow the money: IB pays £40K+ in early careers for front-office and technology roles (source below). These roles will always be the areas they will primarily recruit for, unless you take a bank like HSBC with multiple retail, commercial and IB hiring needs.

    The Big Four are unlikely to match that for any of their front-office or technology roles, because Professional Services are not as lucrative an industry as IB and because their recruitment volumes are massive - for every additional hire you make, your pay is squeezed just that bit more. It's no secret IB applicants are focused on both pay and prestige and so competition is incredibly fierce. If pay is not necessarily a primary objective, then you end up competing with less people, who are naturally ambitious and bright but not competitive.

    To add to that, investment banks are more than GS or MS, and the Big Four are also more than just consultants and auditors. They provide professional services that range from compliance to legal services and everything in between. It's not comparable and the only reason why students compare both industries is for their prestige (which etymologically means illusion).

    IB salary source: https://www.insidecareers.c....

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