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by Anita Kapadia | March 10, 2009


Investment banking interviews are starting up and soon there will be scores of disappointed candidates who didn't get an offer from the bulge-bracket bank of their choice. The reasons might not always be clear, and sometimes it's just a matter of numbers -- they only have so many spots and too many qualified candidates. But sometimes, a mistake made in your interview can be the difference.

Investment banks move fast. They are especially aggressive in pursuit of the candidates they want. Interviewers often congregate at the end of the "Super Saturday" to discuss and rank candidates. Offers and rejections are often extended within a day or two. The decisions are made rapidly, often on the basis of one or two interviewers' opinions. However, when you get a call from the firm, don't expect a detailed summary of the reasons for your rejection. "We're not able to make you an offer," may be the extent of the explanation from the investment banker who has the unfortunate task of turning you down.

So why did you get turned down? Vault spoke with some investment bankers to get a sense of the main factors that cause I-banks to turn down candidates. The result of our discussions is the following list of the 10 most common reasons for rejection. If you're still interviewing, you might want to keep this list in mind before you enter that room for a two-on-one interview at your favorite investment bank.

Here are the top 10 things they hate about you:

Bankers are supposed to be cocky, aren't they? Not true, our banker sources replied. "Arrogance and confidence are too easily confused," said one. "This is still a business where people expect you to pay your dues. You're not going to make it if you think you're too good for a project." Another source said, "One of the most important aspects to succeeding in this business is getting along with people. All kinds of unusual and sometimes difficult personalities occupy senior positions. The last thing we need is a fresh MBA with a big mouth."

~A lack of "crispness"
Other sources replaced "crisp" with the words "sharp" or "polished" to describe a candidate that "has it together." Basically, the bankers noted that candidates have to be well prepared. "You would be surprised how many people don't know how to walk you through their resumes. You have to know your story and tell it convincingly," advised one source. Another added a caveat to preparing oneself for the interview. "Don't be too slick. I hate when I feel like I'm hearing a rehearsed speech word for word."

A lack of social skills
"I've been bored by people in interviews," said one I-banking source. "I hate to say it, because it sounds so elitist. But investment banks are selective organizations - highly selective - and some people have great resumes and no personalities." Another added, "It's a people business. I'm not saying that everybody at [my firm] is the most exciting person, but there are basic sociability requirements." One more I-banker said his selections process includes a beer test. "I basically ask myself: could I sit down and have a beer with this person?"

Some people are boring, and others are bored. "Enthusiasm is key. I don't want someone giving me a line about how much they love working all night, but I like to see some energy," explained one source. Another I-banker added, "It's important that people think you're ready to go. A lot of us get burned out sometimes, and it's refreshing to meet someone who has just had a two-year vacation [that is, business school], and is raring to go. I like to hear that they're looking forward to getting back to work. Some people come in here and seem so exhausted. I think, if they're tired now, what will they do when they haven't slept in two days? I guess some people get nervous and just clam up. That's going to hurt you a lot in an interview."

Shut up already
The opposite site of the "clam-up" problem, one source told us is "verbal diarrhea." "Some people, I guess," our source explained, "get nervous and they talk. And talk and talk. You give them a simple question, something that should take them one minute to answer, and you end up listening to a life history." "Brevity is key," another source added. "In banking, speed and efficiency are key. There's no room for rambling."

~Not tough enough
"One thing I hear a lot [in meetings when candidates are discussed]," one source explained, "is people saying: "that guy would get killed in this job."" Despite efforts by investment banks to promote more positive work environments, at least one insider told us that "you still need to be tough. I meet someone sometimes and know 100 percent that the person would get eaten alive here." Projecting an ability to handle the unexpected is part of the toughness that interviewers seek. As one source explained, "I'm sure that a lot of these candidates we turn away might be able to hack it, but no one wants to take a chance on a maybe."

Doesn't demonstrate enough quantitative skills
"Some candidates just don't make me feel like they can handle the numbers," said one source. "It's a tough thing to explain, because it has a lot of components. If they don't seem to have the coursework or professional background, I worry that they won't be comfortable with the quantitative side of things. A lot of candidates don't seem to realize the problem in their resume and so they never go out of their way to show us that they have the skills. I think that's key, looking at your resume and finding the blanks."

Personality doesn't fit with the firm
"Once in a while," one source explained, "you meet someone who you know will just hate it here." He went on to say that this situation was often a combination of various factors, some of which we've already listed. "They could be a fine banker, but something about their philosophy or their personality doesn't seem to fit. I don't want it to sound snobbish because it's not about being good enough. Certain places have personalities. Big places are often very different form small places. Some people want a lot of structure, and some people can't stand too much structure, for instance. People here often say, "I could never have worked at such and such bank." I've found that people who like the Merrill culture and people who like the Goldman culture are often very different, for example. There's a dynamic that you have to keep in mind when you're recruiting people."

~Little white lies
"It seems like at least once during each Super Saturday session," one source reported, "we get one candidate who gets caught lying on his resume. Not an outright, ridiculous lie, but someone will ask them about something on their resume and it will be obvious that the candidate doesn't know as much about a project as his resume might imply." Another source agrees, and says that a rejection is guaranteed if someone uncovers a "highly embellished resume." "People are going to ask you about your resume. If something looks too good to be true, you'll be called out on it," he comments. "Be prepared. And don't lie. If you said you worked on some complicated transaction, you better be prepared to discuss it."

It's not you, it's me
"Sometimes," one source says, "one [interviewer] will really have a bad reaction to somebody." Many of our sources agreed that people had been rejected based on an unexplainable reaction by one (usually senior) person. "I feel bad even saying it, because I'm not sure what kind of advice I could offer to prevent it from happening." One source adds, "I would say that some candidates have a tendency to focus on their next answer and don't concentrate on gauging how they're doing with the interviewer. Sometimes if you pick up a bad vibe from someone, you can perform some damage control." Another source was less optimistic about these situtations. "Some people decide they don't like a candidate the second he walks into the room. That's just the luck of the draw if you get one of those interviewers. I wouldn't say a lot of people are like that, but they are out there. To some extent, interviewing is a crapshoot. Some people get lucky, others don't."


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