Senior year in college. For many students, it’s a time of joy and a time of reflection. But for those intending to join the finance or consulting worlds, it is potentially a time of stress and turmoil. At the major universities, future bankers/hedge fund analysts/consultants/private equity analysts/marketers/software programmers flock towards their career counselors, polish off their resumes, and prepare for a a few months of recruiting drama and stress.
The general procedure for recruiting at these firms is pretty simple and consists of four phases:
Phase 1: Presentation
The beginning of the school year at major universities brings a multitude of interested employers to campuses teeming with legions of students hoping to grab a piece of the economic pie which is the college-graduate-salary. At these events, major employers shell a pretty penny to rent out campus auditoriums, hotel conference rooms, and local restaurant dining rooms in the hopes that the spectacle will be dazzling enough that the really smart, hard-working kids will be interested in checking out the firm. Words like “exciting”, “room to grow”, “fun place to work”, and “great way to start a career” flow freely as the firm reps shower students with undeserved confidence-boosting praise. In this day and age, the firms also attempt to portray themselves as youth-friendly, talking about how often their firm holds parties and “pub nights” (or some other euphemism for free/subsidized alcohol-providing events), and progressive, stressing their commitment to employing minorities, women, and non-heterosexuals (aka strictly statistically speaking, not the people who show up to recruiting events). At the same time, students, drawn by free food and the hope that they won’t be homeless next year, attend these sessions hoping to get their foot in the door with the right people by saying the right thing at the right time.
It is my experience that with the exception of the really stellar firms and the really amazing individuals or the individuals who already had a “foot in the door”, it’s pretty rare that these events succeed for either party. Students almost never get a real leg up in the recruiting process, and the most any student can hope for is an assessment of whether or not a firm is the right fit for him/her. Firms which lack stellar names, alas, don’t attract the talent they are hoping for and may simply be wasting good shrimp cocktail. But, because every other firm does this, and because every other student is trying this, both students and firms find themselves locked in a pitiful bind where they all have to put up with these fairly low value-adding activity. Thankfully, these events have enough free food and enough people that there has to be someone there who’s interesting to talk to…
Phase 2: The Resume Drop
Following the presentations is, unfortunately, the horrible process of compressing your life into a single page. It leads to many tears as students realize that, had they drank a little less, maybe their GPA wouldn’t be quite so low, or maybe they might have been able to take that leadership position in that one club. The resume session also leads to existential angst as countless students see the past couple years of their life represented on a single, flimsy sheet of paper and wonder — “was that it?”
Yes, really, that was it. And then, fear the firm and give glory to it, for the hour of its judgement is come… (oh and by the way, nobody reads your cover letter — stop working on it and go become president of a club or something so you can put that on the sheet of paper people actually read)
Phase 3: Who Got the Interview?
So, I lied about the phase before this. There are actually some people who’s resumes are truly spectacular. The kids that were made fun of in class for always answering questions in section, always going the extra mile in their extracurriculars — they’re the ones who’re laughing now.
The closest to describing what this phase is like is seeing who made the cut after sports tryouts — except with two notable differences: (1) if every firm were a different sport, the same people would be given spots on practically every single team; and (2) doing well at sports tryouts means you’re good at sports and nothing else, doing well at recruiting means you have a future. Just kidding (or am I?)
Phase 4: Interviews
This is the meat of the recruiting process. At this point, the exact nature of the interview structure varies from industry-to-industry and from firm-to-firm. But typically there are two rounds of interviews. The first round typically occurs somewhere on campus or nearby (aka you haven’t proven yourself yet, so why should they fly you anywhere). For consultants, the interviews are 2/3 case interview, 1/3 fit interview. The former means that interviewers will give students a simplified business problem to solve whereby the student will have to demonstrate some semblance of fluency with numbers, some ability to cope with sudden changes in context or circumstance, and critical thinking ability. The latter is a basic assessment of the candidate’s leadership potential, fit with the firm culture, goals and dreams, etc. For programmers, some programming (*gasp*) may be involved. For bankers, some command of basic corporate finance is probably involved. For hedge funds and private equity analysts, some greater command of statistical reasoning is involved. For those who did well enough to move past the first round, there are subsequent rounds of interviews which are usually held in nicer places and, oftentimes, in the very office that one is hoping to land a job in. It is more or less the same thing as the first round, except the questions are more challenging and the interviewers tend to be of higher tenure and level than those from the first round. Interviews in the second round are sometimes split such that one interview is completely about fit while the other interviews are completely about solving a case.
In truth, the interview questions are never that difficult. The fit interviews usually consist of general questions about one’s resume (so it would be wise for applicants to practically memorize their resume as to prevent the horrible gaffe which is appearing to consult the resume before answering) and general questions which anyone who has done a bare minimum of practice with interview questions should be able to handle without blinking. (But make sure to blink, because else it looks too fake) The case interviews are also never too difficult. In truth, what screws people up is either being flustered by the question or being unable to present and communicate the correct answer. Neither problems are easy to solve, but nor are they impossible to ameliorate with practice (and possibly lots and lots of counseling — “your interviewer is laughing with you, not at you. With you, not at you. Keep chanting…”).
And, if one survives the grueling experience which is back-to-back interviews, and is actually, I dare say, good at it — then he or she is rewarded with the highest privilege of being a college student: servitude to a corporate entity for the next couple of years which will strip the “winner” of any idealism which he or she might have once had.
Isn’t recruiting grand?