How to get though banking interviews – listen to someone who used to do them.

Years ago, I always used to get asked for my opinion on financial questions when I was at parties; all this stopped after the crisis of 2008. Given the sensational level of collective incompetence that had just been displayed by the banking industry, most folk felt more comfortable basing their personal money decisions on guesswork or bird entrails or cloud shapes rather than the word of a banker.

Fair? Probably not. Understandable? Definitely.

But there was one matter upon which I was still considered a reliable source of information: how to navigate the involved and circuitous process of getting a job in an investment bank. And for good reason – by the time I retired in 2014 I had been involved in the process of recruitment for over twenty years and I had lost count of the number of hiring decisions I had made or been a part of.

A chunk of these had been about hiring experienced people from other banks in order to do specialised roles. I do not wish to dwell too long on how to succeed at that process except to give a couple of pointers. First, if you advertise yourself as an expert in something, it is a good strategy to know a bit about the topic. This will avoid you facing the embarrassment (which I once witnessed) of having to sit, silent, mouth opening and closing in panic like a landed salmon, as you completely fail to answer the simplest technical questions (and then, as a result, see your hour-long interview slot terminated after five minutes). Second, do not make stuff up on your CV. Seriously, don’t. One candidate we actually contrived to hire had embellished his CV so dramatically that it was practically a reconstruction from dental records. When, a couple of weeks after he started work, the HR people got round to checking the facts in his document and found the numerous holes in it (e.g. he had never graduated from the school he claimed) he was promptly fired. Upon being asked to explain the discrepancies between his CV and cold, hard reality, he memorably, brazenly, but with an admirable late burst of honesty said: ”Well, I lied”. Cheers.

Needless to say, the advice about CV ‘inflation’ does not just apply to veterans; young graduates attempting to get in straight from university or business school should also pay heed. If you are found out lying (and you will be) you will be fired. In fact, if you are in this position, the very look of your application is also crucial because banks (even these days) get so many forms that the HR people who are screening them are just itching for an excuse to put yours in the bin. Also, don’t be afraid to put stuff on them that you’ve done but that you might not think is particularly ‘professional’. Banks aren’t art schools and I suppose there’s a limit to how much edginess will work, but do not underestimate how bored HR people and interviewers get with seeing the same claims over and over again. I once offered a job to a young woman based on the fact that she’d paid her way through university by breeding and selling hamsters on an almost industrial scale – her very own furry pyramid scheme. Her grades were fine, but it was her commercial sense that appealed.

For all this, the process of interview is a remarkably structured one. The first rounds are normally conducted by younger, more junior interviewers (associates and vice presidents) and are – in essence – further screening to make sure the CV filter wasn’t entirely broken. Advice at this stage is pretty much what you’d expect for any interview, for any job, anywhere: look like you care; know a bit about the bank; know why you want to join it; and have some reasons that you think that you can work there successfully.

After that, it gets serious. Second, or third round interviews may feel like they are freewheeling discussions about the world and your motivations but each one (normally conducted by a director or managing director) is trying to find out one very specific thing about you. I suppose each bank has a different checklist of skills that they look for but I’m sure, like the uniqueness of snowflakes, the differences are overrated. Is the candidate a ‘team player’? Is the candidate a ‘leader’? Is the candidate ‘numerate’? Does the candidate know what the hell banking is all about to any degree (aka, ‘motivation)? If the interviewer is any good, they will dig and dig and dig. Leadership: “What difficult situations have you been in where you needed to convince people of a course of action?” “How did you persuade them?” “Was the action you took successful? “Why?” And so on. The only advice on how to do well in this type of interview is simply to have thought carefully about what evidence you have to demonstrate the admirable qualities that are being sought. In short, be prepared and keep calm.

Occasionally interviewers (never me, I hasten to add) just go completely off-piste with annoying ‘puzzle’ questions. “How many ping-pong balls would fit in an Olympic swimming pool?” – that sort of thing. Maybe, occasionally, they are just being vindictive (a stupid thing to do, since even the most knuckle-dragging banker realises that giving his institution a deserved reputation for being chock full of assholes won’t play well next year on campus) or maybe they are just bored. Either way, just keep calm, keep logical and talk through your working (how big is an Olympic swimming pool? How much volume does a ping-pong ball take up?).

But the one question that – amazingly – trips people up again and again, even late in the process, is this: why do you want to do the job? One time in three this is the cue for stuttering expressions of platitudes. If you are reading this and are preparing for a banking interview then only you know the answer to the question. But you must know the answer. It isn’t the faux pas that many people think it is to mention money (to ignore the fact that people join banks in order to be well paid is simply hypocritical bullshit) but if that is your sole motivation, the world of finance will get flat, stale and (psychologically) unprofitable very, very quickly. This is especially true these days of banking retrenchment. So think carefully about motivation; maybe when you do you will find that it really isn’t for you. On the other hand, if it is then it can be a great career. It was for me.

So good luck.