How to Break into Investment Banking

As I’m reminded by my younger friends, it’s that time of year. The time when college students across the country start jockeying for the summer internship of their dreams. For many, that’s a summer analyst position in investment banking. The trouble is, most students have no idea how to prepare for investment banking interviews, and even less of an idea what the job would entail if they were hired. So in the spirit of “passing it on”, I’d like to offer some of the most valuable advice that was given to me when I was in college, and a few tips and commonalities that I picked up myself. The below is distilled from my time as an investment banking analyst and summer intern, as well as the over 40 interviews with at least 15 different banks that it took to land my full time job and summer internship. It’s specifically targeted at college juniors interviewing for internships, though much of the advice is equally applicable to those interviewing for full time analyst positions.

Note: This post is adapted from my featured interview last month on’s “Eye of the Intern” blog.

What will I really be doing as an intern at an investment bank?

A lot of people don’t have a good grasp of what investment bankers actually do. There are a ton of definitions out there, but a simple summary is that investment banks help companies to raise capital (through debt or equity offerings) or sell themselves (M&A). In both cases, bankers prepare all the marketing materials and help to broker the deal (similar to a real estate agent selling a house). As an intern, your job is to help out with things like industry research and PowerPoint slide creation, with occasional runs to pick up takeout or coffee for the team.

Are the hours really as long as I’ve heard?

That depends what you’ve heard – and it also depends where you work. Your hours will vary a lot based on the deals you are staffed on, and some groups at some banks are notorious sweatshops. However, most full time (post-college) investment banking analysts will spend between 70 and 90 hours each week in the office. That’s roughly equivalent to 9am-midnight on the weekdays (65 hours), and then variable hours during the weekend depending on your workload. When a deadline is looming, hours can get crazy – I once caught an hour of sleep sitting up in a bathroom stall at 4am before returning to my desk to finish cranking out a pitch book. As an intern your hours might be a little shorter, but never leave the office until you’re sure the analysts you’re working with don’t need any more help, and never complain – you’re there to work for the summer and get that return offer, not to see the city (sorry).

What questions are they going to ask me in the interview?

A lot of students freak out before interviews for an investment banking internship, expecting to be peppered with technical questions about bond math and fixed charge ratios. The reality is that your interviewer knows you’re still a junior in college and haven’t been exposed to a lot of this stuff – they’ll tailor their questions accordingly. The key things you want to demonstrate are an understanding of the job, a strong work ethic, and that you’re a generally normal and social person.

However, since I know you want more specific details, here are three questions you can be almost certain will come up:

Q: Why are you interested in investment banking?
A: If the best thing you can come up with is “I want to make a lot of money” you might as well cancel your interview now. The correct answer here is dependent on the group you’re interviewing for (M&A, industry coverage, etc) but the thesis is the same. The key is to convey an understanding of what the job entails – contrary to what you may see in the movies, it’s not all power ties and screaming pit traders. One of the most interesting things about investment banking is the opportunity to learn a ton about your clients – in an M&A group, you might spend 3 months selling a defense contractor, then the next 3 months diving into the quick oil change industry. If you’re interviewing for an industry coverage group, make sure you emphasize your interest in that specific sector.

Q: Why do you want to join our firm specifically?
A: Here’s another one where you need to have done your homework. Now’s a good time to parrot back some of the things you learned about the firm in the information session (you did attend their information session didn’t you?) You can also prep for this question by using your career services office to contact alumni that work at the bank – ask them what makes their firm unique.

Q: What are 3 ways to value a company?
A: Ah, finally a “technical question”. Despite what you may have heard, this is about as hard as it’s going to get for internship interviews. You covered the first valuation method in your introductory finance class – discounted cash flows. Use the time value of money to obtain a present value for the firm’s future cash flows. If you’re a little rusty on this, click here for a refresher.

The other two methods are comparative – we’ll compare the company you’re trying to value with others that are similar to it. There are two different types of yardsticks – public comparables and precedent transactions. “Comps”, as they’re called in the industry, are publicly traded companies that are similar to the one you’re trying to value. “Deals” are completed acquisitions of public or private companies. These externally validated valuations give you an idea of what your similar company is worth. The key concept to understand here is called the “multiple” – you don’t compare the values of the comps and deals directly, you compare their EBITDA multiples. Divide a company’s market capitalization (comps) or sale price (deals) by its EBITDA, then apply that multiple to your company’s EBITDA to get the expected valuation.

What part of the interview do students mess up most often?

Far and away, the most common reason prospective interns get dinged is for personality. Even if you nail all of the above questions, you’re not getting the spot unless you click with the interviewer. It sounds unfair, but it’s true. If I’m going to hire someone and then spend 90 hours a week with them, we need to click personality-wise. More students just need to relax and be themselves – connect with your interviewer and show them you’re a normal person who’d be fun to have a beer with. That’s the secret that career offices never tell you.

Wrapping It Up

So there it is prospective junior masters of the universe – get the above concepts down cold, and you’ll be more prepared than 99% of your classmates (assuming they haven’t also read this post). Make sure you grasp basic financial concepts, and relax. The most important things are to show a genuine intellectual curiosity for the job and to connect with your interviewer on a personal level.

Hopefully this helps a few people out – I’m more than happy to answer additional questions in the comments.

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  • +1 on the personality reason. Would also recommend to prepare some of the standard brain teasers. I got them in every interview (at least over here in Europe they tend to ask them quite a lot). good summary for the rest!

  • hey! i want to know that in which field should i do my post and under graduation to work in an investment banking firm???
    also should i learn another language?? if yes then which one..

    • Hi Manas – the most likely option is to major in business, finance, or something related so you are prepared to do the job. The other option is to do the easiest major you can find, get a 4.0, and do a LOT of reading on the side so you’re a standout when they come to interview you.

      But really, if you’re not even in college yet, you should just crack a few beers, spend time with your friends, and enjoy the ride – most people change majors a couple times, and almost nobody ends up in the job they were planning on having out of high school.

    • And no, no need to learn another language – there are plenty of mono-lingual investment bankers. However, you might consider Mandarin if you want to be a real standout – the Chinese are taking over the world.

      This all assumes English is your first language. If it’s not, spend 100% of your time mastering English perfectly. And I mean perfectly – no accent. That will go farther than any 3rd language you could learn.

  • Hey Bill,

    Do you think a 3.5 Econ student from San Jose State has a shot at an IB internship? If not, could you give me any tips for extracurriculars that could help me stand out in the target school crowd?



Bill D'Alessandro