On a recent Saturday afternoon, two college juniors (not pictured above) were slumped down in their chairs at a local lunch spot, nibbling at sandwiches and looking exhausted. Both of them went to the same elite school, and both were enmeshed in one of the most exhausting and time-consuming quests a student can subject himself to: the search for a Wall Street summer internship.
“I went to two or three of my ten meetings for class this week," one of the juniors said. "One day, I had a first-round, a Superday, then came back to campus for another first-round. But that's banking. If you can handle the interviews, you can probably handle the job."
The students had both spent the past two-plus years checking all the right boxes to become Wall Street interns. They had gotten themselves admitted to so-called “target schools” (colleges at which big banks focus their recruiting efforts) and once there, they’d racked up advanced finance and economics classes, student leadership positions, and stellar grades. And now they were mounting their attacks on the biggest banks on Wall Street — Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley, and a dozen more.
By slogging through endless rounds of interviews, info sessions, and follow-up phone calls, students every winter compete to get invited to as many “Superdays” — Wall Street parlance for the weekend sessions at which banks give final-round interviews — as possible, and use those sessions to secure ten-week paid internships for this summer. One person involved in the hiring process at a large bank said he expected at least 5,000 undergraduates to apply for roughly 100 summer intern spots in New York — an acceptance rate of 2 percent.
“I couldn’t get hired here today” is a cliché in every industry. But on Wall Street, it’s largely true. Getting a job at a big bank once required little more than charm, an Ivy League diploma, and a successful senior-year interview. (Michael Lewis, the author of Liar’s Poker, got his first job at Solomon Brothers through a chance meeting with the wife of a banker.) Today, the vast majority of students who get full-time jobs at large banks have already completed an internship during a previous summer. That gives internships — not full-time jobs — the hottest competition, and makes the junior-year recruiting process even more intense.
The increasing battle for internships has also upped the amount of sector-specific knowledge would-be interns are expected to have. At one recent interview, one aspiring bank intern was asked complex questions such as: “How does debt affect Beta?” and “What is a Nash equilibrium?”
There have long been tools (like the Vault guides) to help interns navigate the recruiting gauntlet. But now, as students compete for fewer and fewer available slots in a shrinking sector, the prep process has become a cottage industry. Students can now buy the “Investment Banking Prep Pack” for $79.99 from Wall Street Oasis, the “Ace the Technical Investment Banking Interview” webcast and PDF guide for $99 from Wall Street Prep, or, on the high end, a four-day “Intern Core Skills” workshop from Adkins Matchett & Toy for $3,000.
Spending three grand to learn Excel shortcuts may seem lofty, but industry experts say it all evens out when a student gets an internship that pays about $15,000 for a summer’s worth of work, and when that internship leads to a full-time job paying upwards of $100,000 a year. And moreover, it’s hard to get in the door without it.
“There’s a sheer size of the population going for these few places, so the competition’s really intense,” says Geoff Robinson, the head of investment banking training at 7city Learning, a Wall Street prep company that was recently acquired by Fitch Ratings. “The level of knowledge you used to expect of an analyst is now getting pushed down to the level of an intern.”
Getting that knowledge can be tough for students, especially those who major in humanities or non-economic subjects. Some students read The Wall Street Journal and Barron’s to catch up; others take crash courses from prep companies or find repositories of sample interview questions online. Robinson’s company released a book last year, The Complete Intern: Navigating the Investment Banking Maze, to help prospective applicants prepare themselves. Many similar companies also offer in-person seminars at colleges and universities, and in special instances arrange one-on-one coaching for students who want extra help. Last year, Robinson tutored a student at the London School of Economics, helping him prepare for banking interviews at a rate of about $300 an hour.
There is, of course, something a little strange about college students spending thousands of dollars and neglecting their studies to land internships that involve little more than getting coffee for older bankers. It's even odder given how much the financial industry's reputation has suffered in recent years, especially on college campuses, many of which sprouted large contingents of activists during Occupy Wall Street. Often, college students who participate in bank recruiting end up forming their own cliques with other would-be financiers, both because of the elite training required of them and in order to insulate themselves from peer criticism.
For banks, there is also a danger to all of this overpreparation. Like an NBA team that recruits exclusively from eighth-grade AAU leagues, focusing on specialized knowledge might cause Wall Street firms to overlook late-bloomers or those whose talents are more general. It could also end the era of “accidental” investment bankers — sociology majors from Harvard who end up tripping into banking jobs during their senior year, despite the fact that they know next to nothing about the financial industry — and lead to a Wall Street composed only of econ-major gunners.
For the two students eating sandwiches, though, the internship process had played to their advantage. They had both aced their interviews, and offers were starting to trickle in. With a little luck, they were both days away from having multiple internships to choose between and an all-but-guaranteed job in finance upon graduating in 2014.
And that happy outcome, it seemed, would make all the studying and preening worth it.
“Some people go to school to learn,” one of the juniors said. “I went to get a job.”