Posted by: Francesca Di Meglio on June 11, 2009
With the economy in turmoil, many MBA graduates are finding the job search tough going. To give readers some insight into the strategies they’re pursuing and the difficulties they face, BusinessWeek has recruited four out-of-work MBAs to write about their experiences for a new feature called “The Hunt” that will appear periodically on the Getting In blog. Comments, as always, are welcome.
By Grant Garcia
A first interview is the only chance to make a favorable impression on a potential employer. Employers know within just a few minutes whether a candidate is going to be a fit for the firm, so it’s essential to arrive prepared. With the job market in peril for both undergraduate and MBA job hunters, students must differentiate themselves beyond the basics now more than ever. If you’re lucky enough to have an interview it’s important to do everything possible to set yourself up for success. Research, preparation, and presentation are just a few ways to stand out from the competition.
This probably goes without saying, but performing extensive due diligence on the firm before the interview is almost mandatory in today’s job market. Information is readily available online for every firm in any industry, which can be used to your advantage. I make sure to always research the structure, organization, and culture of a firm, its recent successes (or failures), and prepare questions based on my findings. I also research the directors or associates who will be conducting the interview and try to find connections to my network if possible. This could include schools, clubs, or areas of interest that we both share. This shows the interviewer that I have a sincere interest in joining their firm and understand exactly what they do and how they do it. I have found that the easiest way to eliminate yourself from the applicant pool is to not fully understand what the firm does, how it functions, or misunderstand the role you are applying to. Applicants who understand the firm and can speak intelligently about how it operates have an advantage during the initial few minutes when a first impression is formed.
The classic mistake for business school students going into a finance interview for the first time is typically misunderstanding how a financial services firm functions, particularly the difference between business units in investment banking, research and sales, and trading. Career counselors will repeatedly tell students that they must understand the differences and choose a path that clearly fits their interests and skill set, but inevitably too many students go to an interview and confuse these areas or fail to choose one specific path. I admittedly made this mistake during the beginning of my post-undergraduate job search, confusing wealth management with sales and trading, but quickly sought out advice from Richmond alumni already working in the industry who then advised me through the process. These mistakes are less applicable to MBAs, as most have relevant experience in the industry to which they are applying, however it is equally important for MBAs to research the interviewing firm and be well versed in the company’s business units.
It’s also important to do research on the type of questions that the interviewing firm will likely ask during the interview. Finance interviews will often consist of analytical and “fit” questions. Most firms will also ask “brain teaser” type questions to see the logical steps a candidate takes to solve a given problem. Consulting interviews usually involve a case study where the applicant walks through a business case or develops solutions while actually sitting in the interview. Many books like the Vault Guides or Wetfeet provide tips on how to prepare for these types of interviews.
In my experience, firms will always ask the “why” set of questions. Why trading? Why investment banking? Why consulting? Why our firm? Why did you choose your MBA program? It’s always good to have your story ready and memorized, and know it inside and out. Also, candidates should be able to explain their logical progression from previous employment, and how those experiences relate to the current position being sought. This is extremely important during a poor economic climate because many MBAs may have gaps in their professional experience that must be explained. It’s generally all right to have strayed from your professional development track for a few months between jobs, but years of unrelated experience may be difficult to sell to an employer in a specific industry like investment banking. Regardless of your current job situation, make sure to constantly stay current on the industry or firm to which you are applying, and find ways to stay involved in the industry such as seeking professional certifications or finding internship opportunities.
Lastly, a candidate’s presentation can be a deciding factor whether he or she will get the job. Not only is it necessary to prove you know the industry, graduated with a high GPA from a top school, but you must be a good fit with the firm. Presentation covers a wide spectrum of qualities from public speaking, professional demeanor and presence to dress and likeability. If you’ve worked in finance I am sure you have heard of the Tokyo Test – can a current employee sit next to this candidate on a flight from New York to Tokyo and tolerate their company during the entire flight? This is the go-to question on likeability – one that most candidates must pass to get a job offer. Beyond being a “good fit” for the firm, it’s important to carry a professional presence and dress to assimilate into the firm’s culture. Interviewing at a start-up may require a different dress code than interviewing with an investment bank. Candidates should ask about the dress code in advance, and if a suit and tie is required, make an effort to look smart. If a candidate shows up dressed properly, prepared, and well-presented, it’s likely that he or she will have a leg up on most of the other applicants.