Undercover applicant: face-to-face interviews

The Gateway gets an honest account from a successful banking applicant

We spoke to a student who interviewed successfully for an internship at a leading investment bank, which led to her being offered a role as a graduate analyst. Here's what she had to say.


As an arts student I didn't have a huge knowledge of finance, but I knew I was interested in banking and that it's very hard to get in to without doing an internship early on. It was university term time when I was invited for interview so I thought that I would have to be realistic about what I could learn in just a couple of weeks. I went into WHSmith, and bought most everything in the investment and finance section and read as much as I could.

While I did it partly just to get information about the business world, the most useful thing was familiarising myself with the language. There are a lot of financial terms that people at the bank use everyday, and everyone just has them to hand, so it's important to know what they mean so you can be in the same mindset as the people interviewing you. I also thought about some more specific things: I picked out stocks I thought were interesting, or would make good buys, and markets I thought showed potential for growth.

On the day

The interview itself was at the bank's headquarters in London. I wore a black, knee-length shift dress with heels and a suit jacket: I wanted to look businesslike and reasonably plain, but not forgettable.

I found the place a little intimidating, just because everything was so slick and professional: the building itself, and all the people. It's clearly a really well-oiled machine, where a lot is expected of you. Everyone is sharp and has a really strong work ethic, so it took a degree of self-confidence to believe that I could fit in there.

The people there were quite friendly, and tried to chat to me. I don't actually like that very much as I prefer to focus and be as ready as possible.

Interview time

The interviews themselves (I had four in a row) weren't as intimidating as you might think. I didn't feel I was being grilled too hard: of course they don't want you to feel totally at ease, but they'd rather you were comfortable enough for them to get a proper idea of what you're like.

None of my interviews felt at all scripted; they flowed really naturally between classic "competency" questions (tell me an achievement you're proud of, a time when you worked with someone difficult, and so on) and some relatively general financial stuff. Though they all started with the scarily open "tell me about yourself", which I always find really tough to answer.

All my interviewers had read my CV very closely and they asked me a lot of questions about specific things on it. For example, the reasons why I chose my degree course, and for more detail on the extracurricular activities I mentioned, and these tended to spark the competency questions.

Talking shop

At the time I thought the interview was quite financial, but having interned there I can see that it was actually at a very basic level. They are telling the truth when they say that you don't need to study economics, maths or finance for these interviews, so long as you've clearly taken some steps towards familiarising yourself with that world. The questions I was asked were things like how I would invest a £100 million for a cautious client. The answers didn't have to be hugely detailed; I made suggestions like investing £40 million in steel and £30 million in telecoms companies with exposure to Africa, backed up by the reasons I thought those things. Even without detailed financial knowledge, it was definitely something I could do.

I also think they tailored the level a lot to whom they are interviewing: if I were an economist I'd have been asked very different things. But banks usually look to take on a cross-section of people, and the main thing they look for is whether you can pick things up quickly, handle numbers well, be adaptable and show an interest.

There is one thing I wish I'd done differently, though. For one of the questions, they asked me to recommend a company to invest in, which I did, but I hadn't done much research beyond that. Then, when my interviewer decided we should look the company up online, identified a point last year when the company's share priced dropped, and asked me why that was. I didn't know the answer, so in that case my research was too superficial.

The best policy

My advice, aside from just saying to prepare well, is to be honest and straightforward with the people interviewing you.

I was asked why I'd chosen finance over other areas that my CV suggested I might have gone into. If I'd pretended that I'd wanted to be an investment banker since I was 11 years old, they would have spotted it immediately. The people doing these interviews get a lot of sycophancy, and it always pays to be honest.

I was asked where else I'd applied, and so I told them. While lots of people might make out that this bank was the only one they cared about, that would be a ridiculous stance to take as most of my interviewers had started out at other banks. Later when I was interning, a few people asked what they should do in their final year. They were just told to enjoy themselves because it would be their last year at university - bankers understand that there's more to life than working and want to hire people who know that as well.

Also, it's worth remembering that the fact you've been invited to interview at all is already a vote of confidence. Especially at investment banks where people earn a lot of money per hour, taking the time out to speak to you represents a financial investment in you, albeit a fairly cautious one. Lots of people don't make it to the interview stage, and the best way to think about the experience is that they want to hire you, and you just need to make sure you perform well enough so they can do that.

The outcome

I heard back a few weeks later that I'd been offered a summer internship. After spending six weeks at the bank over the summer, I decided that it's somewhere I'd like to work. When I'd finished my time there they told me that they'd like to offer me a graduate role, which I accepted.