Interns

Finance Internships – A Complete Guide

In Introduction by Gaurav SharmaUpdated On:

Internships, in my opinion, are the best thing about being a university student.

As a student, you are always learning new and fascinating theoretical concepts which you are eager to try out on your own. You hear about all the great things your alumni are doing and can’t wait to start writing your own story.

But there’s a catch. 

You have one big hurdle to overcome and that hurdle is “relevant experience”. You are a rookie and it’s a competitive world. Most job openings usually require some work experience and you have none.

This is where internships come in.

Why Internships Matter

Internships require a fair amount of effort and while you might be motivated enough to work towards one already, my intention with this section is to make you so pumped about them that you actually go ahead and give it your all. You really have to go full “This is Spartaaaa!” when it comes to internships.

This is why you need an internship if you want to get into finance:

Reason 1: Testing the Waters

Spending a few months in an internship program is the best way to get a feel for what working in finance is really like. Finance is such a vast field and you really should narrow your scope and target a very specific niche to actually get a taste of how that divisions works. For example, certain roles in retail banking have more in common with FMCG companies than with investment banking. Similarly, some roles in wealth management have more in common with being a celebrity agent than being a banker.

Internships help you test the waters and figure out what you like and would excel at based on your skillset. The latter part is very important. You can indeed develop new skills, but you are much more likely to succeed if you do something that you are naturally good at. Internships help you do a live test of your core skills.

Reason 2: Making your Presence Felt

Internships offer a great opportunity to leave your mark in the minds of potential recruiters. A 10-week internship would provide infinitely more information about your actual on-the-job performance compared to any number of interviews. It is no surprise then that interns are a lot more likely, statistically, to be offered permanent positions at the conclusion of their academic programs. An internship is the single best way to build your case to be offered a permanent position.

Some banks have broader internship programs where interns interact not just with their own divisions, but other teams as well. You become an insider for a few weeks and this gives you an opportunity to widen your net and fish for opportunities which would not be visible to outsiders.

Reason 3: Building Core Skills

Not all internships are created equal. Big name banks usually try to make the internship programs really good as their campus reputations depend on it. But a lot still depends on your mentor. Some banks go as far as to have someone at the Managing Director level mentor a few interns so that they get the best value possible.

In addition to mentorship, you also get the chance to do some on-the-ground work. You are still an intern so don’t expect to be leading any major transactions, but you could find yourself assisting analysts and associates with some of their work. Expect to do mostly some number crunching if you are working with analysts.

If you are a management intern, you should probably expect some more strategic projects which require more research capabilities and solid presentations skills. My personal experience in this regard was good and I even got to meet some clients, but it all depends on your mentor.

Reason 4: Networking

Internships offer the best opportunities to network, bar none. Sure, you do get other opportunities to connect with bankers at networking events, but you have a lot of people vying for their attention and little time. During your internship, however, you have several weeks and if you have good people skills you should have no problem connecting even with the big honchos.

Not all divisions are equal in this regard. Some business verticals work in silos which means your interaction is limited just to your team. It also depends on the culture of your bank. But personally, I had the opportunity to meet quite a few Director and MD level executives. Your people skills will come in handy here.

The worst thing you can do is to act in a way that makes it seem like you are fishing for something – that you are desperate to make an impression. Actually, no. Scratch that. The worst thing would be to pretend to know more than what you actually do! Don’t. do. that.

Act naturally. Be yourself and let your personality shine through. I can’t stress how important that is – to have a pleasant personality rather than being clingy or a know-it-all. At the end of the day, your goal is to convince people that you are pleasant to be around, that you are willing to learn and that you won’t make any disastrous mistakes.  That’s it. But more on this later.

Reason 5: Adding value to your CV

If you have some relevant finance experience beforehand, good for you. But for most, internships are the best and only finance related experience on their CVs. Having a good, solid brand on your Resume is more important that you think. Some people think brands are worthless and that the work you did should be more important than the brand value of the company that you worked for. But that’s not how it works. Those brands are recognizable for a reason and that’s because they are associated with excellence – and that brand value percolates throughout the organizational hierarchy.

Now that we are clear on the brand value of your internship, lets come to the content. One way that I like to look at internship performance is by thinking of it like the quarterly performance of a brand-new employee. I don’t expect you to know everything, but I do expect you to display the ability to learn quickly, to not make mistakes and do to whatever it is that you do know, well.

I think most of my colleagues would agree on that. It is certainly the advice that I got as well.

Reason 6: You sort of have to

Leaving aside the fact that you need an internship to complete your academic program, it is something that all your batch-mates would be competing with you on.  There is not much else to say here except that if you want the best roles, you would have to compete with the best candidates. And the best candidates would all have stellar internships on their CVs.

How to get a Banking Internship

This greatly depends on which school you go to. Some schools are targeted by the big banks who try and get the best of the lot as soon as possible. Elsewhere, you have to seek out internships opportunities on your own and push your CV through. The latter indeed makes things harder if you are aiming for the elite bulge brackets or boutiques, but it’s certainly not impossible.

The process of getting a bank internship requires applying for the internship programs through various bank websites or getting in touch with the campus recruitment teams of the banks. How to go about it exactly would depend on your circumstances, where you are studying and where you want to end up. However, here are some general tips that might help you out:

  • Brands matter. It can be your school, your previous employer, any international competitions you have won or anything else that can catch the recruiter’s eye. This is why companies build brands in the first place – to get an instant recognition and reaction from their consumers. This applies here as well and having a solid brand helps.
  • Keep your grades up. Even if you represented China at the Olympics or went to the most exclusive Business School on the planet, it won’t matter much if your grades are in the toilet. That’s bit of an exaggeration but honestly – if you have bad grades it means you are either not serious about things at all or you are just not smart enough. One of those is worse than the other.
  • Network. You’ll usually have plenty of opportunities to network with the right people before the recruitment season begins. Companies like to do events at campuses or have competitions that you can participate in. You might also run into executives who are invited to campus for speaking engagements and such. There are people in the HR department whose sole job it is to build a “campus brand” for the bank. That is your best chance to network and you better do it like it’s going out of fashion. Again, it needs to be said that you must not be too pushy or clingy. Use your people skills!

Working on your Resume

If you do not spend at least 50 hours on your CV, you are doing it wrong. There are actually CV consultation classes that you can attend, there are websites which offer CV building (and even LinkedIn profile building!) as a paid service. And all of this happens because it matters. On average, your CV will usually just get a 5-7 second glance to convince the reader that he needs to read the rest of it!

You don’t have to use those paid services if you don’t have the cash (there are some really good ones though), but you do have to spend time on every single word on your CV. Then, mail it to people that you know to get feedback. Someone already working at your target bank would probably be able to provide you the most value.

Attention is the single most valuable commodity of the digital age and your CV is no exception. The time you are spending on your CV is not just to make sure that you have the right stuff on there, but also to make it scannable. Your CV has to be quickly scannable. This means you have to highlight/ bold just enough sentences that catch the reader’s eye in 5 seconds. Only then is he likely to read the rest of it. Which is why I think brands are so important.

Here are some quick and dirty tips just to get you started:

  • Highlight a few lines assuming that the reader ONLY reads those lines first. These have to be your best lines.
  • Cram big brands in there but it has to be relevant. No useless fluff.
  • A good mix of hard and soft skills. Presentation and communication are essential soft skills and hard skills would depend on which business you are aiming for. Excel skills and numeracy are always important. Programming skills matter for certain roles.
  • Your interests should showcase the best things about your personality.
  • Keep it professional and stick to one page. Unless you have several years of prior experience at NASA or DARPA, one page should be enough.
  • Focus on consistency, diligence and accuracy for analyst level internships. For management internships, focus also on soft skills.

Gathering Intelligence (Planning Phase)

This is the part where you must research every single thing. Hopefully, you should have narrowed down your targets to a manageable number by now and so it’s time to start researching them.

What does the firm do? What do they stand for? What is their business model? What is their unique selling proposition? Who are their competitors? What are their strengths (and weaknesses)? What are the threats that they are facing? How would you handle those threats? What do you bring to the table considering all these factors?

You can get this information from online sources (management notes, analyst calls, research reports) or from someone you networked with at the firm but the best source in my opinion are your alumni working at your target firms. This is precisely why networking is king.

You can go above and beyond and dig up information that really gives you an edge. For example, if you are interviewing for a specific division you could find something about the team – how they like to work and their culture. It might seem like we are getting too much into the nitty-gritty but frankly if you make networking your second nature, you’ll do this naturally. This is certainly not mandatory, and I would still pick brilliant and dedicated over well-networked any day, but every little bit helps.

What to do Before your Internship (Preparation Phase)

Good schools usually have in-house programs that prepare you for the selection process. This could be student driven or the faculty could be involved but the ultimate aim is to prepare you for the selection process. The exact specifics of the selection process keep changing and this is one area where companies do like to be innovative. After all, it doesn’t make sense to ask the same question every year, does it?

You should expect some combination of psychometric tests, analytical tests, case studies, role playing scenarios (where you pretend to be the COO and someone else is the CFO etc.), and the ubiquitous interview. Sometimes, there are several rounds and it can often get quite chaotic. I once had 13 rounds with a bulge bracket for a trading role in Hong Kong. So be mentally prepared like a Navy SEAL.

The interview can frankly go in any direction and if you go in thinking that you would just be asked technical questions, that would be a mistake. Generally speaking, my experience has been that if you are being interviewed by juniors (associate level), you would be asked more technical questions. The higher you go, the less technical it becomes. Interviews at the MD level are absolutely incredible, and you might just end up discussing literature for a good 30 mins. No kidding.

What to do During your Internship (Performance Phase)

Most big banks which take in dozens of interns would have a formal orientation where you’d get to meet other interns and a few people from the bank. Others just like to throw the interns into the bull-pen to fend for their own. It’s a culture thing.

Either way, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get to work. The main aim of your internship is three-fold:

  1. Network – If you intend to secure a full-time position here, make sure you are known for all the right reasons. Make an impact.
  2. Learn – Although your actual learning will be limited considering you are only going to be here for around 8-12 weeks, you should still be able to clearly state what you achieved. Write down all the things that you learned which are relevant for the business. This will come in handy during subsequent interviews.
  3. Perform – You need to deliver results. No matter what project you are assigned to (and sometimes lady luck can play tricks here), the most important thing is to perform all your tasks well.

Some general tips to follow during your internship (I’m going to skip the usual dress well, don’t be tardy, don’t badmouth anyone etc.):

  • Be diligent and consistent first and foremost. In business, brilliance matters a lot. But as a first-year banking analyst, diligence and consistency are more important than having brilliant ideas or leadership. You start as a foot-solider, not a General. So do the grunt work well.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but research them first. Most often, you would find the answer on your own which means you won’t be asking anything too obvious and silly. Conversely, don’t ask questions just for the sake of it. Remember that the people there have been where you are now, and they know what is genuine and what is not.
  • Don’t offer “business advice” unless asked specifically. The most valuable contribution that you can make would be to remove any specific pain points that the team has. Be on the lookout for what people are complaining about and then try and fix that.
  • Being a grunt does not mean being a push-over. Don’t be afraid to hold your own, just don’t be too aggressive. This is just one of those things where you have to use your own judgement and people skills.
  • Try to meet and talk to people in different business verticals. The idea here is to explore as much of banking as possible so that you know where you fit. Make sure this does not come off as though you are just networking and plan to use these people as contacts later on. You should just be genuinely curious about what they do so that you can decide where you should be headed.
  • It is possible that you get handed a bad assignment. How much wiggle room you have here totally depends on your specific circumstances and how flexible your mentors are. If they are swamped with work, then annoying them over little things might just not be worth it. Just remember that the most important thing here is how you handle the assignment.
  • Try to blend in as much as possible during informal hangouts. People should be comfortable with having you around rather than thinking, “Oh god, here comes that annoying intern who keeps asking me how much money I made last year”. I think you get the picture.
  • If your assignment has a final presentation sort of deal, then make sure it is the best damn presentation ever. I personally had a rather mediocre long-term assignment (in addition to some generic short-term modelling tasks), but I nailed that final presentation. I was a management intern though and soft skills matter a bit more at the associate level than for analysts. But there is no reason why your Excel model can’t be just as amazing.
  • Don’t burn any bridges. Finance is a big world, but reputations tend to be sticky and the reference checks in banking are extremely thorough.
  • Try to have fun. Internships are great. You learn stuff, you get some pocket money, you get to live in the big city and hang out with bankers, you get your first taste of real responsibility. It’s one of the best parts of being a student. Exude positive energy and that will always work in your favor.

What to do After your Internship is Over (Keep-your-teeth-clean Phase)

Great, you made it! So you are back from your awesome internship and you have been telling all your friends how awesome it was and now its back to the classroom. Is there something you can still do?

If you made any friends, it might be ok to keep checking in with them from time to time. Just don’t be too clingy. And when I say “connect” I mean like once every few months. Other than that, just be a good brand ambassador for the bank. For example, if someone from there is planning on visiting, try to volunteer to help out with things.

Updating your Resume

Spend several dozen hours updating your resume. I am being serious. Do multiple iterations, try out different combinations, send it across to people you know to get their take and keep improving upon it.

For an internship on your CV, there are four things that I like to look at:

  • The brand (which bank and which division you worked for)
  • A clear, crisp and concise summary of what your actual project was
  • How you approached the problem
  • What you achieved

I realize its not always possible to cram all of that in there. What you need to do is generate curiosity. Instead of having some generic achievement, have something that the interviewer would be compelled to ask you about. I am not talking about clickbait here like, “7 things I achieved during my internship, and #5 will surprise you!”.

The point you have to get across is that you have a great approach towards solving problems. If the problem needs time, you know how to do time management; if it needs a new approach, you can think of that new approach; if it needs a human touch, you can do that as well. Your internship needs to illustrate your ability to learn fast and solve problems.

Getting into Banking without an Internship

Let’s say you can’t get a good banking internship. Is that the end of your finance career? Not by a longshot. Internships have lot of value but like any complex multi-variate equation, it is just one factor amongst many. You just have to make up for it by boosting the other variables.

The fact is that not every banker starts out as a finance intern. It does make things easier, but if you look at the top hierarchy of the large financial institutions, many of them didn’t even start out in banking. They move into banking laterally from other Fortune 500 companies.

Lateral Movements

Moving laterally means you move from a similar role at one company to another. Luckily, this similarity doesn’t have to be just role-specific but can be skill-specific as well. So if two roles have a significant skill overlap, you can probably still make a shift. Here are some scenarios where you might be able to make a lateral move:

  • Lateral movements in departments that are common across industries like HR, IT or marketing. Banks do have a marketing department and they actually do exciting work. Banks still have to create a “brand” presence for themselves and if you have experience doing that well somewhere, you can definitely be valuable to a bank. I know some awesome marketing people who mostly work on mass-market finance products.
  • Banks have tons of sales roles as well. It is possible to move into a sales role if you can demonstrate some knowledge about banking products or the ability to learn about them quickly. As you can imagine, this works better at the entry levels (and mostly in retail banking). But it is not unheard of and I have seen all sorts of smart people come into a sales role from diverse industries and start selling in three months.
  • If you are an industry expert, you can be really valuable as well – even at senior roles. For example, if you have a deep understanding of the commercial real estate industry you can join the bank in the department that covers commercial real estate even at a senior level.
  • Moving from finance departments of companies to a banking role is possible. Roles like audit, compliance, treasury, etc. do have some flexibility in this regard.

There are a lot of other very specific examples as well, but I think you get the idea.

The Most Important Part!

The most important advice that I can give you is this:

Your only responsibility is to give it your best shot.

As I was writing that I remembered Sean Connery in The Rock, “Your besht? Losers always whine about their besht. Winners go home with the prom queen”. Yea, no. You don’t need advice from movies. Especially a Michael Bay movie.

Bad things happen. Some of us went to Business School in 2008. A few weeks later, Lehman filed the biggest bankruptcy in world history. It was a shocker to say the least. Some of my alumni who were with Lehman were suddenly out of a job. These were people that we looked up to and suddenly the world was not the same anymore. Banking would change forever.

Yet, we somehow managed. We hustled like crazy. We worked harder than our predecessors ever had to and that shows in our success today. In the long term, that habit of going the extra mile that we developed but the guys during the boom didn’t, made us better than them.

For example, CFAs were a lot rarer before, but after the recession hit everyone was trying to get any edge they could. I appeared for and cleared my CFA and FRM Level 1 exams within two weeks of each other just to make my CV a bit stronger before recruitment season.

You just have to give it your best shot.

Get your Groove on

The single best thing about being an intern is that you learn a great deal about the profession that you are joining – more so than anything else out there.

No amount of reading books, watching YoutTube videos, professional coaching or even a full-time college course can compete with the hands-on experience that an intern can benefit from.  This is why the internship route remains one of the most popular methods of securing a job in some of the more advanced careers which includes banking.

About the Author

Gaurav Sharma

Gaurav started his career as a Corporate and Investment Banking intern at Citi in 2009 and eventually ended up as an Associate Director at Standard Chartered Bank’s Wholesale Banking division a few years later. By 2016, Gaurav was consulting FinTech start-ups in London with product development in the institutional banking space. He also advises mid-market Private Equity/ Asset Management firms and Banks in North America and Europe with investments in the financial services and FinTech sector. Gaurav writes on topics ranging from European Union banking regulations and FinTech to Blockchain startups and the inevitable rise of our AI overlords! He has an Engineering degree in Computer Science and an MBA with a double major in Finance and Marketing. He is also a Certified Financial Risk Manager.