Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Toughest Interviewers

Imagine surveying MBA graduates at top schools, asking them to reveal which firms are the toughest interviewers, and Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley are not on the list.

In a survey last year of business professionals and from a compilation of feedback on its website, a California-based group listed its top 20 toughest places to interview. Strangely, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley or other well-known financial institutions were not on the list.  Those firms, as many MBA and Consortium graduates in finance know well, are known to put candidates through a grueling, marathon process over many rounds before they extend an offer.

Many other banks and financial institutions are known to follow similar practices--whether the candidate is vying for a spot in a BA/BS program or is an experienced vice president looking to make a lateral move. How often have you heard about "the process"--successive rounds of three-on-one interviews, technical interviews on specific chapters in finance, situational interviews related to a deal or client, and virtual psychology tests, including brain-teasers and pressure points?

The website,, nonetheless, includes only two "financial institutions" (hedge funds) on its list. The site addresses topics and issues related to the culture and hiring practices at companies around the nation.

The beginning of a new year typically means interviewing season. MBA first-year students are preparing for interviews for internships after spending much of the fall trying to secure interview spots.  MBA second-year students are hustling to find permanent spots, if they didn't like their summer-internship experiences or if they didn't receive an August offer. More senior finance people might be considering a move now that bonus and evaluation season is over.

In the survey from 2011, consulting firms were frequent on the list.  That wasn't a surprise. That Goldman, Morgan Stanley, UBS, Credit Suisse, Lazard or JPMorgan weren't on the list is intriguing. Many factors could explain that.

McKinsey, Bain, and Boston Consulting, which hold some of the most coveted spots at consulting firms, finished nos. 1, 4, and 5, respectively on the list. Hedge funds Jane Street and Bridgewater finished no. 2 and 16.  Bridgewater is known to put candidates through nightmarish sessions. It boasts about how it judges candidates on how they respond to their grueling, sometimes demeaning tests.  Jane Street, a lesser known trading firm in New York, was said to require candidates to make quick, complex, and decisive trading decisions based on hypothetical market scenarios.

Teach for America was no. 7--somewhat a surprise. But it must filter candidates carefully to ensure they are qualified for the classroom. Amazon and eBay were nos. 16 and 17 on the list.

Note, too, that technology firms (including Google, Facebook and Apple), also known to "play mind games" with candidates who endure interview ordeals worthy of legend, were not on the list.

The large banks may not have been on the list for a few reasons. They attract candidates (MBAs or otherwise) who are familiar with what is required to get through the process. Candidates likely spend much time preparing for rounds of interrogation, getting intelligence from colleagues and alumni, and reviewing  specific topics in finance that could surface. Business-school students and alumni, including those at Consortium schools, take advantage of career services on campus and alumni networks, all of whom coach candidates. The interview process is still tough, but they are well-prepared.

You might argue, however, that those those are the same types who also aim for offer letters from McKinsey and other big consulting firms.

The big financial institutions will attempt to be hard, tough, but are likely assessing candidates carefully for "fit" and "maturity" and the ability to develop into managers, business leaders, and client-oriented professionals. Sure, they will ask candidates to compute discounted-cash-flows in their heads, but are also evaluating when and whether they will trust a candidate to lead a major deal, trade or negotiation with clients. It suits them to envision the candidate in a natural business setting.

Notwithstanding the recent list, most MBA students and graduates will still declare the rounds of talks they have with, say, Barclays, UBS, Bank of America, or Wells Fargo were as tough as it can get.

Tracy Williams

For more about Bridgewater, the hedge fund, see

For more about interview experiences, tales, and summaries at specific companies, see

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