06 April 2011

When you are asked if you can do a job, tell ‘em, ‘Certainly I can!’  Then get busy and find out how to do it.

-Theodore Roosevelt

Over the last few years I’ve helped dozens of people in college and immediately post college who want to get into finance. I find myself giving the same advice every single time, so I’m finally writing it down. Although this post focuses on finance, most of the advice should apply for any difficult to get job.

In finance, there is a standard path which involves an Ivy League school, applying to internships starting December of your junior year, and turning the internship into a job after you graduate. If you’re interested in accounting, there are a number of schools that act as feeder programs to the big four accounting firms. Even if you’re not on the standard path, you can get a job in finance, but you will have to work harder. Screwing up the items below is a common way that people on the standard path find themselves on the side of the road looking at the path and wondering how to get back on. I made all these mistakes, found myself ejected from the standard path, and had to learn these lessons the hard way. You should learn them the smart way by reading below.

Spend more time on your resume

Over the last four years, I have looked at thousands of resumes for finance internship and entry level positions, and have only seen a couple great resumes. I know you had your career services look over your resume, and they said it was great, but trust me, it’s not. Most people spend three or four hours putting together their resume, and an hour with career services getting advice and doing revisions. This is about 20% of what you should be doing. You should be spending a huge amount of time polishing your resume. When people read your resume they are creating a picture of you in their head. You want that picture to be as flattering as possible.

Many people I have helped have difficulty putting their job experience into bullet points, and I find the following exercise is very helpful. To start, take each job, and write out a full page about the job, all the things you learned, and the skills you needed to be successful. Then, spend five to ten minutes on each bullet point in your resume trying to find the best possible language to convey your strengths and successes, based on the page you wrote. For the first bullet point in each position, assume the person reading your resume cannot understand what you did based on your job title, and explain simply what you did. The bullet points should be as explicit as possible, so include numbers whenever you can. When people see something vague on your resume, they assume the worst.

You should also have multiple other people, ideally people working in finance, critique your resume. You should have multiple resumes for multiple areas within finance. One resume may emphasize your sales skills, while another emphasizes your hours of work or organizational skills.

Apply to more jobs

One of the first questions I ask people when they ask for help getting a job or internship is how many jobs they have applied to. Then I watch them squirm, because usually the number is low. Applying for jobs is a numbers game, and if you aren’t applying to as many jobs as possible, you’re not going to get one. My firm used to get about 1,000 resumes every time we posted a job, but we would only look through about 200 of them before we found enough candidates to bring in for an interview. If you’ve only applied to 10 jobs, there’s a chance you have only had two or three people actually read your resume.

Tap your personal network

Your personal network is the best way to get an interview. Most people will give you a chance if someone they respect has recommended you.

The best way to tap your personal network is to ask for informational interviews. If you know of someone in the business, set up a time to go to his office, and ask questions about his job, what he thought about your resume, and what advice he has about the best way for you to get a job. Then, and most importantly, ask for other people to speak with; either people who are hiring, or people who would be good just to talk to.

Treat your job search like a job

If you want to get a job, you need to treat your job search like a serious job. Read the Wall Street Journal every day. Look at job postings every day, not randomly when the inspiration strikes you. The best way to make sure your resume gets read, is to be one of the first people to apply after a job is posted. This means you should be around during the day to make sure that you apply to the jobs you want within the first few hours, otherwise you have put yourself at a huge disadvantage. However, don’t apply 30 seconds after the job gets posted; spend an hour researching the company and writing a great cover letter.

Your classes and homework are not as important as making sure you have a job after graduation, so don’t use them as an excuse for why you can’t spend time looking for jobs. Your job search should be your number one priority senior year. Your gpa isn’t going to change during your job search, and once you have a job, future employers won’t care much about your college gpa.

Be prepared for the interviews

When I was in college, there were Vault Guides that were very helpful in helping prepare for interviews for the various areas within finance, so read them. However, there are many other things you should be doing.

You should have answers ready for the most common interview questions. It’s always shocking to me when I’m interviewing someone and they stumble through “Tell me about yourself” or “walk me through your resume.” You should have answers to all these questions, along with tough but standard questions like, “tell me about a time you failed” or, “what’s your greatest weakness?” Have mock interviews with your friends and video them so you can see what you look like during an interview. If a company is bringing you in for an interview, it’s because they want you to get the job, so if you’ve gone on a lot of interviews and don’t have a job yet, it’s because you are not good at interviewing and need to practice more.

Make yourself more desirable

In finance there are a couple of things you can do to make yourself more desirable to a potential employer. First, become an expert in Excel, and learn VBA, a programming language for use within Excel. Then, start learning more about finance. If you can, sign up for the CFA exam, or at least get the books and look through them.

Go to networking events and conferences. I never knew about conferences in college, but they are a great opportunity for students. Instead of the school events where there is one person working in finance and hundreds of students, go to a conference where there are hundreds of people working in finance and you are the only student. Meet as many people as you can and relentlessly follow up. You can probably contact the organizer and get the conference fee waived or greatly reduced.

If you’re out of college already, get yourself a good schedule.  You should wake up early, do something productive between 9 and 12, apply for jobs for 2 hours, do something productive till 5, apply to jobs for 2 hours. Try for over 3 applications per day, about 100 per month, or over 1,000 per year. If you do that, while continuing to improve your skills, you should definitely have a job within a year.


(Thanks to Adegoke Adediran and Marques Torbert for their help editing this post.)