Look, if you’re attending a non-target or if you have mediocre grades, there’s really only one thing for you to do.
You’ve got to network and you’ve got to do it well.
Even if you have the perfect resume, you’ll probably still want to invest a good amount of time into diligent coffee chats, because networking is what turns a perfect resume into a perfect candidate.
For better or for worse, investment banking and finance as a whole rely a ton on word of mouth. Although there are formal gatekeepers for the most coveted jobs, there is so much attrition and new firms pop up so frequently that you can often grease your way to a great investment banking offer with pure will.
The thing to note is that networking can be a double-edged sword. People are willing to take a chance on a misunderstood kid with potential, but they won’t hesitate to blacklist annoying kids who get their name wrong.
The Goals of a Coffee Chat
So when you’re networking and doing coffee chats, you should have the following goals in mind:
Impress the person you’re speaking to by being charming, respectful, knowing their work experience, and asking thoughtful questions.
Learn about any potential opportunities, the status of recruiting processes, or any advice to succeed in the interview.
Be introduced to other helpful contacts (HR manager, person running point on recruiting, person with a similar background to you).
But you shouldn’t even bother thinking about #2 and #3 unless you feel like you’ve nailed #1.
I’ve done my share of informational interviews and I can tell you – the difference between a good informational interview and an OK one is extremely noticeable. The difference between an OK call and a bad call is even more noticeable. Super smart kids will get on the phone and then be so obviously unpolished or disrespectful that it makes me wish they never even reached out.
The most important thing is that you need to have very thoughtful questions. By thoughtful, I mean questions that won’t just be simply “yes” or “no”, but instead show that you’ve done some element of research. Thoughtful questions mean you’ve researched the nuances of a person’s job and doesn’t make the call feel like a waste.
How to Ask Thoughtful Questions
Asking thoughtful questions means:
Trying not to answer yes or no questions without giving more room to elaborate.
Not asking anything that you can Google.
Asking things that are specific to that person’s career or job (i.e. things they are uniquely positioned to answer).
Not asking anything too intrusive or antagonistic unless you feel like the call is going really well (e.g. why did you decide to go to Western instead of Harvard)?
In an effort to really help you out, here’s the list of networking questions I used when networking with people for investment banking jobs.
If the chat was over the phone, I would have this document open in front of me. If it was a sit -down, in-person chat, I would memorize a couple of key questions and try to structure the conversation flow around them.
List of Coffee Chat Questions
Their Experience and Perspective:
Could you help me understand your specific responsibilities on a typical day?
What tasks or responsibilities of your job do you consider to be your favorite?
What would you say is the biggest surprise on the job from when you joined the firm?
Has your experience matched your expectations in terms of responsibility, learning opportunity and pace?
What were the main reasons you selected this firm vs. other opportunities? (this becomes perfect ammunition for your “Why this firm?” question)
Could you tell me about an interesting deal or project you’ve had the chance to work on?
What particular aspects drew you to your specific [industry group or function]?
It may be a little early, but have you thought about the next steps in your career? Are there any career paths that appeal to you?
Their Firm and the Firm’s Business Model:
What stands out to you about your firm relative to its competitors?
I’ve seen that your firm has grown a lot in [this geography or function]. What have been some of the key drivers behind that growth?
What is the organizational structure of the firm? How big is the team you work with?
What is the level of interactivity between different groups / offices at your firm? Does there tend to be a lot of shared resources?
I’ve heard from friends and read online that your firm specializes in [this function]. Would you say this is true? How does your firm differentiate itself in this aspect?
How would you guys describe your approach to win deals and new clients?
I’ve noticed that your group has announced a number of [buy-side / sell-side] transactions. What do you think enables you guys to win deals like that?
I noticed that your firm hired [this senior banker]. How has that impacted your role and what do you think it does for the firm’s strategic direction?
Lifestyle (only if call is progressing well):
How would you contrast your lifestyle vs. your previous roles?
Can you give me a picture of what a typical work week is like?
What level of autonomy have you generally seen at your firm?
How would you describe the overall culture of the firm and your group?
What activities do you do outside of the firm together?
Recruiting (only if call is progressing well):
What is the current recruiting process or system at your firm?
What sort of preparation would you recommend for someone interested in your position?
Are there any specific materials you would recommend?
Who are the key people involved in the process / would you recommend me to speak with anyone else?
How would you recommend to best position myself to pursue an interview with your firm?
Knowing what you know about me and my situation, do you have any general advice for navigating the recruiting process?
[Regurgitate 1 or 2 things they said and comment on how it’s a very interesting insight]
“I just wanted to thank you very much for the chance to speak with you. I've been looking forward to talking to you for quite some time and appreciate you taking the time for me. Would it be alright with you if I sent any follow ups if they arise?”
Pick and choose your favorite 10-15 questions from the first few categories and organize them into your own document to prepare for the call.
Don’t expect to get through all your questions (some people in finance talk for hours), but it’s always better to be over-prepared with questions as opposed to the call ending awkwardly. And make sure that at the 30 minute mark, you do a check for time.
Remember, your goal is to make a positive impression and to get high-quality information. You do that by being polite and asking high-quality questions.