The sheer absurdity of the private equity recruiting process is perhaps best illustrated by the recruiting timeline.
In recent years, private equity recruiting has kicked off within months of people graduating. Private equity firms commonly interview and hire people that have fewer than 6 months of work experience. And the thing is, private equity firms are hiring people who won’t actually start their jobs for another 2 years.
The majority of hires into private equity are analysts from the top investment banks in the world. Many investment bankers move to private equity for the opportunity to earn even more money.
Based on my own experience working in investment banking and private equity, we’ve observed that over half of the people in banking typically pursue private equity (making it the most popular career path out of banking). This obsession with private equity tends to be truer on the East coast, where the majority of bankers choose to stay in finance. On the West coast, many bankers also pursue fields such as venture capital and tech.
If you’re not at an investment bank or consulting firm, it’s tough, but not impossible to break into private equity. Perhaps you’ll have to go to a smaller boutique first or work your way into banking first before getting contacted by headhunters.
You can check out our Private Equity Recruiting Course if you're interested in learning more about the modeling and technical information needed to ace an interview.
In 2019, on-cycle recruiting kicked off in September. On-cycle refers to the “main recruiting process” in which the vast majority of private equity firms recruit within the same week. On-cycle is not an organized process. Firms are not carefully coordinating with one another to ensure that candidates have a reasonable interview timeline.
What typically happens is that one large firm, oftentimes a mega fund, will begin interviewing candidates and then all other firms will begin interviewing as soon as possible. Firms are compelled by game theory, eagerly trying to jump the gun on recruiting in order to snatch top students away from each other. It’s like a cold war.
After this week of on-cycle recruiting, the majority of top firms will have filled their entire classes.
During on-cycle recruiting in 2019, firms were extending offers to candidates who wouldn’t start working until 2021. This means that firms were extending contractual offers to 22-year olds, who wouldn’t join the firm for another two years. Even more astonishing, most people are only given 24 hours or so to decide on their offer. Some extremely cutthroat firms have policies that if you leave the interview room without accepting, the offer will expire.
Even pro athletes only get drafted 6 months to a year before they join their team – and they typically hire agents!
Can you get mad at the private equity firms? Well, yes, sure you can, but it’s instructive to realize that the current state of affairs is the byproduct of years and years of competition. There is no governing body that manages the recruiting process. There are no schools or organizations to protect candidates. In fact, many investment banks discourage or ban the idea of recruiting, which just adds another layer of stress.
These private equity firms have some of the brightest minds in the world and all firms know how demanding and labor-intensive private equity can be. They understand how critical labor is doing deals. When you layer that with the competitive intensity and moral apathy of the average finance professional, you get a horribly uncomfortable recruiting process that no stakeholder enjoys.
The Recruiting Timeline through History
Was it always this bad? No. It was always bad, but not like the dystopian sci-fi level of bad that we have now. Below, we have a chart that maps out when on-cycle recruiting kicked off every single year.
Over a decade ago, recruiting occurred only 1 year in advance. This gave analysts much more time to do actual deals, technically prepare, and thoughtfully decide if they wanted to recruit for private equity.
Every single year, the recruiting timeline inches forward by a month or so. There was a brief stretch for the 2012 – 2016 associate classes where the start time held relatively constant at around 1.5 years in advance.
Over the past five years, the recruiting timeline has consistently moved up a month or two at a time. Every single year, many firms get caught off-guard or unprepared because of how accelerated things have become. It’s at the point where it seems like there’s no further it can move forward.
The only time over the last 15 years that recruiting has moved backwards in time was during the Great Recession (recruiting during July 2009). And even then, recruiting only moved back by a couple of months.
The crazy acceleration of recruiting timelines has reduced some candidate enthusiasm. Candidate participation in on-cycle recruiting has declined from 72% to 59% in recent years per GoBuyside. This means that more and more candidates are waiting an additional year to pursue on-cycle recruiting (which unfortunately means that those candidates are doomed to an additional year in banking).
Candidate preparation and participation based on GoBuyside survey of bulge bracket and elite boutique bankers.
The Impact of a Recession
A popular looming question is: how will COVID-19 impact recruiting timelines? The truth is that no one – including the top headhunters or mega funds – really knows what will happen. However, based on our conversations with several leading headhunters and observations from the previous recession, we can assert the following:
Most firms are predicting that recruiting will be pushed back (even if just slightly), as class sizes, fund sizes, and portfolio company performance are all uncertain. During the Great Recession, many private equity firms and mega funds hired reduced class sizes (e.g. 1 associate instead of 2). Hiring numbers were down, but most firms still participated in recruiting to assess the talent pool.
However, even if it isn’t ideal, firms will still be prepared to interview and extend offers virtually. Private equity firms are smart and adaptive organizations. Just as with investment banks, these buyside firms will be prepared to recruit and administer case studies over Zoom calls if it comes down to it.
We predict that off-cycle recruiting will become more prevalent for this year of candidates. Many firms will likely still participate in on-cycle recruiting to assess the talent pool, but we find that when timelines are too accelerated for a firm, they tend to not fully fill their class. Many firms might hire half their class during on-cycle recruiting, but might leave one spot open to hire during the off-cycle or the following on-cycle.
It can be frustrating and tiresome to recruit for private equity in such a competitive and intense atmosphere. But we’ve come to believe that the highly accelerated timeline can provide an opportunity for extremely prepared candidates. The preparation you need to do for interviews is going to be consistent – regardless of whether it kicks off in August or November. If you take the time to prepare well ahead of time (like during your senior year), then you won’t be nervous when the time comes for the modeling test.
If you’re interested in learning more about the recruiting process and how to be fully prepared for the modeling tests and case study interviews, you can check out our Private Equity Recruiting Course.